Why we love “The Remains of War,” followed by an interview with author G. Pauline Kok-Schurgers
There’s no shortage of literature retelling the atrocities of World War II. Some of it appears in thick textbooks, some in poems or diaries, and still more in powerful memoirs told decades later. “The Remains of War” belongs to the latter category, but stands apart not only for its moving prose, but for its unique historical significance.
Pauline Kok-Schurgers was not imprisoned in Europe. She was not guarded by Hitler’s army. She was not Jewish. She grew up in Indonesia, the child of Dutch parents. From 1942 to 1945, Kok-Schurgers, her mother and three siblings were imprisoned in concentration camps by the occupying Japanese army in Sumatra, Indonesia. Her father was forced to work on the Burma-Siam railroad.
The book, told through the eyes of her adolescent self, which Kok-Schurgers renames Sofia, follows the family through five different camps over the course of three-and-a-half years.
Kok-Schurgers and her family endured terrible abuse at the hands of her Japanese captors. Starving and suffering from regular bouts of malaria among other illnesses, they were denied sufficient hygiene, nourishment, and medical care. They and their fellow prisoners were beaten and humiliated. As Kok-Shurgers coped with these conditions, she also struggled to understand – and ultimately to forgive — the harsh way in which her mother inexplicably treated her.
Moving from camp to camp, conditions got progressively worse until Kok-Schurgers writes upon arrival at the final camp: “Like cattle, we were yelled at and collected, counted and recounted…we were pushed and shoved, kicked or rolled, depending on how we had survived the voyage…surely, the rest of the world had abandoned us.”
Simultaneously told with the unmitigated innocence of a child and yet the reflective wisdom of an adult, this story is rich with vivid detail and startling honesty. It is by turns chilling and captivating and, finally, uplifting for its testament to the resilience of the human spirit.
We are proud to proclaim “The Remains of War” our third winner of the BlueInk Best Book Award.
Author shares her struggle to write her book and the painful aftermath of her WWII ordeal
By Rachel L’Heureux
It took Pauline Kok-Schurgers 67 years to summon the courage to write her memoir, as she struggled to revisit a past she desperately wanted to forget.
“I had to fight with myself…every time I tried to write it,” she recalls. “Everything became painful again and vivid.”
Kok-Shurgers was born to Dutch parents and grew up in Indonesia, which was a colony of Holland at the time. In 1942, at age nine, Kok-Schugers, along with her mother and three younger siblings, was imprisoned in concentration camps by the occupying Japanese army, while her father was forced to work on the Burma-Siam railroad.
Kok-Schurgers and her family spent three-and-a-half years in captivity, hauled like cattle to five different camps, each more unbearable than the last. When they were finally released, the author was almost 13. Throughout her ordeal, she fiercely struggled to understand her relationship with her mother, who was often cruel to her.
Now 81, the author lives in Cambridge, Canada, with her husband Jacob. They have been married for 56 years and have four children and 14 grandchildren. Kok-Schurgers has lived in Canada for 42 years and has never returned to Indonesia: her birthplace, her former home, and her prison.
Below, she talks about the pain of reliving past events in writing the memoir, the aftermath of the war, and the process of self publishing.
WARNING: this interview may contain a spoiler alert or two.
Q: What was your goal in writing the book?
A: The goal in starting it was that (the events of WWII in the South Pacific) have had very little publicity. What happened in the South Pacific, in that area where we were in concentration camps, very little is known. When we came back to Holland nobody (even) believed us… I just thought that is not right, so I started to write it down in the hope that the book would… open something that was never even really thought about.
Not only that, but the consul from Holland came to Canada in 2004 and invited all the prisoners of war from WWII to a conference in Toronto. There were more than 600 of us. We came from all over Canada. He said all kinds of things, but there was one line that really made me decide to write the book. He said, “All of you sitting here in this hall are old, and if you guys are not here anymore, if all of you die, and nobody has written down what happened in the South Pacific, then all of that history will disappear. It will never be told. It will never come to light.” And I thought: that is so true!
When I married my husband, I never talked about it to him. I never talked about it period. None of us were really very eager to talk about it. Only in 2011, when the book came out, did I talk to my husband about what we went through. None of my children either had known any of it, until I started to write.
Q: The main character in the book, Sofia, is you. Why did you decide to rename yourself in the book?
A: Sofia is my husband’s mother’s name. I certainly didn’t want to put my own name in there because I found it difficult to write with the names we all carried because of the emotions. It brings the story and the experiences of what we went through so close that I found it difficult to write. So, I changed the names of my family and anyone else I have contact with in the book because it seemed easier.
I took 67 years to (begin seriously writing) the book because I couldn’t do it. I had to fight with myself … I tried many times, but I just couldn’t do it. And then the kids came, so I had many excuses to not even start it because they needed my attention. Then, after they all left, I decided that I finally would start it.
Q: How long after you started did it take you to write the book?
A: About two or two-and-a-half years. I only wrote it when my husband was not around. My husband was often travelling between here and Europe. Those are the only times that I could write because stuff like that was so difficult for me that I didn’t want him to see me upset or crying or writing in the night and sleeping in the day.
