Camp Life Is Paradise for Freddy recounts Fred Lanzing’s youth in the Dutch East Indies, his experiences in Japanese internment camps and the first few months after liberation.
Through the eyes of a child this book tells the dramatic story of the overthrow of an immense and helpless colonial empire, the routing of a puppet army and the upending, humiliation and incarceration of a white apartheid society.
This lyrical and richly detailed memoir offers all the excitement, drama and human complexity of popular historical fiction – acts of forgiveness, altruism and brotherly love; extremes of cowardice, bravery and sacrifice; inexplicable alliances; vignettes of avarice and wanton betrayal; nauseating cruelty and injustice; feats of endurance, suffering and defiance. Yet through it all, while he is witnessing extraordinary events, the author’s writing style is unsensational and matter-of-fact. Though he is deeply affected, his emotions seldom spill over onto the page.
Before the 1942 invasion of the Dutch East Indies by Japanese land and sea forces, there are wonderful nostalgic descriptions of Lanzing’s idyllic boyhood in Batavia. Then in December 1941, the British battleships Prince of Wales and the Repulse were sunk by Japanese torpedo bombers in the South China Sea, leaving Singapore and the Dutch East Indies wide open to invasion.
In March 1942, Batavia was declared an open city, defenceless as it awaited the arrival of the Japanese. In October 1942, the interment of Europeans (or those who looked European-enough) started. Nine-year-old Lanzing and his mother and sister, were interned in a women’s camp while his father was placed in a separate POW camp for men. In the course of 1942, the mood of the indigenous populations in the cities had grown hostile towards Europeans. Thus the internment camps, called tempat perildungan (protective area), offered protection for captive Europeans. In Java alone there were initially over 100 different camps, later consolidated to about 30.
Though not an easy time, Lanzing’s detention paradoxically afforded him much freedom (as he put it, “no school, no shoes, no parents.”) Children had abundant time on their hands to play and embark on adventures but inevitably took on adult responsibilities and attitudes. Interned children were conscious of the circumstances that had been forced upon them, i.e. you certainly never give food away, you traded it. The young boy enjoyed the marvellous songs that the Japanese platoons of soldiers would sing during marching drills. The invading army conducted itself with discipline. Looters caught in the act were summarily shot. The telephone number of the Japanese police department was given out so that the citizenry could call to complain if anyone suffered harassment.
Lanzing believes that a child’s view of his past reflects a more authentic memory, free of adult preconceptions and expectations. Children see and hear what is there while adults see and hear what they are expected to and mainly remember what they think they ought to remember. Lanzing‘s personal childhood experiences are innocent, devoid of prejudice, racism and discrimination. Nevertheless, when the book was first published in the Netherlands in 2007, it triggered furious controversy, if not hostility and vitriol.
Lanzing’s assertion was that his time in the camps was not the compendium of horrors commonly associated with the Dutch internment experience. This flew in the face of the long-established prevailing view that the Japanese occupiers were guilty of unvarying savagery, a belief which even now extends to the 2nd and 3rd generations in Holland and is even commodly found in official publications.
Rather than unrelieved hell, life varied a great deal from camp to camp according to Lanzing. Even food shortages ranged widely and any case did not occur until the last months of the war. The reality of the camps was more akin to continuous boredom, quarrels and disputes among internees; uncertainty, incomprehensible regulations; lack of privacy and hygiene and hopelessness. Discomfort, overcrowding and poor hygienic conditions were undeniable, but many of the problems of camp life were caused or exacerbated by European camp leaders and the internees themselves. Moreover, Lanzing believes that many of the Dutch trials at the war’s end condemning Japanese to death as war criminals were more vengeful than just.
So unlike the public’s dominant idea of a civilian prisoner of war camp run by Japanese was this writer’s view that he has been labeled a “pro-Jap” collaborator, an enemy of national solidarity and an immature egocentric disturbed individual. Reviewers suggested that the memoirist’s work ignores or trivializes the suffering of others and contradicts the real life experiences of thousands of around 27,000 child and adult survivors who were interned. Despite the book’s angry reception, Lanzing’s picture of Dutch internment in fact corresponds more closely with the scant historical record than do most camp memoirs. For example, The Way of a Boy (Penguin 1995), another memoir that depicts Dutch captives’ war time internment, shares a similar perspective and is a powerful confirmation of Lanzing’s own experiences.
Camp Life Is Paradise for Freddy is a remarkable and thought-provoking memoir that expands our understanding of the Pacific War, the Dutch colonial experience and the modern history of Southeast Asia. Lanzing is particularly adept at re-creating his impressions, sensations, sights and sounds of his surroundings. Yet he’s a spare and concise writer who moves the story along at a steady pace. He sticks to the essentials, providing a lifelike background for the key events of the time.
The book is one of the rare personal sources daring to speak out so bluntly about both the realities of camp life in the Indies and the subsequent 70-year span of misinformation that has followed since the war. With its unique and controversial perspective, the book convincingly contradicts popular myths and long-held misconceptions about the Japanese occupation.
Camp Life Is Paradise for Freddy: A Childhood in the Dutch East Indies, 1933–1946 by Fred Lanzing, Ohio University Press 2017, ISBN 978-089-680-4968, 144 pages.
Review by Bill Dalton
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