At Palisades Park memorial, Korean women tell of WWII abuse
FRIDAY, DECEMBER 16, 2011
BY MONSY ALVARADO
PALISADES PARK — They were abducted as teenagers, taken from their country and forced into sexual slavery by Japanese military during World War II.
LESLIE BARBARO/STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER
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Ok-seon Yi, left, and Yongsoo Lee standing near the memorial to 'comfort women,' or World War II sex slaves, outside the Palisades Park library.
Ok-seon Yi, 84, and Yongsoo Lee, 83, survived the daily abuse and torture, but kept quiet about the pain and suffering they endured after they returned to Korea years later.
They remained silent, ashamed, for decades, but now many women who were raped daily during the war are telling their stories.
If you go
* The Harriet and Kenneth Kupferberg Holocaust Resource Center & Archives at Queensborough Community College is currently displaying an exhibit, "Come from the Shadows," in honor of "comfort women," featuring works by artists from New Jersey and elsewhere. Steve Cavallo of Westwood and Shinyoung An of Cliffside Park are among the contributing artists.
* The exhibit will be featured at Gallery 1 & 9, 1 Remsen Place, Ridgefield, from Jan. 5 to Jan. 22.
This week, Yi and Lee are in the United States and say they hope to raise awareness about their brutal past and the attempts by victims — known as “comfort women” — to get the Japanese government to apologize and take responsibility for establishing the military brothels and forcing thousands of Asian women, many from Korea, to serve them.
“The Japanese government is waiting for us to die, one by one, because all the victims are so old and there aren’t many victims in Korea,” said Lee earlier this week through an interpreter. “They call us ‘comfort women,’ but the term ‘comfort women’ is such a bad word. I’m not a ‘comfort woman.’ I am Yongsoo Lee. ‘Comfort women’ is a term that the Japanese government gave us, and they say that we voluntarily became comfort women to make money … and that’s not true.”
On Thursday, the women and two Holocaust survivors were at the Palisades Park library, where they lunched with local officials and viewed a monument dedicated to the thousands of women who were victimized by the Japanese. The monument was erected last year outside the library. The borough is the first town in the U.S. to have a memorial for victims.
Steve Cavallo, the arts coordinator at the library, said it was important to bring the women to the borough — where a majority of its residents are Korean — and to see the monument.
The women’s trip is being sponsored by the Korean American Voters’ Council, a non-profit with offices in Hackensack and Flushing, N.Y.
Chejin Park, program director and staff attorney for the KAVC, said he hopes that bringing together the Korean women with survivors of the Holocaust will bring awareness to both their suffering.
“By connecting these two war crimes against humanity, we want to have supporters from [the] international community,” said Park.
Forced into a truck
It was the evening of July 29, 1942. Yi was a teenager in the city of Ulsan, returning to work from an errand, she said. It was on that summer day when two men forced her into a truck, where five other girls were being held, she said. As she resisted, a man cursed her, she recalled.
“I was just scared and I kept crying,” she said through a translator.
They took her to occupied China by train, she said, where she worked for a few days at a Japanese military airport with thousands of other captives.
“I kept protesting, telling them my parents were waiting for me,” she said. “They told me that they were going to send me home, but I went to a comfort station instead.”
The one-story building was “dark” and “dirty,” and it was where the sexual assaults would start, and continue for about three years, she said.
“I was only 15, I had no idea what grown men and women do,” she said. “It was so miserable and dirty and disgusting that I don’t think it’s a place for a human being to live.”
Besides the sexual abuse, Yi said she was stabbed with a knife in the arm, and one time when she tried to run away, the soldiers tried to cut her toes off.
The grandmother of two said it was hard to have hope.
“I only wanted to die,” she said.
Wearing a black and gold hanbok, the traditional Korean dress, Lee said that she was lured away from her house when she was a teenager by a woman and a Japanese soldier. She was taken to Taiwan by ship, where the first of many sexual assaults would occur. She then spent about two years in a comfort station, until the war ended, she said. Lee remembers her return home. She was thin, pale, and when her mother saw her, she fainted because she thought she was seeing the ghost of her dead daughter.
By then her father, who had spent countless days and months searching for her, was bedridden due to a stroke. She never spoke of what happened to her, and never thought she would until she saw a newspaper article in 1992 about a woman who suffered the same cruel treatment.
Days later, her brother, who was on his deathbed following a motorcycle accident, urged her to tell her story.
“My other brother was upset and thought that was the reason why our mother passed away,” she said as tears fell down her face. “So it wasn’t only me that the Japanese took away, but they also killed my mother and my father in a way.”
The plight of tens of thousands of Asian women are not found in history books in Korea, and many people don’t like to talk about it, said Cavallo, who has visited South Korea and has focused some art pieces on the victims.
Shinyoung An, an artist from Cliffside Park whose work along with Cavallo’s is part of the art exhibit in Queens on the comfort women, said even newspapers rarely write about them.
She said she had never talked to a survivor until she met Yi and Lee this week, but said she traveled to Seoul last year, and watched from a distance the weekly protests that the women hold in front of the Japanese Embassy. The demonstrations date to January 1992 and are held every Wednesday at noon.
“The embassy doesn’t even open the door for them,” she said. “They just ignore them.”
The Japanese government, which at one time denied that comfort stations existed, has apologized, but many Koreans feel they haven't gone far enough, according to reports.
The number of women who attend the protests has declined through the years because of deteriorating health and death, but the ones that still make it are at times joined by supporters, Cavallo and An said.
The art exhibit and reception in Queens earlier this week was organized to coincide with the 1,000th consecutive demonstration in Seoul, organizers said.