Mary Previte, Grateful Survivor of a Concentration Camp, Dies at 87


While their parents were inland at a rural mission, Mary and three of her siblings studied at an English-language boarding school, Chefoo, in Yantai, a northern port city on the Yellow Sea. The youngest sibling remained with his parents.

On Dec. 8, 1941, the day after Japan bombed Pearl Harbor, Westerners in China were suddenly considered enemy aliens. Japanese soldiers went to the school and seized the 200 students and teachers and held them there for a year, until the captives were transferred to Weihsien.

“Separated from our parents, we found ourselves crammed into a world of gut-wrenching hunger, guard dogs, bayonet drills, prison numbers and badges, daily roll calls, bed bugs, flies and unspeakable sanitation,” Ms. Previte told in 2014. Some inmates died of starvation and lack of medical care.

But Mary’s teachers from Chefoo proved to be godsends. They held classes every day and turned problems into games, like setting up competitions to see who could catch the most rats or kill the most bed bugs. The children were taught, like Girl Scouts, to sing and smile, do good deeds and maintain a positive outlook, despite the miserable circumstances.

As Ms. Previte recalled in an interview with the public radio program “This American Life” in 2015, one of her teachers would often say to her, “There are not two sets of manners — one set of manners for the princesses in Buckingham Palace and another set of manners for the Weihsien concentration camp.”

After the camp was liberated, Mary and her siblings were flown by military transport to Xian, then traveled by oxcart and on foot to reunite with their parents in their rural mission.

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