Four Years Till Tomorrow: Despair And Hope In Wartime Dutch East Indies, edited by Sheri G. Tromp
It is easy to see why this book exists. That is not to say that everyone who comes across this book will appreciate it the way that I do, for all of its monotonous horrors and the way that it demonstrates the brutal inhumanity of the Japanese during their imperialistic phase. Appreciating this book requires that we view with sympathy and compassion the Dutch people who found themselves interned and then imprisoned by the Japanese and then struggling to deal with the simultaneous collapse of the Dutch empire in the East Indies that followed immediately upon war. Given that the Dutch people in the mainland suffered from the brutal imperialism of Hitler’s Germany, the return of traumatized Dutch colonials from Indonesia was greeted without the sort of compassion and regard that such loyal Dutch expected, and the world as a whole has not shown a great deal of compassion for the suffering of colonists abroad. If I cannot empathize with the experiences talked about here, I can definitely sympathize and I do, as this book is testament to the humanity of the Dutch authors and evidence that empires must not be judged for being empires but must be judged on their own merits.
This book is about 200 pages long and consists of 26 accounts of the experience of women and children during World War II in the Dutch East Indies under Japanese occupation. Included in the book are a couple of diaries (5, 11) as well as a poem (14b) written by someone who did not survive the war. There are tributes to a doctor whose efforts eased the horrors of the war (10) as well as a good and decent Japanese man who found himself executed by the Japanese occupiers for his decency and friendliness (8). The people who write the accounts struggle with their memories (1, 7), reflect upon what Christmas meant in captivity (4, 9), and discuss what it meant to be slave laborers of Japan in Nagasaki (3) or Thailand (14). One account tells of a woman who was awarded by the Dutch for helping some soldiers escape (15), while others discuss the breakdown of families that occurred when fathers were taken away (22) and mothers were too ill to take care of their children (24). Still others reflect on how hard it was to adjust to life after the war in the face of continued violence and the imperial retreat of the Netherlands (25, 26). Altogether they demonstrate the essential humanity and decency of the Dutch people in the face of the horrors of war and anti-imperialism in the 20th century.
Over and over again the authors demonstrate similar perspectives of the shared traumatic experience of Japanese domination during World War II. There was the feeling of the world turning upside down when those who were themselves mild imperialists found themselves quickly under the control of the Japanese, who quickly sought to use their power to attempt to exploit Japanese women and children for their own selfish gratification and to attempt to pit different parts of the Dutch East Indies society against each other. Conditions gradually got worse as the Dutch men were imprisoned and forced into slave labor (most notably but not only in Thailand), and even the end of the war did not mean an end to the troubles because the Dutch found themselves greatly hindered in the efforts to regain control over the Dutch East Indies and to protect their own people who were now threatened with violence from revolutionary Indonesians after the Japanese had surrendered. This complexity, and what can be seen as a failure by the Netherlands to properly reward and defend the interests of their colonists, gives a great deal of weight and pathos to this book despite the fact that it contains the same sort of experiences related over and over and over again.