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Jan Ruff-O'Herne


Jan Ruff-O'Herne was born on January 18, 1923 in the Dutch East Indies, a former colony of the Dutch Empire. O’Herne had a happy childhood with her family, until 1942, when Japanese forces occupied Java. During the Japanese occupation, O'Herne and thousands of Dutch women were forced to perform hard physical labor. O’Herne, her mother, and sister, were interned as an enemy noncombatant in a prison.  In February 1944, O'Herne was one of the girls chosen and taken by Japanese officials to a colonial house in Semarang that was converted into a brothel called "The House of the Seven Seas.” In 2007, O’Herne recounted this selection process: “The officers … paced up and down the line, eying us up and down, looking at our figures and our legs, lifting our chins. They selected ten pretty girls. I was one of the ten. We were told to come forward and pack a small bag. The first things I put in my bag was my prayer book, my rosary beads and my Bible. I thought somehow these would keep me strong. And then we were taken away.”


O'Herne kept handkerchiefs signed by Comfort Women from the “House of the Seven Seas” as evidence of the crimes committed against them. Until Japan’s surrender on August 15, 1945, she was repeatedly raped and beaten every single day. In 1946, she married Tom Ruff, a British soldier whose unit had rescued the camp O'Herne was in. But O’Herne never discussed what transpired in the “comfort stations” to her parents or husband. The couple settled in Australia where O’Herne taught in Catholic schools. 


 In 1992, O’Herne watched on television the testimony of Korean Comfort Women. She quickly came forward and became the first European to testify as a Comfort Woman. Unsure of how to describe what happened to her, O’Herne wrote down her story and gave it to her daughter. This story was eventually published in 1994 in her memoir Fifty Years of Silence. O'Herne testified at the Tokyo Tribunal and before the US Congress in 2007 along with Korean Comfort Women. When asked why it took half a century for people to truly understand what had happened, she replied, “Perhaps the answer is that these violations were carried out against women. We have all heard it said: This is what happens to women during war. Rape is part of war, as if war makes it right.” O’Herne became a powerful activist for victims fo sexual violence all over the world. She passed away on August 19, 2019, after receiving numerous awards and dedicating her life to fight against sexual violence in war. 

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