I Re­mem­ber When /

Re­call­ing the jour­ney her par­ents took to call New Zealand home, Roesjka Tay­lor re­counts their tale of ad­ver­sity, heartache and ter­ror, and the heal­ing power that mu­sic and the arts play in our lives.

Latitude Magazine - - CONTENTS - WORDS Sue King­ham

Roesjka Tay­lor re­calls the jour­ney her par­ents took to call New Zealand home


I step into Roesjka (pro­nounced Rushka) Tay­lor’s Christchur­ch home, I have the un­nerv­ing feel­ing

I’ve been tele­ported to Am­s­ter­dam. My brother lived there for 10 years, and I’ve vis­ited him sev­eral times. Roesjka has never been to the Nether­lands, but her house re­sem­bles a Dutch barn, with ex­posed wooden beams in the lounge and a high win­dow cov­ered by sta­ble door shut­ters. A grand piano dom­i­nates the room, and around the walls, Delft blue and white plates hang side by side with re­pro­duc­tions of Rem­brandt’s mas­ter­pieces. In one cor­ner, a dec­o­ra­tive milk churn sits be­hind a neat ar­range­ment of wooden clogs. Roesjka says she and her sib­lings wore these when they were chil­dren. ‘Dad had them sent out from the Nether­lands. They were sur­pris­ingly com­fort­able. My fa­ther was very proud of his her­itage and, un­like some im­mi­grants, he al­ways spoke Dutch at home.’

Draped across one of her so­fas is a half-fin­ished cro­chet blan­ket. Over the next two hours, while Roesjka works on it, she tells me how her fam­ily came to live in Can­ter­bury.

It is a re­mark­able tale, which like the yarn in the blan­ket, in­ter­weaves many colour­ful strands.

Roesjka’s par­ents both suf­fered ter­ri­bly dur­ing the Sec­ond World War; her Jewish fa­ther was in the Nether­lands, and her Lutheran mother was in a Ja­panese pris­oner of war camp. Her fa­ther, Jose­phus, was the sec­ond youngest of 13 chil­dren, born in 1931 to a Jewish mother and a Catholic fa­ther. Jose­phus’ mother con­tracted tu­ber­cu­lo­sis in 1933 when one of his brothers died from the disease. His fa­ther died a few years later, and in 1938, un­able to par­ent alone, his mother sent Jose­phus and two of his brothers to live in a Sal­va­tion

Army boys’ home. That ac­tion saved their lives. Jose­phus’ 14-year-old twin brothers, how­ever, were less for­tu­nate. When the Nether­lands was in­vaded, Jews were rounded up in the streets, and the twins dis­ap­peared. Roesjka says, ‘My poor grand­mother never re­cov­ered from the shock of los­ing her hus­band and her boys.’

Dur­ing raids on the Sal­va­tion Army boys’ home, Jewish chil­dren were hid­den by staff in a spe­cially con­structed space be­hind a broom cup­board. Once they were in there for three days. On an­other oc­ca­sion, in the depths of win­ter, when the Nazis ar­rived with­out warn­ing, staff pushed the Jewish boys onto the roof and told them to hide in the ridge be­tween the gables. As the sol­diers drove away, one lit­tle boy slipped and plum­meted to his death.

At 12 years old, Jose­phus had to for­age for food to help feed the starv­ing boys. ‘Dad would jok­ingly tell us about the time he stole a sausage sand­wich right from un­der a Nazi’s nose. The guy was wait­ing for a train and Dad crept un­der his bench and whipped the food away when he put it down.’ Roesjka laughs. ‘He then crawled un­der the plat­form and lay still while the curs­ing sol­dier stomped about look­ing for the cul­prit. Car­ry­ing the sand­wich back to the boys’ home, Dad felt proud, but he did ad­mit to tak­ing a nib­ble be­fore hand­ing it over to the ma­tron.’

Mu­sic was a big part of life in the Sal­va­tion Army home. Jose­phus failed the blow test to join the brass band; how­ever, he was a tal­ented singer. ‘Dad knew all the words to the hymns and used to sing a bless­ing be­fore ev­ery meal.’

At the end of the war, the Red Cross set up a field hos­pi­tal near the home and Jose­phus, too weak to walk, was

car­ried there in a wheel­bar­row. Nurses fed him thin broth for the first few months un­til his stom­ach healed. It took six months be­fore he could eat nor­mally. Roesjka sighs, ‘When­ever he smelt soup, he would tear up and say, “I’m back in the hos­pi­tal”.’

One con­se­quence of his child­hood was that Jose­phus had bowed legs due to rick­ets. An­other was that he had no for­mal ed­u­ca­tion. Once re­cov­ered, he trained in hor­ti­cul­ture. In 1958 he and his brother took up the of­fer of a guar­an­teed job from the New Zealand Gov­ern­ment. They set sail for the other side of the world. ‘There was so lit­tle for them in the Nether­lands; they were grate­ful to come here. Dad called New Zealand

“the land of milk and honey”.’

Roesjka’s ma­ter­nal grand­par­ents lived in the Dutch East Indies; she was a phar­ma­cist, he a doc­tor. Their daugh­ter,

Martina, had had an idyl­lic first seven years of life, but this abruptly changed in 1942 when the Ja­panese in­vaded and Martina and her mother were dragged off to a women’s con­cen­tra­tion camp. Each day her mother was es­corted by sol­diers to work in the hos­pi­tal. This en­abled her to re­main in con­tact with her hus­band, who also worked there. She gave birth to two of his chil­dren dur­ing the war. Their in­fant son sur­vived the ap­palling mal­nu­tri­tion, but their next baby, a daugh­ter, called Mar­jan, al­though born healthy, re­mained at her birth weight for 15 months which caused her to be brain­dam­aged. She didn’t walk un­til she was five years old and has re­quired care ever since.

