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Interview: Dutch Missionary Couple Survive World War II through God's Faithfulness

Interview: Dutch Missionary Couple Survive World War II through God's Faithfulness

Menno & Flor Giliam as new missionaries in 1929 Menno & Flor Giliam as new missionaries in 1929(Provided by Marney Blom)
ByKaren Luo September 01, 2020
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Editor’s note: Shadow of the Sun, a historical fiction novel, was released in late August, at a time when the world is fighting against COVID-19. The author said the story was "an against-all-odds survival story of my grandparents Menno and Florence Giliam -- Dutch missionaries to the island of Java (formerly the Dutch East Indies, now Indonesia)", showing God’s faithfulness during difficult circumstances.  Menno Giliam, a mission school headmaster who was conscripted into the Dutch army to fight against the Japanese army during World War II, was taken captive after the Dutch were defeated. As a prisoner of war, he lived a horrific life for more than three years, surviving in harsh conditions in which all of his closest friends died. Gaining strength from God, he was eventually released in 1945 and united with his life and six children.

China Christian Daily: It’s nice to be with you. Please introduce yourself and your new book Shadow of the Sun.

Marney Blom: My name is Marney Blom and I am a Canadian journalist. I have been writing human interest news stories for over 25 years. For twelve years I was based in Israel and worked as the Middle East foreign correspondent for Acts News Network.

My new book, Shadow of the Sun, is an against-all-odds survival story of my grandparents Menno and Florence Giliam -- Dutch missionaries to the island of Java (formerly the Dutch East Indies, now Indonesia). They left Holland in 1928 to set up mission schools but were caught up by the invasion of the Japanese Imperial army of the island of Java. My grandfather, though a missionary, was conscripted into the Dutch military but was soon captured by the Japanese. As a prisoner of war (POW), he was transported to northern Thailand to work on the Thai-Burma railroad. The conditions were horrific -- over 100,000 men working on the railroad died. All of my grandfather's closest friends perished. 

My grandmother, with seven children -- one of whom was my three-year-old mother -- was interned in Japanese camps for three years on the island of Java. They struggled with hard labour, starvation diets and horrific living conditions. They were surrounded by death. 

However, in the midst of my grandparents' struggles they encountered many miracles from God. They also found great strength in the Word of God -- particularly Psalm 91. 

China Christian Daily: Why did you want to write such a book? You started to write in 2013, but the book was released just two weeks ago.

Marney Blom: I wrote the book after finding the tiny, unsent, love letters my grandfather wrote to my grandmother while he was a prisoner working on the Burma Railroad during WWII. He wrote these letters at great risk, knowing that if caught, he likely would be killed. These letters are not only his first-person account of the brutality of being a slave to the Japanese, but they reveal his real and powerful encounters with Jesus in the midst of horrific suffering. 

It took me a number of years to write the book because I wanted to thoroughly research the event and the time period - to make the book historically and culturally accurate. Shadow of the Sun relives a time of history that so few know about. Therefore, I visited museums and archives in Holland and interviewed remaining survivors. At times I needed to push the book aside and stop writing, because it was very emotional to write about my family's sufferings.

China Christian Daily: What are the highlights of the book?

Marney Blom: That's an interesting question. Different people seem to be touched by a different aspect of the story. Everyone that has reviewed the book seems to connect very personally to a different aspect of the story. 

For me, a key highlight is that this book carries a "now" message for believers all around the globe. The sufferings we experience because we have chosen to follow Jesus may, at times, be severe and unrelenting. Yet, in the midst of these difficult and uncertain times, Jesus is faithful and His presence is real. I hope Christians will be encouraged by this story to remain strong. 

Shadow of the Sun also highlights the fact that my grandparents were not perfect people. Yet, God used suffering to make them stronger in their faith and to grow them in godly character. Even with death all around, my grandfather writes in one of his letters that he is grateful to God for the heavy testing because it helped to show him areas in his life that were not pleasing to God. 

