Long Way Back to the River Kwai A Harrowing True Story of Survival in World War II

Review :

I have read several books about POW's of the Japanese who worked on the building of the railway along the River Kwai. This one was different from the others in part because it is the story of a young Dutchman who also happens to be an agnostic Jew. He escaped from Holland shortly after the Germans overran Holland then sailed to the Dutch East Indies (as did his parents)where he joined the Dutch army. He was captured in 1942 and spent three and a half years as a POW. He faced many horrors in that time period and these are not unfamiliar to those who have done any reading on this time period.

I was interested to read that statistics gathered after the war showed that the Dutch POW's had a better survival rate than the Australians who in turn were more likely to survive than the British. This was felt to be in part because the Dutch army had more men of Eurasian background who were better able to adapt to the primitive lifestyle of the jungle. The Australians were deemed to be the most fit at the outset of the war and were also more organized and disciplined which probably contributed to their survival rate.The British were young and unprepared to deal with rain forest heat and humidity. Documents found after the war showed that the Japanese ranked prisoners by their endurance and usefulness with the ranking as follows: 1. Australians 2. British 3. Americans 4. The Dutch. The Dutch however, outranked all the other groups by far when it came to survival.

Velman's described one occasion when one of their greatest comforts was removed from them: "The Coconut Grove (theatre) had become an integral part of our lives. The anticipation of distraction through laughter, the excitement of the performances themselves, and their relaxed aftermath - all brought a lift to our morale that could last for days. When they closed down our theater,the Japanese administered a massive dose of communal depression by depriving us of a form of nourishment that was needed just as badly as food."

The author claimed to be an agnostic Jew and really did not know much of his Jewish heritage when he arrived at the camp and yet over time he gravitated to a group of Jews who met under the leadership of Chaim Nussbaum. One of the parts of the book that really touched me came shortly after they had been liberated when a British officer of Jewish origin was flown in and spoke to the Nussbaum congregation telling them of the Nazi extermination camps in Europe.After everything they had been through, all the people they had lost in the camps along the way only to survive themselves and suddenly come to the realization that for some there would be no family to go back to, it must have been devastating. Velman was luckier than some. His parents had also been prisoners of the Japanese and suffered terribly, but at least they had not been sent to the ovens.Many of his other relatives had.

The author soon discovered that some of the worst scars for the survivors were not physical but mental. "Two British medical studies from 1990 reported that even after 45 years, former prisoners had above average levels of psychiatric illness and significantly higher rates of admissions to hospital. Thousands were suffering from psychological disorders from which they would never recover."

Velman ultimately worked in the field of Public Relations and throughout his career there were many times when he had to visit Japan and work with the Japanese. Very few Japanese officers or prisoners were arrested or indicted as war criminals and less than fifty were convicted which no doubt seemed like a slap in the face to those who had suffered so much.No one apologized and there was not the slightest concession of guilt. The authors take on the outlook of the Japanese through the years was very interesting, including thoughts on their overall sense of isolation from others including the very low number of outsiders allowed to gain Japanese citizenship..

This book is very interesting read both for it's wartime history and for the author's lifetime perspectives as one who maintained contact with the Japanese throughout his working life. It is well worth reading for those with any interest in the subject.

One drawback to the Kindle version is that the pictures included were so small that they really weren't very legible to me at any rate. perhaps this is not the case in other versions.


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