The Digital Adventures

Theo Meier-CH19

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After the bombing of Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, the Japanese invasion of Southeast Asia was swift. Japan had no fear of European interference. Germany had conquered France and Holland, thus the Dutch could not defend French Indo-China and the Dutch East Indies. Britain was too preoccupied with fighting in Europe to protect her territories in Southeast Asia, mainly Singapore and Malaya. And the American war fleet lay at the bottom of Pearl Harbor.

A few hours after the attack on Pearl Harbor, Japanese planes flew to the Philippines and destroyed the American air force there, and in the same month of December Japanese troops invaded the Philippines. The American and Filipino troops surrendered to the Japanese on 6 May 1942 due to a lack of additional armed forces that were promised to them.

In December 1941, Japan began its invasion of the Dutch East Indies. In January 1942, they conquered Borneo and gained control of the Dutch and British oil fields. In the Battle of the Java Sea the powerful Japanese naval forces defeated a combined fleet of British, Dutch, Australian and American warships. After that, she successfully conquered Java, Sumatra and other islands in the Dutch East Indies, and that included Bali.

In the beginning Japanese occupation was welcomed by the Indonesians as they were thought to be liberators from the unrighteous Imperial Dutch. During the occupation, the Indonesian nationalist movement increased in popularity. In July 1942, leading nationalists like Sukarno offer to rally the public in support of the Japanese war effort. In 1943, both Sukarno and Mohammad Hatta were invited to Japan where they were decorated by the Emperor of Japan himself.

But let me not get too far ahead. We are back to the beginning of 1942, on one dark night at Sanur beach where Theo lived. It was here that the Japanese landed in full force, right in front of Theo’s house. Was this really happening? Maybe in war-torn Europe but not in peaceful Bali. No, Theo couldn’t believe what he was seeing. He had no time to pack or put things away. He had to flee. There was no telling an advancing army with fixed bayonets that he was Swiss and neutral.

“Immediately, I grabbed hold of my bicycle and pedaled furiously to the home of my friend Prince Rajan Anak Agung in Saba,” Theo later wrote in his journal.

Prince Rajan found Theo refuge in the palace until he could arrange with the Japanese command for Theo’s papers. In the meantime the prince was concerned with the raping and pillaging that was sure to happen. Japanese soldier had a reputation that preceded them. Everyone was aware that Japanese soldiers considered young unmarried maidens as war booty, to be taken at will. The prince was worried too about a young Balinese girl in his charge whom he had hidden out in the palace. Her name was Nurukan. Turning to Theo he said, “Perhaps if I married you two she would be safe.” It was a bold, unexpected suggestion but Theo, out of obligation to the prince, readily agreed. Nurukan was sent for and when she appeared Theo was quite shocked. She was lovely, perhaps not yet twenty years of age, tall and slender and very graceful. Theo’s immediate thought was that she would make a good model.

“Yes, yes,” Prince Rajan said when Theo mentioned about her being a model, “but first things first,”

That same morning Theo and Nurukan were married with the prince officiating himself Theo, being a citizen of a neutral country, received permission from the Japanese high command to stay in Bali, any place except Sanur. A week after the ceremony, when the documents for Theo and his wife were signed by the Japanese in Denpasar, the couple fled to Iseh.

Theo officially leased Walter Spies’ mountain hut from the ruling princely Ksatriya family of Sideman. Tjokorda Gede Gangin, the prince of Sideman, had created a greenbelt to preserve the rural farmland and panoramic backdrop of Mont Agung.

The arrival of the Japanese changed everything. Prince Rajan was successful in arranging for Theo to travel with a Japanese officer and guards to his house at Sanur. Theo was appalled at what he found. The place had been ransacked. Above all his paintings were desecrated. The female nudes, the officer told him, were taken onto Japanese warships and now, for all Theo knew, probably ended up at the bottom of the ocean. Others were used as covers for card tables, as parasols, or as fuel to fire the army’s huge rice stores. Some, too, were given to coolies in lieu of pay. Theo hoped he would later be able to recover some of them. But otherwise years of work was irretrievably lost.

The Indonesians were finding that life under Japanese occupation was not what they expected. The Japanese, it turned out, were not liberators but conquerors. Their occupation became brutal. Those who lived in areas considered important to the war effort suffered the most from torture to sex slavery, and from arrest to execution. Thousands of Indonesians were forced into labor and taken away for Japanese military projects, including the construction of the Burma-Siam Railway. Many were suffering, or had died, as a result of ill treatment and hunger. People of Dutch and mixed Dutch-Indonesian descent were particular targets of the Japanese occupation. Within a few short months all this was happening.

In spite of the deprivation and hardships, life in Iseh was not altogether unpleasant for Theo with his young wife. Although it was not love at first, like in the storybooks, as time passed Theo became more and more fond of her. She never complained about the hardships, nor her having to sit for hours while he painted her, and she was a great help to him in serving him as a wife. Theo was not one to admit the weakness of love, but he was becoming very attached to his young wife. His devotion grew when she bore him a daughter. They named her Leonie.

Theo made the most of what they had. Without materials to paint he turned to mixing his own colors from tree bark, resins and crushed stones. He had no canvas, of course, so he painted on scraps of boards and pieces of glass. Fortunately, the Balinese of Iseh continued with their dance and music, and Theo took up the study of the gamelan. Theo was not one to idle away his time in remorse or regret. He used his time wisely.

Theo kept in contact with Denpasar and a few times, on daring adventures, he traveled the long distance for a visit. Once he took Nurukan. After being arrested by Japanese police for no apparent reason, he was thrown in jail. In his journal, he wrote: “Thanks to Nurukan’s courage, she stood up to the Japanese military police, and my stay in Jail-for which I had been accused of spying-was cut mercifully short.”

With the exception of Theo and Bonnet, no foreign artists were left on Bali. Bonnet did manage for a spell to escape the wrath of the Japanese, but eventually his freedom was cut short. When a new Japanese officer took charge, he had the Dutchman arrested and shipped to Sulawesi. Bonnet spent the rest of the war in internment camps in different places, in Parepare, Bolong and finally in Makassar.

And Theo and Nurukan waited out the war in Iseh.

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