Roesjka wipes her eyes. ‘Mum wit­nessed many atroc­i­ties in the camp. Once she saw a pris­oner be­headed. She was so ter­ri­fied that she fled into the jun­gle and has no mem­ory of how she got back.’ Roesjka pauses, then adds, ‘She was so hun­gry. The two bowls of rice per day at the be­gin­ning of the war dwin­dled to one by the end. To find food, Mum crawled un­der the wire at night and braved the ter­rors of the jun­gle where gi­ant leeches drained what lit­tle vi­tal­ity she still had. Mu­sic kept her go­ing dur­ing those dan­ger­ous ex­cur­sions. She would qui­etly hum to keep up her spir­its. There were no new clothes. Mum came out of the camp dressed in the same thing she went in wear­ing; by then, it was a rag held to­gether with rub­ber sap.’

As a way of over­com­ing the bit­ter­ness Martina felt to­wards her cap­tors, the cou­ple took in Ja­panese board­ers.

The camp was lib­er­ated in 1945. Martina and her par­ents re­mained in Su­ma­tra but made reg­u­lar trips back to the Nether­lands. They moved back per­ma­nently in 1952. Roesjka’s grand­mother (who had been a tal­ented opera singer in her youth) en­cour­aged Martina to take up the piano. She stud­ied this along­side her school work and qual­i­fied as a teacher, gain­ing her de­gree at 23 years of age. She also spoke five lan­guages and stud­ied post­grad­u­ate psy­chol­ogy. A few years later she be­came a deputy head­mistress.

In search of a wife, Jose­phus trav­elled to the Nether­lands in 1960 and met Martina. Af­ter a brief courtship (they spent less than two weeks to­gether) they mar­ried, and she re­turned with him to New Zealand. ‘Mum knew Dad was her last chance. They had very dif­fer­ent char­ac­ters, but they worked well to­gether.’

The cou­ple had three chil­dren, Roesjka be­ing their sec­ond old­est. They also adopted two boys. ‘Life was hard for Mum. She was an in­tel­li­gent woman who’d been a deputy head­mistress, and she gave it all up to live in a ba­sic house while Dad worked on the con­struc­tion of the Ben­more Dam. She was a stick­ler for ed­u­ca­tion, and she also taught us the piano; we had two pianos so that ev­ery­one could prac­tise.

‘My par­ents only ever told us funny sto­ries about the war, like the one about steal­ing the sand­wich. I had no idea what they’d ex­pe­ri­enced. When I was 18, I fought against my mother’s dis­ci­plinar­ian style, and she re­fused to speak to me for two years. At that point, she did seek some pro­fes­sional ther­apy. In time, she was able to share her wartime ex­pe­ri­ences. I fi­nally un­der­stood why she was so driven to give us the op­por­tu­ni­ties she’d never had.’

Martina mel­lowed with age and did apol­o­gise to Roesjka for her years of si­lence. As a way of over­com­ing the bit­ter­ness Martina felt to­wards her cap­tors, the cou­ple took in Ja­panese board­ers.

Roesjka points to the paint­ings around the room. ‘Dad loved art; he col­lected Dutch prints. Mu­sic was his other pas­sion. He en­joyed singing, and on his death bed, he said the best times of his life were around the fam­ily piano. We had con­certs at Christ­mas and Easter. Mum bought me the grand piano. I didn’t want her to spend all that money on me, but she did it any­way.’

Roesjka sang in the Na­tional Youth Choir and, by the age of 14, achieved grade eight piano. She played so well that she even­tu­ally went on to study at the Christchur­ch Mu­sic Con­ser­va­toire. There she met her hus­band, Greg Tay­lor, who played Sec­ond Vi­o­lin for the Christchur­ch Sym­phony Orches­tra. Greg and Roesjka have six chil­dren: two are tal­ented pi­anists, five are bal­let dancers, and one en­joys creative writ­ing.

Mu­sic and the arts have dom­i­nated Roesjka’s life. From 2011 to 2014 she worked as a mu­sic and art ther­apy teacher at Ho­hepa in Christchur­ch. These days she vol­un­tar­ily helps chil­dren with their NCEA mu­sic and singing and is also a vol­un­teer wardrobe and props mis­tress for her daugh­ter’s dance com­pany, Ig­nite Dance, in Preb­ble­ton. ‘Kid­sFest and the end of year pro­duc­tions keep me busy. A friend and I sew all the cos­tumes; we’ve just fin­ished The Lit­tle Mer­maid, which was great fun.

‘You must watch this.’ Roesjka presses a DVD, Par­adise Road, into my hands as I stand to leave. The movie tells the true story of the women’s Ja­panese con­cen­tra­tion camp be­side Martina’s, in which the pris­on­ers cre­ated a vo­cal orches­tra. One woman, a for­mer stu­dent of a Lon­don mu­sic col­lege, wrote out dozens of manuscript­s for the oth­ers to re­hearse and per­form. Through shared song, they gained strength to sur­vive their daily hor­rors.

Af­ter watch­ing, I mar­vel at the re­silience of the hu­man spirit. Mu­sic may not be the most lu­cra­tive way to make a liv­ing, but as Roesjka’s fam­ily can af­firm, in the face of hard­ship, it’s the arts that make life bear­able.

Roesjka Tay­lor.

TOP / A line-up of clogs from Hol­land. These were worn by Roesjka and her sib­lings in child­hood. ABOVE / Roesjka and her fam­ily around the piano dur­ing a Christ­mas fam­ily con­cert.

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