Art as a means of surviving the war

What keeps people going in the harshest conditions of war? IN The camp painters The renowned author Jan Brokken searches for answers to this question. Central to his book are the personal stories of Dutch people held in Japanese prison camps during World War II. Optimism kept them going for a long time, the thought that the war would soon be over. But what happens to people if that liberation does not come? If conditions worsen?

The Burden of War

The camp painters is a sequel to Jan Brokken’s previous book, The Gardens of Buitenzorg (2021). This book was mainly about a search for the story of the author’s mother, Olga Brokken. Also in the first part of The camp painters she plays a central role. In the second and third parts of the book, the author is mainly looking for his father. Han Brokken, theologian, missionary preacher and researcher, the man who would be tormented by his memories for the rest of his life. Still, he didn’t talk about it. The phrase appears often in the book:

‘…my father never said anything about it’.

And that is precisely what Jan Bokken would like to know. Who was the man who returned from the Japanese camp full of scabies? What did he do with it?


Clergy were overrepresented in his father’s camp. As many as two hundred of the six hundred and fifty prisoners belonged to the Protestant or Roman Catholic spiritual profession. For them, faith was the way to get through the difficult time in the camp. Brokken describes, for example, the important role of the Christian reformed missionary preacher Arie Bikker. He was elected camp leader and was very well known in the camp. ‘Bikker was not afraid of death’, writes Jan Brokken. “These kinds of people exist, and they can handle a lot, maybe everything. He dealt with the Japper as Faust dealt with the devil.’ (124) Elsewhere in the book, Brokken describes how Bikker receives fifty lashes from a seething Japanese guard. It was the punishment for smuggling that was imposed on the minor Wim Wijker. Bikker took the penalty in his place.

Jan Brokken about his book ‘The Camp Painters’:

Painting in the camp

Jan Bokken decorates The camp painters mainly the attention to art as a means of surviving the war, hence the title of the book. He does this by telling the stories of the artists Maria Hofker-Rueter, Willem Hofker and Rudolf Bonnet. The former was Olga Brokken’s campmate, the painters Hofker and Bonnet were interned at the same time as the author’s father. Before the war they worked as painters in Bali, in the camp they continued to paint and draw. For them, according to Bokken, it was the way to keep a grip on reality. ‘It wasn’t because he was looking for any beauty in the misery of war, he just had to record what he saw’, Brokken notes about Willem Hofker (224). At the same time, the beauty of art in the camp was like ‘a view that takes you out of the swampy reality’ (165). However, the art also had a pragmatic purpose. The camp painters sold their art to the Japanese through Bikker. The proceeds could be used to supply the camp hospital with materials.

The next war

After returning from the camp, Olga and Han found themselves in the next war, the bloody struggle for Indonesian independence. Brokken captures the mood of this period by describing an art exhibition where the former camp painters try to sell their works on the one hand and the harsh reality of the war on the other. In the book, Brokken states that the camp time matured many minds for the emergence of a new world where the independence of the colony was accepted as a fact. He states that the churches therefore turned against the Dutch military offensive against the Republic of Indonesia in 1947. However, this did not apply to the churches as a whole. The churches in the Netherlands, and also part of the Protestant churches in Indonesia, emphatically took the side for the restoration of the colonial order. As a result, missionaries and missionaries came to be politically diametrically opposed to the churches in the Netherlands.


Sharply drawn in his book, Bokken depicts his father’s sense of powerlessness, both during the camp and afterwards.

‘In history, the great powers in rise and fall, you are like a boat on the wide sea. You depend on cracked skies, earth seas, winds, shoals and the storm. The times when you can grab the oars and determine your own course are few.’ (281)

The Indrapura

This was especially true of his father. He had experience as an army chaplain when, in 1942, he experienced the battle against Japan at close range. After the war he was not deployed again as an army chaplain, but was sent to the Netherlands on leave. With Indrapora the Bokken family arrived in the Netherlands. He became an army chaplain in general service there and had to provide spiritual help to conscripts who refused to participate in the military operations in Indonesia. The work was hard for him, he felt powerless. Brokken himself was not at all convinced of the meaning of the colonial war. He set his hopes on an independent Indonesia under Hatta and Sjahrir. How could he ever persuade the ‘conscientious objectors’? In the autumn of 1949, he took off his uniform and went to Emmen as a hospital chaplain. Jan Brokken, who was born in 1949, writes that he had become a stranger to his family and would remain so for the rest of his life.


The camp painters
The camp painters

The camp painters is a wonderful book, not least because of the tragedy of human life it speaks of. As an experienced narrator, Bokken takes the reader into the story of the Japanese camps and the chaotic period that followed. The book is versatile, Brokken tells about painters in pre-war Bali and the unrest in the hunt for homosexuals, about the fear of mad dogs in the prison camps and about the misery caused by bombings. The most beautiful thing is the personal stories woven into the broad strokes of history, the tales of human strength and dignity under almost impossible circumstances. The beautiful pictures of ‘camp art’ complete the book.

~ Koos-jan de Jager

Order: The camp painters – Jan Brokken

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