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Jan Ruff-O'Herne, seeker of dignity for fellow sex slaves of World War II, dies at 96

By EMILY LANGER | The Washington Post | Published: August 28, 2019

"My experience as a woman in war," Jan Ruff-O'Herne once said, "is one of utter degradation, humiliation and unbearable suffering."

It lasted long after her internment by the Japanese during World War II, long after Japan's defeat and through years of silence about her agony as one of the "comfort women" conscripted into sexual servitude during the war.

Ruff-O'Herne, who had grown up on her father's colonial sugar plantation in what was then the Dutch East Indies, was one of the few Europeans used by the Japanese as sex slaves during the war. Most of the women — they numbered as many as 200,000, historians have estimated — are believed to have been Korean. But they also came from China, the Philippines and other Japanese-occupied territory, victims of an act of systematic brutality that left wounds still unhealed more than seven decades later.

Ruff-O'Herne, who made a new life after the war in Australia and who died Aug. 19 at 96, was, according to London's Daily Telegraph, the first European to publicly disclose the abuses that she and other "comfort women" had endured. She rejected the euphemistic term. "We weren't 'comfort women,' " she once said. "It means something warm and soft and cuddly. We were Japanese war rape victims."

Jeanne Alida O'Herne was born Jan. 18, 1923, to a Dutch family in Bandung, the capital city of what is now West Java province in Indonesia. Ruff-O'Herne recalled a happy childhood, filled with music and the celebration of her family's Catholic faith. She had hoped to be a nun.

That idyll ended in 1942, when Japan invaded Java. With her mothers and sisters, she was interned as an enemy noncombatant in a Japanese prison where they subsisted on what she described as a starvation diet. There were malaria, dysentery and roll calls under the punishing sun, until one day in 1944 when an unusual roll was ordered.

"All single girls from 17 years up had to line up in the compound," Ruff-O'Herne recounted in testimony before a U.S. congressional committee in 2007. "The officers . . . paced up and down the line, eying us up and down, looking at our figures and our legs, lifting our chins. They selected ten pretty girls. I was one of the ten. We were told to come forward and pack a small bag. The first things I put in my bag was my prayer book, my rosary beads and my Bible. I thought somehow these would keep me strong. And then we were taken away."

Their destination was the port city of Semarang, where they arrived at a Dutch colonial house that they quickly understood to be a brothel. The women were assigned Japanese names and photographed for soldiers who would then choose among them.

"We were a very innocent generation," she told the congressional committee. "The horrific memories of opening night of the brothel have tortured my mind all my life." She said her first assailant threatened to kill her with his samurai sword if she did not submit to him.

"I curled myself into a corner like a hunted animal that could not escape. I made him understand that I was not afraid to die. He could kill me. I would not give myself to him," she said. "But I pleaded with him to allow me to say some prayers, and at that moment, I felt very close to God. While I was then praying, he started to undress himself, and I realized he had no intention of killing me. I would have been no good to him dead.

"He then threw me on the bed and ripped off all my clothes," she continued. "He ran his sword all over my naked body and played with me as a cat would with a mouse. I still tried to fight him, but he thrust himself on top of me, pinning me down under his heavy body. The tears were streaming down my face as he raped me in the most brutal way. I thought he would never stop."

The women held in the brothel were raped unremittingly during their time there. At one point, Ruff-O'Herne shaved her hair, thinking she might appear less desirable. Her shorn head only made her the object of greater curiosity.

After three months, they were returned to the prison camp. After the Japanese threatened to kill their families if they revealed what had transpired at the brothel, Ruff-O'Herne eventually confided in a priest. "My dear child," she said he told her, "under the circumstances I think it is better that you do not become a nun." It was yet another devastation.

In 1946, the year after the war ended, she married Tom Ruff, a British soldier. She told him just once before their marriage about what she had been through but told The New York Times that she felt she could never open up fully.

"I loved Tom and I wanted to marry and I wanted a house," she said. "He had to be very patient with me. He was a good husband. But because we couldn't talk about it, it made it all so hard . . . For that generation the story was too big. My mum couldn't cope with it. My dad couldn't cope with it. Tom couldn't cope with it. They just shut it up. But nowadays you'll get counseling immediately."

In 1960, they settled in Australia, where Ruff-O'Herne taught in Catholic schools. She first spoke publicly about her story in 1992, appearing at a public hearing in Japan, after watching a television program in which three Korean women revealed the indignities to which they had been subjected as "comfort women."

"When I spoke out in Tokyo, the whole world was there, wanting to know the truth," she told the Sydney Morning Herald. "They weren't taking that much notice before because they were 'only Asian comfort women.' It's terrible to say, but that's the truth."

Two years later, she published a memoir, "Fifty Years of Silence," which was also the title of a 1994 documentary film about her life. Amid the ongoing war in the Balkans, she became an advocate for the rights and protection of women in wartime.

For years she sought greater recognition for the "comfort women," a matter that, along with demands for an official apology and reparations, continues to complicate relations between Japan and South Korea in particular. "The apology will never come for me," Ruff-O'Herne told the Australian Advertiser last year. "I'm too old."

Her husband died in 1995, according to the Telegraph. She had two daughters, as well as grandchildren and great-grandchildren, but a complete list of survivors was not immediately available. Her death was announced in a statement by South Australian Attorney General Vickie Chapman. The statement did not note a cause of death. Australian media said she died in Adelaide.

"At night when I draw my curtains, when it's getting dark, I still get a feeling of fear going through my body because I remember, when it's getting dark it means being raped over and over again," Ruff-O'Herne remarked to the Eastern Courier Messenger of Australia in 2008.

But there was a measure of relief in telling her story.

"It's something that's been bottled up for 50 years," she said. "There have been times where I've been wanting to scream it out to the world and yet you can't do it because it is too terrible. Then all of a sudden, phewt, that's it: it's out and it's a release and that's good."
 

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