The Remains of War
  G. Pauline Kok-Schurgers   

The Remains of War

Clarion: Reviewed July 30/14 by  Rating

Traces of despair mingle with whimsical childhood reflections, alluding to a young girl’s impending push into premature adulthood in this story of wartime.

Concentration camp survivor G. Pauline Kok-Schurgers’s debut is a memoir that recalls WWII from the less familiar perspective of a Dutch child living through the Japanese takeover of Indonesia. Graphic, meditative, and revealing, The Remains of War is a must read for all who wish to understand the costs of war in full.

At nine, Kok-Schurgers, called Sofia, is vaguely aware that her happy island life has been compromised by the encroaching war. Dives for bomb shelters have become a feature of carefree bike rides, and her kindly father was picked up by a Japanese transport days ago. Traces of despair mingle with whimsical childhood reflections, punctuating tensions well and alluding to Sofia’s impending push into premature adulthood.

Still, nothing seems quite real until she and all of the other Dutch residents of the island are told to pack their bags and report to a hotel. Once there, a barbed-wire fence is erected around them, and life begins to change rapidly. Kok-Schurgers illustrates the ways in which forced routines begin to fray prisoner nerves, particularly as she is slowly made to let go of childhood attachments. Danger becomes palpable as her future hazes.

Sofia and her family are ferried from camp to camp, each worse than the last. Friends disappear, starvation and disease claim many, and the Japanese guards become increasingly more sadistic.

Characters are drawn with sensitivity and insight, even where they are flawed. Sofia’s mother becomes psychologically fragile, snapping back to full reality only to saddle Sofia with her neuroses. Sofia must take on the task of caring for her brother and younger sisters, though she herself is still so young. Sofia turns to a fellow resident, Mies, for maternal comfort. In Kok-Schurgers’s capable hands, Mies becomes a quiet heroine, persisting with dignity, maintaining faith with gentle forcefulness, and encouraging complicated questions of good and evil.

Kok-Schurgers tells her story with beautiful sensitivity. Pages are laden with empathy and introspection: Sofia struggles to understand her mother’s condition and coldness, even as her behavior takes on a cruel edge that costs Sofia greatly. She watches those she loves suffer, and grapples with maintaining both a protective distance and her own sense of compassion. At its heart, the book illustrates how difficult it is to preserve one’s humanity underneath conditions designed to break it. Readers will easily draw parallels to works like Elie Wiesel’s Night and Primo Levi’s Survival in Auschwitz.

Skillful turns of phrase propel the story and ensure reader engagement. Of the changes forced upon her, Kok-Schurgers says, “behind my closed eyes, the bright, beautiful colors of freedom and happiness changed into drab, dark shades of fear, insecurity, and void.” Such moments are a powerful reflection of the effects of war on children in particular. Juxtaposed images of cherished baubles with protruding bones and distended stomachs further encapsulate such conditions.

Kok-Schurgers elects to end her narration with the liberation of the camps, which may leave readers wondering how family troubles are resolved. The Remains of War is a sensitive, illuminating, and important text.

BlueInk Review (Reviewed: July 2014) Rating

Japanese forces invaded Indonesia in 1942, putting an end to nearly a century and a half of Dutch control and killing thousands in the process. For the next three and a half years, Dutch women and children were held in concentration camps, separated from husbands and fathers who were forced to work in places undisclosed to their families.

The misery the Dutch endured at the hands of their Japanese captors – torture, starvation, diseases and death – are mostly missing from the annals of World War II atrocities and are among the author’s reasons for telling her story after 65 years. And it clearly is her story, even though she chooses to tell it through the eyes of her nine-year-old self, whom she renames Sofia. She was the oldest of four children born to a loving father and a distant, depressed mother who reserves her limited affection for her only son and calls Sofia “a child of the devil.”

Quite the contrary, Sofia proves a narrator of exceptional depth and wisdom, both hard-won and heartbreaking, as we follow her and her siblings through a succession of increasingly brutal camps. Along the way, food becomes scarce, malaria pervasive, and death commonplace. Robbed of all hope and stripped of all dignity, the prisoners shuffle through a Twilight Zone of mistreatment and malnutrition, succumbing to dysentery, fevers, festering sores and internal parasites. “What kind of a person would I be when I grew up, with all these horrible memories in my head?” Sofia wonders.

Judging by her vivid, clear-eyed, lyrical memoir, an angry triumph 65 years in the making, it’s plain to see the kind of person she became: resilient, tenacious, and intrepid enough to bear witness — a survivor, in spades. Her moving story will linger in the reader's memory long after the last page is read.

Kirkus (Reviewed: July 2014) Rating

In the intervening decades since World War II, many books have been written about the Holocaust and European concentration camps. As foreshadowed by this memoir's subtitle "Surviving the Other Concentration Camps of World War II," Kok-Schurgers is determined to bring to light the harsh conditions in the Japanese concentration camps in which she and her family were imprisoned for 3 1/2 years. As she writes in her preface: "Fear, panic, despair and grief have created a warped people who have had to spend the rest of their days trying to deal with the change and disability caused by relentless cruelty, terror and sadism." (x) The author's nightmare began in 1942, when the Dutch army in Indonesia surrendered to the Japanese. Kok-Schurgers skillfully sets up the stark contrast for what follows by describing daily life for her family in Langsa, a small city on the large Indonesian island of Sumatra. Enjoying a carefree colonial life are her narrator, 9-year-old Sofia, her school-principal father, her homemaker mother, younger brother Simon and younger sisters Easabella and Emma-M. Sofia explained, "Having been born in Indonesia, I didn't know any other life and I loved our small town." (2) Then the war arrived in the form of Japanese solders. First the European men, including Sofia's father, were rounded up. Then the women and children were collected and taken to the Simon Fraay Hotel, the first of five successively worse camps where they would be jailed. The author shows how the misogynistic, fanatical Japanese soldiers quickly beat a new world view into their captives, as food and medical supplies dwindled at each succeeding camp. As those she knows and in some cases cares about die around her, including her surrogate mother Mies, Sofia loses hope. She thought, "Nothing would be better, and yet nothing could be worse.... Surely, the rest of the world had abondoned us." (149) Even after the war ends as Japan is beaten, the ghosts of the camps won't let go of Sofia. Kok-Schurgers' effectively shows the enduring, painful reality for survivors of those horrors. 

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