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A dark secret outshone by a joyful and faith-filled life


Jan Ruff O'Herne - Born: January 18 1923 | Died: August 12 2019

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Jeanne Alida (Jan) O’Herne was born in Indonesia (then the Dutch East Indies) in 1923 and grew up in a loving Dutch colonial family on a sugar plantation near Semarang in Central Java.

When the Japanese invaded Java in March 1942, Jan, her mother and two younger sisters were among 3000 women and children imprisoned by the Japanese in Ambararwa Prison Camp.

Two years later at the age of 21, Jan and nine other young women were taken from the camp and forced into a brothel to become sex slaves for the Japanese military. Armed with a Dutch Bible and rosary beads she smuggled from the camp, Jan led the young women in prayer on the night the brothel opened.

“We were so frightened and shaking…that little Bible was so much strength for us,” Jan told The Southern Cross in 2012.

She was repeatedly abused, beaten and raped, not only by the military, but also by a visiting Japanese doctor, for three months, before being returned to the prison camp with threats that her family would be killed if she revealed the truth about the atrocities inflicted upon her.

When the war ended, Jan’s camp was protected against Indonesian terrorist attacks by British troops, among them Tom Ruff whom she married in England in 1946.

After growing up on a tropical island listening to her parents playing classical music, Jan found herself living in the Midlands with a musical husband who loved the big bands and worked in the family leather-goods business. She had never eaten English food such as lamb and mint sauce, or beef and Yorkshire pudding, so her mother-in-law taught her to cook the ‘English way’.

Her brother sent her clothes from Paris and Holland and Jan turned up at Ladies Guild meetings looking like a tropical flower surrounded by pale sensibly clad English violets.

After three miscarriages and corrective surgery, Jan gave birth to two daughters, Carol and Eileen.

In 1960 the family migrated to Australia and five years later bought a home at Kingswood, just 20 metres from Our Lady of Dolours Church. Jan once said she “had to have this house” because it was so near the church.

It proved to be an integral part of her life and, in death, it was the place where so many people connected to her in different ways gathered for her funeral Mass.

It was the place where she went to pray almost every day, despite another tragedy striking the family in 1975 when Tom was hit by a car and suffered serious brain injury.

For the next two decades Jan was Tom’s full-time carer until his death in 1995.

Jan’s deep faith – which almost led her to a religious vocation – was expressed through the order of St Francis and she became a secular Franciscan instead.

When the Australian Church celebrated the Year of Grace in 2012 she was an obvious choice for an ambassador and at the time she spoke of how the Church had been ‘a source of great grace’ in her own life.

The Church was also an outlet for her creativity. A member of the parish choir, she learned to play the flute and even filled in as the organist. In the 80s she created her greatest artwork, a stunning collection of liturgical banners, some of which are hanging in the church today.

For a long time no-one in Australia knew what Jan went through in the war. It was a painful, well-kept secret. But in 1992, when she saw the Korean war rape victims appealing for justice, she knew the time had come to speak out.

She told Carol and Eileen before she flew to Tokyo in the only way she could, written down in her beautiful handwriting in an A4 exercise book. Then she told the world the truth, of the brutalities committed against herself and other young women.

That was the beginning of her 15-year campaign for the rights of women in war. She worked with the Human Rights Commission, International Red Cross, and Amnesty International, speaking in Australia, New Zealand, Japan, United States and United Kingdom, the Netherlands and many other countries, sharing her incredible story.

Jan received many awards including an Order of Australia, a papal honour from Pope John Paul II (Dame Commander of the Order of Saint Sylvester), the ANZAC Peace Prize and a Centenary Medal for her contribution to Australian society.

Her autobiography Fifty Years of Silence has been translated into six languages, including Japanese, Indonesian, Chinese and Korean.

The documentary film of the same name, made by Ned Lander and daughter Carol, won numerous accolades including the 1995 Most Outstanding Documentary TV Logie.

Gradually Jan retired from public life and spent her last years quietly at her beloved home in Tutt Avenue with her family.

Her grandchildren, Emma, Judd and Ruby, and her great grandchildren, Alexander, Celeste and Lachlan, were her greatest joy. Her fourth great grandchild, Scout, was born eight weeks before she died.

Jan touched so many people in her long, joyful and also tragic life, whether it be as a friend, a teacher, a fellow parishioner or through her long, public campaign for the rights of women in war.

A great warrior has finally laid down her sword and we salute her. She is at peace with Tom now.

Taken from the eulogy by Jan’s eldest daughter Eileen Mitton, with additional information from The Southern Cross and her autobiography, Fifty Years of Silence.

My mother’s hands

On winter Sundays in England, she pulled on chestnut coloured gloves and her camel coloured jacket, with real fur cuffs.

Dad wore his gardening clothes, and tinkered on the car while we were at Mass.

Sundays meant the smell of leather, engine oil and French perfume.

HAPPY TIMES: Jan and Tom with their daughters Eileen (left) and Carol in 1962.

I hang onto those large fur cuffs, and I’m small back then, so they are right up around my face, as Mum marches us all the way up the church aisle to sit in the front pew. It is cold and I snuggle into those warm cuffs and breathe in the smell of my mother. Here is joy, here is safety, here I am enveloped in her love.

But before I got too comfortable, she would pull off the gloves and out came her missal, bulging with holy pictures of saints, martyrs, family photos, and coloured ribbons marking special pages. This imposing black prayer book was a mystery to me.

Her faith held a space in our lives, that I was always trying to touch, trying to understand. To see Jan in prayer was to glimpse the space between heaven and earth. Jan didn’t need a church to know the divine. It was deep within her.

I look at my newborn granddaughter’s hands resting on my arm; soft and light as feathers, and I think about my mother’s hands, about baby Jan, perched on the wicker table on the colonial porch, surrounded by her mother, father, sister and brother as they pose for a photo. I think about her, nestled into the crook of her mother’s loving arms, and her little hands, yet to do so many things.

These hands pull her up the ladder to the highest diving board, and, perfectly placed, they part the water as she completes a swan dive. They climb tropical trees, pick ripe mangos, pull leeches off her legs while trekking through the mountains with her siblings. And, they cheekily tweak her skirt while posing for photos, before the Maalfest Ball.

As a teenager, my friends would flock to our house. Because, as my first boyfriend said, ‘that was the house of art, where you could be whatever you wanted to be’.

Dad played the clarinet, and conducted musicals, and Mum was writing everything from love songs to hymns.

One couldn’t help but be carried along in this tide of energy.

It wasn’t about politics, or sport. There was none of that in our house. It was about making art, playing music and laughing, a lot.

Everything Jan turned her hand to was joyful. Or so we thought.

With these hands she fought off the Japanese soldiers, hundreds of times.

“There was one thing the Japanese couldn’t take away.”

She points her finger, over and over to emphasise the point she is making.

She pushes her glasses up her nose, and points her finger again: ‘They couldn’t take away my faith.’

In the conference room in Tokyo, everyone in the audience is crying.

She is intense, dignified.

She is so ready to tell this story.

And once she started talking, the world couldn’t stop her.

That evening, we came out of the auditorium into the cool Tokyo night air, a cluster of us; Korean, Philippine and Chinese women, and journalists from across the globe.

‘Are there any victims here?’ a journalist called out and Mum turned her head, looking this way and that. She never saw herself as a victim, and she never lived like one.

An excerpt of a reflection by Jan’s youngest daughter Carol Ruff.



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