He has never completely read my book. He went through it, but when he comes to pages where I am not treated the way I should be—like the situations between my mother and me or when we got treated badly by the Japanese guards—when he comes to those parts, he puts the book away. He has read sections but certainly not the whole thing.
Q: You write with such detail. Did you keep a journal of some kind?
A: It is all in my memory, and I think about it all the time. Certain things I did write down because it was bothering me so much, (events) which are painful or (make me) angry or stuff which I didn’t handle very well emotionally. Putting it down seems to help. A few short words I would put down on paper and put it in a drawer and lock it. In the end, it more or less all came together. I sorted it out.
Q: Do you have a writing background?
A: I have no writing background. I was a teacher as well as a Registered Nurse, so all of my literary education came from my teaching background.
My father wrote six or seven books. He loved where he grew up, which was in the southern part of Holland, so that is what all of the books are about, except one. He wrote one book about the war and the stay of the Dutch men at the Burma-Siam railroad. The book is very thin. He wrote that book as an observer. He did not write his book the way I wrote mine.
Q: We feel so connected to the “characters” of your book, especially knowing they are real people. What happened to everyone after your book ends and in the aftermath of your release?
A: After the book came out, I got phone calls until 11 o’clock at night from readers asking what on earth happened after the last page. But, I think that may be material for a second book because it didn’t get easier. As a nine year old, I went into the Japanese camps and things were experienced the way they came. You are a child so you do not react like an adult. But when the war finished, I did not know if I was a child or an adult. Neither felt right at that time.
The memories and the resentment of the people in Holland towards the returning Dutch people from Indonesia were so painful and so accusatory. They thought we had had a good time in Indonesia, that we had food to eat and always had sunshine and no winters and so on. The reception was certainly not friendly, so I just shut up. I could not talk about it. I just went through my life, through my years. Actually, I was a closed book.
So, what happened to me after my parents went back and I went to boarding school was certainly not friendly nor healing nor loving, not at all. I would say…if I were to write a second book, this would be even more disturbing and painful…
(SPOILER ALERT!) When my father did not recognize me (at the end of the book), I felt totally abandoned. I know there was not a good relationship between my mother and me and that had been going on so long that it didn’t really touch the core of me, but when my father didn’t recognize me, I thought, “Well, that’s it then. You are on your own.” That was hard. That stayed with me for the rest of my life. Although now I understand more of his character, his upbringing and his thinking, which certainly helps.
Q: Did your father ever talk to you about what happened to him during the war?
A: No, he never talked about this to me… (But) he must have gone through hell, just the same as us… I am giving presentations now and I have some drawings from one of his friends who drew some of the situations they went through at the railroad. Thousands of them died. No one (of the prisoners) was strong enough to carry the fallen and dying men back, so they just stayed where they were and were buried that way. After the war ended, the people who checked the railroad, built by the prisoners of war in Burma-Siam, discovered that under most of the crossbeams of that railroad one or sometimes two men were buried.
It was very hard. He never talked about it. Just like I didn’t talk about it.
Q: What about the rest of your family? What happened to them?
When I was 15, my parents and my younger siblings went back to Indonesia because my father was a teacher. He became an inspector of the Progress Learning System in which children (who had been incarcerated) would be able within 18 months to catch up on the school material which they had lost in the camps….
But, after the war, I was already 14 so they sent me to boarding school (in Holland), and that is where I stayed until I finished my education. The boarding school I went to was run by nuns. I was there until I was 20 years old, and then I tried to find a job as a teacher. I taught for two years. But, I didn’t like teaching at all. So I decided to become a nurse when I was 24, and I got to know my husband. When I was 25, I married my husband and we left Holland.
I knew about my sisters because they were with me in boarding school for a little while. There was a problem finding a house in Holland… so for three months the nuns said the girls could stay and they would take care of them. That was before they went back with my father to Indonesia… He and my mother went back to Indonesia with the two younger girls and a newborn little boy. My brother and I remained in Holland for education—my brother with a family and I in a boarding school.
Q: Are your siblings still alive and have you stayed in touch with them? What are they doing now?
My parents have died, of course, but my brother and two sisters are still alive, as well as the last little boy born after the war. He didn’t know anything about what happened during the war. I still have good contact with my sisters. Easabella comes each year for three weeks to Canada to visit, but Emma-M is quite ill. I went to see her in September to say good-bye before she would die, as I had promised her. I have contact with my brothers, but they do not want to come to Canada.
Q: Your sisters were much younger than you during the war; do they remember much about the camps?
A: They didn’t remember anything. I asked both of them, but they didn’t remember.
Q: What about your brother?
A: He must have remembered, but he blocked it totally out. He was five when it started and nine when it finished, so he must have more than enough to remember, but he said there’s nothing left. In a way it is a blessing, but in some ways it’s also an emptiness, I think.
Q: Did you ever see Peter again, or Nadine, or Sitah and Hassan? What happened to Mies’s daughter, Phaedra?
