Life in captivity on Maria Helpim


THE “Maria Helpim” sacred site for Christians in the Catholic Archdiocese of Madang recounted here last Friday lies as innocent as ever today. There is no semblance of its dark past in World War II (WW2).
The lush and humid tropical vegetation neatly hides the atrocious conditions, pain and suffering during the War here in 1943. Time heals, they say, and the innocent look of this place in 2019 with the vegetation cover befits the description. For the Catholic faithful, the site is a reminder of pain, suffering and perseverance in dedicated faith.
The Catholic pilgrims – over 3,000 of them – who walked to Maria Helpim on a pleasant sunny morning of Saturday, Sept 14 saw an innocent tropical recluse on a hilltop. The tranquil natural surrounding on the route of the pilgrimage and the site itself was breath-taking, far from the rain, mud and mosquito-infested reality the expatriate Catholic missionaries encountered as captives during the war. The present-day Catholic faithful of the Archdiocese of Madang come here each September 14 to remember the faith and struggle of the missionaries from faraway lands who brought the Good News of Jesus Christ to their shores and endured suffering in the war.
Somewhere here in the secluded tropical rainforest setting lies the grave of Sister Hedwig.
Sr Hedwig was one of the many expatriate missionaries rounded up by the Japanese military and brought to this site and kept here for many weeks. She was among many who fell ill due to mosquito bites and the conditions they were living in at the camp.
“Sister Hedwig became ill and died about the middle of October (1943).”
“She lies buried there alone somewhere in the bush,” wrote Sister Siglinde Poboss SSpS in her memoir released in 1944 titled My captivity experiences 1943-1944: From Mugil (mission station in Madang’s north coast) to Hollandia (Jayapura).
The memoir originally written in German was later translated into English. The Archbishop of Madang Stephen Reichert edited the English translation and it was published by Tanget Bookstore of the Archdiocese in 2016.
Sr Siglinde passionately articulated the suffering and life of the missionaries at Maria Helpim in her memoir.
“Sr Elreda had contracted black water fever, but was now recovering; Sr Annacrescenz had boils that caused great pain; Sr Annetta had a severe case of dysentery but was able to walk again, though she looked so feeble that I hardly recognised her,” wrote Sr Siglinde.
Sickness was a permanent predicament among the captive missionaries.
“Every day at least four or five sisters were down with high fever.
“Those who suffered the most from fever were Sr Emiliana, Sr Festina and Sr Theresildis.
“Sr Emiliana was out of bed only one day, or at the most, two days before she would again be attacked by another siege of fever.”
“It was the same with priests and brothers; nevertheless they had to continue to do heavy work,” Sr Siglinde noted.
Work, they did. The missionaries worked hard here to survive for however long they would live in this muddy and mosquito-infested camp. They carried their necessities from St Michael’s mission station, Alexishafen. The Japanese did not inform them about how long they would be held captive in Maria Helpim so the missionaries carried to the camp what they could including medicines to survive.
Every day the priests and brothers did the men’s work of building or mending their shelters, chopping firewood or cutting down the bush to make gardens. The sisters were involved in turning the garden plots and doing laundry down by a small river nearby, cooking and baking.
“The food was comparatively good, but in short supply.
“Believing we would remain at Maria Helpim until after the war, we again laid out gardens, planted sweet potatoes and other vegetables,” wrote Sr Siglinde.
“Never before had we thought it possible that we were capable of working so hard in the tropics; but our survival depended on it.
“The priests felled the trees and cleaned the place; the sisters hoed the gardens and planted.
“Br Mathias had the most beautiful garden of all. “Every day he brought vegetables to the kitchen.
“We harvested very little from other plots.
“At Maria Helpim, I worked in the kitchen, preparing the trays, or rather baskets, for the many patients, those sick among us.
“”Carrying a tray one seldom reached the dormitory without mishap, because the road was so muddy and slippery.
“Once I slipped with a tray and fell so hard that I had a pain in my side for two month,” Sr Siglinde recorded in her memoir.
She also wrote about Japanese guards telling them to be vigilant all the time against the American war planes traversing the skies above the tree line.
“At night not light was permitted; from eight in the morning to twelve noon no fire or smoke was to be seen.
“We had to prepare dinner for eighty (80) or ninety (90) persons by eight in the morning.
“Then we would cover the large pots with sacks so the food would remain somewhat warm.
“The Japanese guards often appeared to see if we obeyed orders given to us,” Sr Siglinde wrote.
“Fr Kemmerling, Fr Tschauder, Fr Stefanksi and Br Modestus provided us with firewood.
“Br Jacobus and Br Abdon delivered wood to the kitchen by means of a buffalo.”
Sr Siglinde also wrote about how they brought their belongings from Alexishafen.
“Many of our things from Alexishafen, which were stored in a shed at Danip (present site of the St Benedict’s Vocational/Technical School), were dragged by the brothers to Maria Helpim camp, amid great toil and danger.”
The normal walking distance from Danip to Maria Helpim during the pilgrimages in recent years is around one hour and 30 minutes.
Sr Siglinde highlighted the great danger the brothers worked to transport their belongings from Danip to Maria Helpim.
“These working parties (led by the brothers) used a wagon part of the way, then struggled up into the hills with help of a buffalo but more often than not the SVD missionaries carried supplies on their shoulders.
“Sr Militia, another one of our local superiors, made the trip often with few girls we still had with us, or with mixed race folks who sought refuge with us at Maria Helpim,” noted Sr Siglinde.
Next week: Sr Siglinde and fellow captive missionaries prepare for the rumoured American bombing of Alexishafen and the North coast.

  •  Dr Kevin Pamba PhD is based in Divine Word University, Madang.