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Songs of survival: vocal music by women POWs

Ravel's Bolero (detail)

Helen Colijn (1920-2006) was held captive in a Japanese prison camp on the island of Sumatra for three and one half years during World War II.  One remarkable survival mechanism for some of the prisoners at the Women’s Barracks Camp in Palembang was making music, and a series of concerts was prepared and given in which the women sang a cappella arrangements of great works of Western Art music.  The music was arranged by Margaret Dryburgh and Norah Chambers. Programs included Dvorak’s Largo from the New World Symphony, the Pastoral from Handel’s Messiah, Chopin’s ‘Raindrop’ Prelude, and Tchaikovsky’s Andante Cantabile, among many other works. 

The music manuscripts, in pencil and on fragile paper, were saved by Ms. Colijn and donated by her sister Antoinette to the Stanford Libraries in 1981 for preservation, along with supporting materials. Listed here are those items with links to their locations on campus, and related titles such as Colijn’s book, Song of Survival, and Paradise Road, a feature film based on the experiences of the women in the Palembang Camp. Links to interviews and to the Singing to Survive organization are also included.

Vocal arrangement of Ravel's Bolero
Vocal arrangement of Ravel's Bolero.

Notated scores

Vocal orchestra music sung in a prison camp, 1943-1945. Includes the original manuscript scores, notes on performance, text of the spoken introduction at the first concert, and program lists. A photocopy is available for consultation in the Music Library.

Song of survival. Volume 1 : for treble chorus, a capella. Published score.


Song of survival: music in a prison camp, a women's vocal orchestraPeninsula Women’s Chorus LP recorded in 1983.

Songs of the spirit. Peninsula Women's Chorus CD recorded in 1998 includes works from the manuscript.

Audio interviews conducted by Susan Sanford with people connected with the Women's Vocal Orchestra, 1985.


Helen Colijn. Song of survival : women interned.

An additional copy of Song of Survival is preserved in Green Library Special Collections, and includes a CD of the same name recorded by the Women's Choir of Haarlem, Holland, by Mirasound (399216), 1995.

Betty Jeffrey. White coolies (London : Angus and Robertson, 1954). Served as the basis for the Paradise Road screenplay.

Paradise Road : the screenplay of the film, written by Bruce Beresford.

Jesse Elizabeth Simons. While history passed. (London, Heinemann [1954])

Lavinia Warner. Women beyond the wire. (London : Arrow Books, 1987)


Song of survival : a Veriation Films production ; produced by Stephen Longstreth, David Espar, Robert Moore, Helen Colijn ; directed by Stephen Longstreth ; written by David Espar, Stephen Longstreth ; Song of Survival Productions. [2004; 1985] DVD; features Peninsula Women’s Chorus.

Song of Survival: a one hour film about women in a World War II prison camp on Sumatra and the extraordinary music they sang. Booklet to accompany the film (SUL Gifts—in process) 

Song of Survival. Dutch telecast, 1997 (Arvo network)

Paradise Road : Fox Searchlight Presents. 1997 feature film, staring Glenn Close, Frances McDormand, Pauline Collins, Cate Blanchett, Jennifer Ehle, Julianna Margulies; written and directed by Bruce Beresford. DVD, 2000.

Beyond Stanford

Song of survival : a drama with music / Eleanor Harder; Ray Harder; Helen Colijn. Woodstock, Ill. : Dramatic Publishing, 1999.


Helen Colijn interview, Palo Alto Weekly, Oct. 11, 1995.

KZSU: notes on the film Paradise Road and local sources.

Singing to Survive: commemorating the 70th anniversary of the women’s vocal orchestra created in the civilian internment camp, Palembang, Sumatra, 1943. Website includes a concise history.

BBC Radio interview: Louise Jameson and Margie Caldicott talk with Jenni Murray on Woman’s Hour.

The Imperial War Museum houses some of the original music manuscripts used by the Palembang Women’s Vocal Orchestra.