“What was it really like, being in the concentration camps and all?”
I have circled around that question many times over the years. Do they really want the full “and all” answer? Do they truly want me to describe the repercussions of having everything you possess yanked away from you, of being imprisoned for thirty months without any contact with the outside world, of being separated from your family without knowing where the others are – alive or dead, of being stripped of your dignity, of being robbed of your health and starved towards death?
This is the story of a precocious boy in a concentration camp for Dutch women and children under the Japanese occupation of the Dutch East Indies (now Indonesia) during WWII when he was between eight and eleven years old. It is about inhumane treatment, about fear, about suffering, about losing all of part of your life. But I don’t see it ultimately as a sad story. It is also about our capability to survive from day to day, to start a new life every day, and about the power of hope, determination, and a stoic sense of humor.
Dual personalities emerged after I started to tell the story. One moment I had the clear and unencumbered perspective of this young boy. I could hear and see the people, the scenes, hear the sounds, smell the smells, as if I were an unseen observer of a moment that was happening now. The next moment I was writing for that boy as a grown man with all the wisdom of hindsight and knowing all the things I have learned since.
“with nothing but our lives” is an album of mental images of what this boy experienced in the concentration camps, of how people behaved, of how people survived, of how people died, of unexpected saints and unexpected villains, of humanity ground down to its essentials – stripped and exposed, of people “worthless as scraps of paper in the wind”.