Ode to Courage : Play tells story of women’s choir formed in Japanese prison camps in WWII.


Somewhere in the South Pacific, in a World War II camp where prisoners of war from several countries were held by the Japanese, a female Presbyterian missionary from England formed a choir. Its repertoire consisted of wordless four-part renditions of classical music. Surprisingly, it took half a century to write a script and film this story, which blends elements of “The Sound of Music” with a saga of wartime courage, all set on a tropical isle.

Moviemaking being what it is, the film--last year’s “Paradise Road,” starring Glenn Close--took liberties with the story. “Song of Survival,” a theatrical version that’s said to be much closer to reality, opens tomorrow night at the Ojai Center for the Arts. Who says it’s closer to reality? Helen Colijn, a survivor of the camp, whose story, recounted in her 1996 book, “Song of Survival: Women Interned,” was the basis of Eleanor and Ray Harder’s script.

Colijn (pronounced something like kol-LANG) was born in London, where her father, a native of Holland, worked for Shell Oil. When WW2 broke out in the Pacific, her family was living near Borneo. Then 20, she and her two sisters wound up in a camp in Palembang, Sumatra, at that time part of the Dutch East Indies. It was there they encountered missionary Margaret Dryburgh.


“For about a year, various groups in the camps had been singing popular songs in their own language,” Colijn recalled recently.

“Then Margaret and another woman decided they should go into the repertoire of orchestral music--which was marvelous, because the English and Dutch prisoners could sing together without knowing each others’ language.”

There were 30 women in the camp choir, including Colijn’s two sisters. “I didn’t sing,” she recalls. “While they were, I was probably lying on my bed--if would could call what they gave us a ‘bed’--saving my energies for my next chores. . . . The food was so bad, we were often getting quite sick.”

In 1980, one of Colijn’s sisters donated manuscripts of their music to Stanford University. The story, already well-known in Australia and Holland, began to reach an American audience. That audience included the Los Angeles-based Harders, who first learned about the choir from the liner notes of an RCA Victor album of the arrangements, “Songs of Survival,” sung by the Peninsula Women’s Chorus.

The writers tracked the music to Stanford, and the path continued to Helen Colijn, who lives nearby.

“We started this maybe eight years ago,” Eleanor Harder said recently. “Our play predated the publishing, or even the editing, of her book, and we had no idea that a movie was even being made.”


“Song of Survival” premiered last fall at a local professional company in Salinas. The Ojai stand marks its Southern California debut. Colijn’s book was published two years ago. A paperback edition followed the release of “Paradise Road” (though she was interviewed for background on the film, Colijn has no financial or creative interest in it).

“The movie played up Japanese brutality,” Ray Harder said. “The Japanese are barely mentioned in our script. We tell how the women managed to survive in the camp and relate to each other. These were not victims. Their domestic skills and nurturing helped them survive.”


“Song of Survival” opens tomorrow night and runs through Nov. 8 at the Ojai Center for the Arts. 8 p.m. Friday-Saturday evenings; 2 p.m. Sundays; no shows Oct. 9-11 and 31. $15; $12, seniors and arts center members; $10, students. (805) 646-0117.