A: Peter I never saw again. I hunted for him. Peter was one of the best things that happened to me in the camps. We left the camps before him. When he left, I don’t know where he went. We knew he would be in the same city, somewhere in Medan where we all ended up. Everyone released from the camps was all, more or less, still in one section of the city.
In Medan, we were instructed not to roam around because at that time the Indonesian people wanted Indonesia back for themselves. They didn’t want it to be a colony of Holland any longer. The period between 1945 and 1949 was tumultuous. There were a lot of people who died.
After the war, the people who were half Indonesian and half Dutch got the choice to either go back to Holland or stay in Indonesia. But the rebels or Bersiap soldiers went around with all kinds of weapons—bamboo spears and large knives—and went after white Dutch people and also Indo-Dutch people. Peter was Indo-Dutch; his mother was a Dutch lady and his father was an Indonesian-Dutch soldier. After searching for a long time and not finding him, there is a suspicion that he and his family were killed by the Bersiap soldiers.
That period lasted for four years until they finally got the Dutch queen to give them back their independence. They have their own government now.
I don’t know anything about Phaedra, except that Nadine took her to Holland. But I don’t know where she went. Probably with family because Mies had family in Holland…it didn’t look good for Phaedra though. She was very “far away” after the war. Mentally, I’m not sure she ever recovered from seeing her mother die that way. I doubt if her mind, spirit, and memory ever found the courage to continue life in a normal way.
Q: Did you and your mother’s relationship ever improve?
A: No. It pretty much stayed at the same level. I respected her because she was my mother… But if I really ever loved her like I did Mies or Peter, I don’t think I was ever on that level with her.
Q: Did you ever return to the home you grew up in before the war?
A: No, we never went back. I know the house is still standing because people who were with us in the camps went back.
I never wanted to go back because of the memories. Someone in Holland contacted me and wanted to make a movie… They did not film in Sumatra (where I was imprisoned), but I asked her to send me some photos from where the camps were, and she did that, and there’s nothing there. There are only plantations and gardens with rubber trees: beautiful, young, healthy rubber trees. But, there is nothing left or any way to go back to those camp times.
Q: Do you want to write a second book?
A: My kids push me to, especially the girls. One is a good writer but not published yet and the other does not write. They tell me it will help the first book if I write a second. I’m thinking about it. Maybe I will, or maybe I will just talk to someone else who will write it for me, like a ghostwriter. I’m not sure yet. I’ve just been busy lately with presentations. With Veteran’s Day and other remembrance days, I am asked quite often to speak in schools.
Q: Do you have any advice for self-published authors?
A: Well, if I write a second book it will not be in the States. It will be in Canada. There are complications (producing the book outside of Canada) because everything is done online, so I can never see anyone unless I travel all the way to the States. Communication will just be much easier within Canada, since this is where I live.
I would say self-publishing is harder than if you had an agent. With an agent, you can be guided by somebody who is familiar with the work that has to be done. You get advice immediately. I never got that. I had to find out stuff by myself. If I got something wrong, it was corrected, but I would have appreciated knowing that it was wrong beforehand. Also, it is extremely expensive to have a book published in the United States and to live in Canada. Not just because of the dollar difference but because of the prices self-publishing firms are asking from writers. The prices are extraordinarily high (in America).
I will publish in Canada for sure. I don’t know if I will self-publish again though. It depends on how I go through the writing process.
Q: Now that so much time has passed since your ordeal, have you reached a place of forgiveness or peace?
A: That question is always asked of me when I present. I am a Roman-Catholic, so I have faith. I go to church and I am happy. I have my own thoughts about God and what the causes are of something like what happened to me.
…I understand why the Japanese people were cruel to women and children in the camps; they have a different culture and a different education. In their mind, a soldier who has to surrender is not worth anything, less than an animal. So, the fact that we were prisoners and weaker made them angry. Soldiers need to fight. They were just put in charge of guarding women and children. They couldn’t understand that, found it humiliating, and were very unhappy about it. They took it out on us in cruel ways. They damaged so many people.
Hitler in the Holocaust killed six million and when his army went to Russia and tried to conquer that, they killed 22 million. That is known all over the world. But, the Japanese Imperial Army all on their own, in Manchuria, in China, in Siam and Burma, in the archipelago of Indonesia, and in the Philippines, killed 55 million people. Beyond Asia and beyond the South Pacific, I don’t think there are many people in other countries who know that. …When I go out into schools, there is not a single person who knows anything about what happened in the South Pacific during WWII. I cannot understand. Is the rest of the world just not interested?
I know it was such a long time ago, and in understanding how and why, I try to forgive. Maybe I do for a little while, but then I hear something again about what they did or what has happened or what is happening now… and all the same feelings come back again. I know I haven’t forgiven. And I still get angry at the race who had the audacity to act the way they did…
I don’t think I can forgive completely. I am not that person.
Q: Thank you for your time, your honesty and your wonderful book!
BlueInk Review offers credible and unbiased reviews of self-published books exclusively. Visit us at https://www.blueinkreview.com.
Rachel L’Heureux is a graduate of the University of Denver, as well as the Publishing Institute at the University of Denver. She is BlueInk’s 2014 fall intern.