Seventy-three years ago I was a bewildered nine-year-old, out of school because of the war, anxious to get back to what I remembered was my normal life.
This meant waking up early in the morning, getting ready for school, squeezing into a crowded car wearing a heavily starched uniform, and doing lessons under the strict discipline of the German nuns at Holy Ghost College.
I always came home messy and sweaty after playing piko on the school sidewalk and feasting on a “glorified lollipop” from a Magnolia sorbetero.
Does anyone remember that delicious treat? It had a gummy gooey orange center covered with vanilla ice cream and encased in a caramel shell.
After the war, Magnolia came back with chocolate tidbits, no longer at 5 centavos, pinipig crunch and popsicles also for more money. But the glorified lollipop was never seen again. Even their ice cream sandwich disappeared.
And with all these goodies, so did the life we once knew: sweet, simple and serene.
After our dark Christmas of 1941 we learned to lock windows and doors even in the daytime. Fear was our constant companion.
A week later we watched behind drawn shutters as the Imperial Japanese Army marched into Manila. Their boots made a weird, eerie scraping sound on the pavement. People were on the sidewalks holding little Japanese flags. They were not smiling as they half-heartedly shouted “Banzai”!
The scenes of that day seem to be frozen in time, and have remained fresh and etched in the mind of that nine-year-old child, never to be forgotten.
It was a sad Friday morning. And I realized that nothing would ever be the same again.
I am fascinated by stories about survivors. I recently read about Gena Turgel who escaped the horrors of the gas chamber at Auschwitz. Incredible! There are only a few left who can tell the story.
Although I have never been in the crosshairs of anyone’s gun sight, today I am considered a survivor simply because I lived through a war, a world conflict that my great grandchildren will read about probably only in a short paragraph in a history book.
They will learn about the battles, memorize dates and names. But unless historians experience it themselves, they cannot describe the fear that grips your soul during an air raid; nor will they ever understand the calming comfort there is when, in the face of danger, you are with the ones you love. Without the warmth and closeness of family, the war years would have been unbearable.
It got a little better once the Occupation became just another fact of life. To pass the time people went to the movies. It didn’t matter much what was showing. It was something to do. Thanks to the hard work of a few artists, we actually watched opera and ballet at the Metropolitan Theater. We saw some Spanish zarzuelas and there was “bodabil” (vaudeville) at the Life Theater.
But for the most part, people patiently stayed home and waited out the war.
There was little to keep children amused. On moonlit nights some took out their bikes but stayed close to home. It didn’t matter that there was a sentry across the street. He was friendly and talked about his children. He seemed homesick.
At home, after curfew, the men discussed the war over cups of hot salabat and the women planned the menu depending on what remained in our dark and bare pantry. And at the end of each day, we prayed.
I remember kneeling in front of a wall lined up with statues in virinas. There was a novena for each saint. Even then I wondered if it was possible to pray just to the One In Charge. I love that we can.
Despite worsening conditions, hope for better times was never lost. But life never returned to how it used to be.
In a few days we celebrate the 70th anniversary of the Liberation of Manila. Has it been that long?
We will never forget the massacre of Manila. If we look closely, we can still see the scars, remnants of the horror that befell our people seven decades ago.
The heartlessness and violence of that battle did worse than just leave our fair city in ruins and claim the lives of 100,000 men, women and children. I believe it altered our spirit. Regardless of what history says, there were no winners. We all lost.
Why do I keep writing about this dark part of our history? It is certainly not to bring back the face of the enemy. A wise man once said, “Who was your enemy yesterday may be the hand you hold today. ”
Rather, it is so no one forgets the futility, the stupidity of war, and to say that all are victims, that no one really and truly survives. It is to make a promise to ourselves and to future generations: NEVER AGAIN!
I wish. I pray.
Who are the good guys?
My two-year-old great grandson walked in wearing a fierce-looking mask, shield and a breastplate. Trying to humor him, I covered my face in mock panic. He stopped in his tracks. His mom came to the rescue: “Lola, he is Iron man—his favorite super hero. He’s the good guy!” Silly me.
Next he showed me a figurine of the Incredible Hulk.
I quietly left the room and made myself a cup of tea.