By Bianca Fortis
Ok Sun Lee can clearly recall the day she was taken from her native Korea. Just 15 years old, she was walking alone through her hometown, a rural village, when she was kidnapped by two strange men.
“I still remember the day I arrived in China,” she said. “July 29, 1942.”
A victim of human trafficking, Lee was brought to China, where she was forced to serve as a sex slave inside a “comfort battalion” for officers in the Imperial Japanese Army.
Hundreds of thousands of young women and girls were forced into slavery, but the exact number is not known. Some victims were as young as 11.
Today the victims are known as Comfort Women.
“I hate that term,” Lee said about the label. “They abducted us, forcefully took us. Why would people call us Comfort Women? There is nothing comfortable about it.”
Lee, now 85, shared her story, via an interpreter, with Queensborough Community College July 11 as part of the Asian Internship Program at the Kupferberg Holocaust Resource Center.
Students in the program met weekly to learn about the experience of Comfort Women during the war. At the culmination of the program, they interviewed some of the Comfort Women, all living in South Korea, over Skype.
The school also offers a Holocaust Internship Program, in which students learn about and interview Holocaust survivors.
“These are the most valuable people we have found, along with our Holocaust survivors, in telling the story of human rights,” Dr. Arthur Flug, executive director of the center, said.
Lee said most of the girls were too young to initially understand what comfort battalions, also called comfort stations, were.
“But we were dragged there and it was hell,” she said. “It is not a place for a human being to live. It was a slaughterhouse where so many young girls died.”
Many women died in the camps, either by suicide or at the hands of an officer. Lee herself had tried to commit suicide, and she showed the crowd the physical scars she still bears from the violence she experienced more than 70 years ago.
She also shared the horrors of what she saw firsthand, such as a 14-year-old girl who was stabbed to death on a public street, her body left for the dogs.
“What would her parents do if they knew that happened to their daughter?” Lee said.
Today there are only 58 known Comfort Women left in the world, all between the ages of 84 and 92, and they say they want one thing: a formal and sincere apology from the Japanese government for the systematic raping and torture of so many women.
“Japan denies this, but if Comfort Women are not real, then who is Ok Sun Lee who is here testifying today?” she said.
“I am so old, I am so weak,” she told the audience. “Please consider what would be the reason for me to make this long and arduous trip. It is to plead with you to help us resolve this issue as soon as possible because a lot of the survivors are passing away one by one.”
The students who participated in the program said interviewing survivors helps put a face on history.
“When you talk to Ms. Ok Sun Lee, that’s when the lesson became real,” Alexander Crombez, a student, said. “That’s when you learned what you were supposed to learn in class. Ms. Ok Sun Lee told us she was 15 when she was taken. That’s how old my sister is now. That brought history into the now.”
Reach reporter Bianca Fortis by email at [email protected] or by phone at 718-260-4546.