When Paula Kogel was young, she fell passionately in love with a Dutch soldier and the couple moved to the Dutch East Indies to raise a family. Upon the outbreak of fighting in World War Two, the family moved to the suburb of Tjideng in Batavia. Their small two-bedroom house in the Ampasiet district is the setting for the book.
When Japanese Armed Forces took control of the Dutch East Indies in March 1942, soldiers were immediately transported to POW slave labour camps such as the Burma Railway and the coal mines in Japan, while the civilian men, and later boys as young as 10, were removed from their families. The women and small children left behind were interned in camps, often fenced-off town districts, where they had to fend for themselves. In Tjideng, Paula and her two young sons were imprisoned in their own home, ultimately sharing their house at Ampasiet with 21 other prisoners, each allotted just 50cm of ‘living space’.
It was unbearably cramped, dehumanizing and tense and conditions deteriorated rapidly. Survival meant working together for the sake of the children. What shines through is the courage and strength Paula and her fellow internees showed in the face of such unbelievable cruelty.
The book also tells the story of Paula’s husband Jan, enduring transportation by the so called ‘hell ships’ to prison destinations, working on the railway and in the mines until the Atom bomb in August 1945 ended the war and saved his life.
Paula was born in Germany in 1911. She had always filled her life with music, and when she returned to The Netherlands after the war she became a successful music teacher. She also toured the country with her puppet theatre, and brought much joy to her students and audiences alike. Always claiming that nobody would be able to kill her spirit, her eternal optimism was a quality that helped her survive the horrors of the Tjideng prison camp.
The House at Ampasiet was originally published in Dutch in 2000 by Paula’s daughter Lore Ridings, fulfilling her mother’s dearest wish to have her story published.
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It is heart breaking to realise how many lives are broken and lost during war time. Even after the endurance of extreme hardship there is no guarantee that your fellow countrymen will welcome you home with medals and sympathy. How do you cope with a shattered life, on-going poverty and your health blighted by past experience? Well some, like Paula Kogel, write down every painful word, no matter how hard, and remind the world that war is not about great battles and generals dripping with ribbons, itâ€™s about everyday families caught in the crossfire of nations and the hollow echo of their experiences upon the next generation.
The House at Ampasiet is a book written in back flashes, moments in time that are frozen forever in Paulaâ€™s mind. The contrast of a train trip to Batavia with her husband and young children, the heat and the buskers resonating like a brave new world, to her abject terror living within the Tjideng prisoner of war camp, facing inhuman cruelty, protecting her two young sons from starvation as inmates died all around them.
This also highlights a time in Dutch history that is long ignored. Dutch Citizens returning from far-flung post were considered a burden to the local population, and instead of being welcomed home the survivors were forced into camps, pilloried by locals and faced a permanent loss of normality in their lives. It is rare to find a memoir that can span such contrasting experiences with a voice as memorable as Paulaâ€™s.
by Cassy Green