Dr. K.A. Peter van Berkum, 76, doctor survived WWII internment

September 11, 2004|By Frederick N. Rasmussen | Frederick N. Rasmussen,SUN STAFF

Dr. K.A. Peter van Berkum, a retired Baltimore rheumatologist who survived being incarcerated in a Japanese concentration camp during World War II and later wrote of his experiences in a memoir for his children, died of pneumonia Tuesday at Roland Park Place. He was 76.

Dr. van Berkum, who lived on Englewood Road in Roland Park for nearly 40 years before moving into the retirement community in 2002, was born and raised in Surabaya, Dutch East Indies, which is now Indonesia.

With the outbreak of World War II and surrender of the Dutch East Indies to the Imperial Japanese Army in March 1942, Dr. van Berkum and his family joined 100,000 other Dutch nationals who were imprisoned for the duration of the war in concentration camps.

Fear of reprisals from camp guards, beatings, cramped quarters, lack of food, head lice, constant diarrhea and death defined those years of imprisonment until the camps were liberated by Allied forces in 1945.

"It also became obvious quite soon that in order to stay fit both mentally and physically one could not give in to homesickness or melancholy, because those that did had a tendency to give up and later, when hunger became a real problem, to dwindle away and die," Dr. van Berkum wrote in the unpublished memoir. "It was then that we learned to harden ourselves and to keep a stiff upper lip."

His mother, who was 42 and had survived the deprivations of the camp, died six weeks after liberation.

"Many times, my wife, also a survivor of the Japanese concentration camps, and I have looked at each other during the years that our children were of the age we were when we lived through the terrible years of starvation, fear, loneliness and homesickness for a home that never would be anymore," he wrote.

"When I reached the age my mother was during those years, I was often overcome with grief, having children of my own, realizing how incredibly heavy her burden must have been, watching her small children become apathetic from starvation while she suffered chronically from malaria and dysentery," he wrote. "She lived only long enough to hear that her husband was safe and to see that her sons had survived as well."

Dr. Richard S. Mumford, a retired Baltimore obstetrician and gynecologist, recalled frequent conversations with Dr. van Berkum. "They talked about the war a lot, which had obviously left scars," said Dr. Mumford, a longtime friend and neighbor.

Dr. van Berkum wrote that the years after the war were what he considered the beginning of his "normal life."

"I worked in a safe and free society, got married and started a family, started making a decent living, bought a house and, in general, lived happily forever after," he wrote.

Dr. van Berkum went to the Netherlands, where he earned both his undergraduate and medical degrees in 1952 from the University of Leiden. That year he came to Baltimore, where he completed a residency at Union Memorial Hospital.

An internist who specialized in rheumatic diseases, Dr. van Berkum had a private practice in the Wyman Park Apartments until retiring in 1989.

"He was a kind and gentle man, and a good doctor. And he was a marvelous person when it came to his patients because he felt it was important to know them as well as their diseases," said Dr. Worth B. Daniels Jr., a retired Baltimore physician. "He was also quiet and the kind of person who was very easy to talk to."

Dr. van Berkum was the founding medical director of Roland Park Place, which opened in 1984.

"He set up the medical program and set a standard of care which I've tried to follow," said Dr. Isabelle MacGregor, who succeeded him in 1990 and cared for him until his death. "He was loved by his patients and highly respected by his peers."

Dr. van Berkum, who was interested in tropical finches and tropical fish, volunteered at the National Aquarium in Baltimore until he began losing his eyesight. He also enjoyed the outdoors, vegetable gardening and summers with his family at a cottage in Ontario.

He was married for 49 years to the former Wilnet Houwink, who died in 2001.

A memorial service will be held at 3:30 p.m. today at Stony Run Friends Meeting, 5116 N. Charles St.

Dr. van Berkum is survived by a son, Peter Hein van Berkum of Deerfield, N.H.; two daughters, Fredrica H. van Berkum of Stony Brook, N.Y., and Carla Spawn-van Berkum of Roland Park; a sister, Carla Vermeer-van Berkum of the Netherlands; two half-brothers, Karel Solkesz and Hajo Solkesz, both of the Netherlands; and eight grandchildren.

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