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.
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.
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.