Teaching a lesson in survival
December 8, 1941.
One day after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, Mary Previte became an enemy of Japan at just nine years old. She would spend three years of her childhood imprisoned in the Weihsien Concentration Camp, run by the Japanese in China.
The situation was grim. Previte experienced constant hunger, overcrowding and poor sanitation within the camp. Rats, bedbugs and flies were rampant.
There were 1,500 people in the camp. There were business people, musicians, prostitutes, missionaries, children and any other “enemy alien” in China at the time.
The missionary teachers in the camp decided school would go on for the children despite the miserable conditions. School continued with no chairs, no desks and no supplies.
“They said, ‘We will win this war. And when we win this war, you will have to compete with other boys and girls who have been going to school all the time,’” Previte said.
She said the missionary teachers provided her with structure and predictability in such a chaotic setting.
“We had substitute parents who became our mentors,” she said. “People to keep us from being terrified and to set up a comfortingly predictable atmosphere as much as you could in a Japanese concentration camp.”
Previte shared her story at a fundraising event for Skookum Kids on Friday, Nov. 10, in front of a crowd of 200 people. Skookum Kids is a Bellingham-based nonprofit organization. They recruit and train foster parents and help ease the transition for children entering foster care. Previte was the keynote speaker.
Skookum’s founding executive, Ray Deck, chose Previte to speak at the event because of how the adults in her life made her feel safe in dire circumstances.
“Mary’s story exemplifies what we hope kids in our programs will experience,” Deck said. “There’s nothing we can do to change the terrible things that are a part of their past. What is in our control is what kind of experience they have in the midst of that sorrow and the midst of their healing. And that’s Mary’s story.”
Previte and her siblings were born in China to Christian missionary parents, originally from the United States. She attended a missionary boarding school for children hundreds of miles away from her parents.
“Never in the world did we dream when our parents said goodbye to us at the school for missionaries’ children that we would not see them again for 5 ½ years,” Previte said in her speech.
Previte, now 85, still remembers the day she was marched to the concentration camp.
Towering brick walls surrounded the camp. Jagged glass cemented at the top jutted out, with electric barbed wire coiled above it. Armed guards with German shepherds kept a watchful eye.
“The crowding was intense,” Previte said. “The sanitation was horrendous.”
Yet every child was expected to follow the rules the missionary teachers set up for them. Every day they were inspected.
The teachers inspected to see if the children cleaned behind their ears and necks, or if there were rips or tears in their clothing.
“If you did, then we had session at the end of the day where you would be sewing these tears up, because you were never to give up,” she said. “Never to give up.”
The teachers tried to keep the children’s spirits up. They even turned the hard parts of living in the concentration camp into games, Previte said.
There were rat-catching and fly-catching competitions. Every Saturday, the kids would catch the bedbugs on their beds.
“I only remember one time being afraid in the concentration camp,” she said. “The teachers allowed us to be children as much as they possibly could.”
On Aug. 17, 1945, Previte was sick, lying on her steamer trunk when she heard a noise from above the camp. The noise kept getting louder and louder. Previte got up and looked out the window.
It was an American plane.
Seven U.S. soldiers parachuted from the sky and liberated the Weihsien Concentration Camp.
All 1,500 people in the camp rushed toward the gate.
“They were berserk,” she said. “Screaming, crying out of their minds with joy.”
On Sept. 11, 1945, Previte and her siblings were finally reunited with their parents.
Danielly Nobile, a guest at the fundraiser, admired Previte’s message.
“I loved what she had to say about how every adult has the potential to create stability and therefore create a life for a child who may never have that opportunity,” Nobile said.
Previte’s words also had an impact on Erin Lange, who attended the event.
“Anyone can be that supportive figure to a child,” she said. “I thought it was really empowering. As a young adult, I can have that effect on someone.”
Previte has since dedicated her life to helping underprivileged and at-risk youth.
She spent 26 years as the administrator for the Camden County Youth Center in New Jersey. There, she implemented the same structure and predictability she learned when she was in the concentration camp.
“High expectations, good manners, following rules, following schedules and all of those kinds of things, and the sense of hope they put into us,” she said. “These were things that were built into our program at the youth center.”
Previte later served as a New Jersey Assemblywoman for eight years. There, she chaired the Family, Women and Children Services Committee. She passed legislature that gave children who have gone through the foster care system scholarships to college or trade schools.
She was referred to as “the conscience of the legislature” for her work and dedication to the children she has served.
Years after Weihsien, Previte tracked down and personally thanked all seven U.S. soldiers who helped liberate the camp. She was grateful she had even survived.
“I just felt we had lived a miracle,” she said. “The teachers had given us a miracle of preserving our childhood.”