China Christian Daily: As a Dutch POW in the Japanese internment camp for more than three years, Menno Giliam was captured by the Japanese, then transported to Surabaya, Singapore, and finally Japan. 

Marney Blom: My grandfather refused to give up hope as many of his POW comrades did. Instead, he chose to cling to God's promises found in the Word of God. He also chose not to become bitter. He forgave his oppressors. 

China Christian Daily: Instead of being desperate and having pity on himself, Menno chose to believe in God and entrusted his family to him. He also became humble – realizing his shortcomings, self-centeredness. Share with us more about it.

Marney Blom: When my grandfather's best friend died from sickness, my grandfather writes in his letters that it was one of the "darkest" days of his life. He began to doubt God. The sufferings seemed too much to bear. It was a pivotal moment in his journey of survival, and he knew he needed to make a critical decision: spiral downwards into hopelessness and despair or pull from the deepest places of his spirit-man the faith deposited in him through reading the Word of God. My grandfather responded with, No! No! No! God will not forget us. Oh Lord, deliver us! My Flor, a thousand favors I’ve received here. God has NOT forgotten us!

God was faithful. Despite the odds, my grandfather survived. He chose to cling tightly to the Word of God. 

China Christian Daily: It’s encouraging that the delicate, frail Florence Giliam prayed much to God during the confinement. What can we learn from her?

Marney Blom: When my grandfather was called away to fight the invading Japanese army, my grandmother, with seven children, knew she had only one hope for survival -- God. So she prayed a lot, asking the Lord for wisdom when she had to make difficult decisions and for healing when three of her children became gravely ill. God answered many prayers with miracles. And like my grandfather, my grandmother had a pivotal moment, when she, too, needed to decide to continue to trust God or believe the lie that the Lord had abandoned them. 

China Christian Daily: Can you also share the cultural experiences they had there?

Marney Blom: My grandparents, as missionaries from The Netherlands, chose to adopt the culture of the Dutch Indies. My grandmother wore the local clothing and the family ate the local food -- spicy Indonesian rice-based food, rather than potatoes and food imported from Holland. My grandparents educated their children with the local children, rather than send them to the more "elite" Dutch schools. To serve the people, they chose to live the humble life of missionaries and be considered "lower-class" amongst the Dutch colonialists living in the Dutch Indies at that time. 

China Christian Daily:The book reads like an action film. Have you ever considered to put it on screen? If yes, when are you supposed to release it? 

Marney Blom: Glad you asked. This story was first written as a screenplay. While living and working as a journalist in Israel, I had the opportunity to work with a screenplay coach, a Jewish lady who had moved from Los Angeles to Tel Aviv. She worked with me for eight months as I wrote the screenplay. After writing the screenplay, I wrote the book version of the story. Please pray with me, that the Lord will open the way for the film to be made -- and provide all the funds that are needed. 

China Christian Daily: Do you have any word for Chinese Christians?

Marney Blom: I want to say "thank you!"

During my last year of studies at the University of Toronto, I read a number of books about Chinese Christians who had remained strong during times of great persecution. As a student, I longed to meet these believers. Christianity in the West seemed so shallow and powerless. 

Remarkably, the Lord opened the doors for me to go to China in 1989 – yes, the same year of the Tiananmen Square upheaval! Serving with Asian Outreach, I was able to travel into China to serve the church, and wonderfully, I had the chance to meet Chinese Christians who had paid a heavy price for their faith. What a great blessing and an encouragement to me! I eventually returned to Canada a changed person - deeply impacted by the faith of the Chinese Christians I had met. 

I hope my family's story will be a life-giving illustration of how our God is a very present help in times of trouble. I pray Shadow of the Sun will be a great inspiration to the Christians in China. 

To find out more about Shadow of the Sun, and how to get your copy of the book, visit www.shadowofthesun.org.

 

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