Lost Childhood: My Life in a Japanese Prison Camp During World War II

Lost Childhood: My Life in a Japanese Prison Camp During World War II

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by Herman J. Viola, Annelex Hofstra Layson

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Lost Childhood is the vivid, first-hand account of the horrors of war through the eyes of a child. This real-life memoir breaks a 60-year silence to tell one woman’s riveting story of prisoner life during World War II. As a little Dutch girl in Indonesia, Annelex Hofstra’s comfortable world was torn apart when she and her family were sent to


Lost Childhood is the vivid, first-hand account of the horrors of war through the eyes of a child. This real-life memoir breaks a 60-year silence to tell one woman’s riveting story of prisoner life during World War II. As a little Dutch girl in Indonesia, Annelex Hofstra’s comfortable world was torn apart when she and her family were sent to Japanese prison camps for three and a half years.

The story begins in 1942 when four-year-old Annelex is living on the island of Java in the Dutch East Indies (now Indonesia). Her grandfather is a successful planter, and her father is a pilot instructor in the Royal Netherlands Navy. But her carefree childhood ends as the Japanese invade Java, and along with 10,000 other Dutch residents, Annelex's family is rounded up. With few belongings, they are shipped off to interment camps, to a helpless, unknown future.

In a shockingly honest narrative, we learn of the tactics used by their captors to dehumanize the Dutch prisoners. We learn of the grinding daily routine of the prisoners, the food rations, the sleeping arrangements, and the awful sanitary conditions. We share in Annelex’s near-death bout with malaria. We also share some of the awful things she witnessed—extracting parasitic worms from a fellow-prisoner’s throat; the agonizing death by starvation of women punished for stealing food; and the sight of bodies being piled high on a truck.

Eventually the hell ends and the family is liberated. But the girl’s personal hell plagues her in freedom. Just days after she is reunited with her father, he is killed in an explosion. World war is replaced by civil war in Indonesia, forcing the family to flee first to Holland and then to the U.S., where the family tries to mend their broken lives.

For 60 years Annelex Hofstra Layson has repressed her early memories, shielding even her husband and children from the horrors of her past. With Lost Childhood, her harrowing ordeal is finally revealed. The author shares her story now to provide hope in young lives torn apart by war, and to inspire future generations to work for peace.

Editorial Reviews

Children's Literature - Jennie DeGenaro
We rarely think about four-year-olds being imprisoned by the Japanese during World War II. This compelling autobiography describes a four-year-old girl's reactions to imprisonment and her perspective of the unusual life she is forced to lead. She describes living under deplorable and dangerous conditions. The people in the camp were primarily Dutch, and they were intimidated and mistreated by their Japanese captors. When their captivity was over at the end of the war, another enemy surfaced, the Indonesians. They were involved in a revolution and wanted independence from the Dutch occupiers. They welcomed the Japanese who helped them drive the Dutch from Indonesia. At the end of the war, the situation changed. The Japanese began protecting the Dutch. They no longer made rules and mistreated the women and children. They became their friends. The Indonesians became their enemy. Layson writes about her precarious existence in the concentration camp, and it is riveting to read. Eventually, her beloved brother was able to find them in the camp and they had a joyful reunion. Later, aided by the Red Cross, their father located the family, and they had a brief, happy family once again. The story comes alive with the characters, and the reader becomes so close to Annalex, the little girl we so admire, it is difficult to picture her as the grandmother she has become. Reviewer: Jennie DeGenaro
VOYA - Debbie Clifford
In 1942, Annelex and her family lived an idyllic existence on Java in what was then known as the Dutch East Indies. Lex's father was a Dutch Naval officer and their life was one of ease with servants and friends all around. The advance of the Japanese army changed everything. Her father went missing while on a mission; the Japanese took over Java and then rounded up all the Europeans and shipped them to prison camps. Jack, Lex's brother, was sent to a different camp than Lex, their mother, and grandmother. For three and a half years, Lex lived with fear and deprivation while clinging to the hope of her family reuniting. The author was barely four when she was imprisoned and relates the most vivid of her memories from a child's perspective. She describes watching Japanese soldiers swing women back and forth holding their legs and arms and then toss them onto a truck. Lex was reminded of a favorite game of hers and Jack's and could not understand why the women weren't laughing—it was years before Lex realized that those women had been dead. Other scenes were undeniably horrific no matter the age of the witness. This book brings to light a little known chapter of World War II in writing that is spare and forthright, and teen readers with any interest in that period of history will find a compelling story. Reviewer: Debbie Clifford
Kirkus Reviews

When Japan invaded the Dutch East Indies in 1942, four-year-old Annelex's comfortable colonial world turned upside down. With her pilot father away at war, her family was among 300,000 Europeans and Eurasians interned for years in Japanese prison camps. Separated from her brother, Annelex, her mother and grandmother endured harsh punishment and near-starvation before the camps were liberated in 1945 and the family joyfully reunited. However, the Indonesian war of independence against 300 years of Dutch colonial rule soon dashed their hopes of returning to the life they knew. In spare, unsentimental language, the author lets events speak for themselves, focusing on details that matter to children: of fear, hunger, boredom and the devastating discovery that adults are helpless to protect them. The result is a powerfully concentrated portrayal of war's brutalities seen through a child's eyes. Like Yoshiko Uchida's The Invisible Thread (1991), this memoir is an outstanding contribution to children's literature about World War II, illustrating the astonishing ability of human beings to survive and overcome years of displacement, internment and exile. (Memoir. 10 & up)

Product Details

National Geographic Society
Publication date:
Product dimensions:
5.30(w) x 8.40(h) x 0.60(d)
Age Range:
10 Years

Meet the Author

Annelex Hofstra Layson spent three of the first seven years of her life in Japanese prison camps. The heartrending story of her lost childhood has remained untold for 60 years.

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Lost Childhood: My Life in a Japanese Prison Camp During World War II 3 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 3 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Imagine being only four when the japanese invaded your country and began rounding up all the dutch citizens and shipping them to prison camps. Well this is exactly what happened to Annelex Hofstra during World War two when she was only four. The story Lost Childhood is a real life account of how a Annelex Hofstra, her mom, and her grandma manage to survive during the terrifying things that happened to them in the camps during World War two. On their way to the camps they got separated from her brother and their dad is off fighting. They spent three and a half years of being treated like animals and lived in constant fear of being punished or even worse being separated. They must fight through the starvation, infection, and disease if they want to live. They live through the battles inside their camps and live through the abuse that the soldiers are giving them. Also they manage to survive with out little water and food. It took years for her family to recover, but she stills has those bad memories that will never be forgotten.There are both sad and happy parts in this story about the army and when they reunite with their family. When they thought everything was back to normal bad things started to happen to them. Like deaths and having to move away, but somehow she managed to live.  Now she shares her story in the book Lost Childhood to tell people that they should never give up or lose hope. Read this book to learn about her rough childhood how it was good and then shifted to terrible.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Do you wake up everyday in fear? Do you, throughout the day, watch people get beat because they didn’t say a number right in Japanese? Lost Childhood: My Life in a Japanese Prison Camp During World War II by Annelex Hofstra Layson is a book about a girl that gets taken from her home —in world war 2¿, separated from her brother, and then stuck in a Japanese prison camp. In this book she has to adapt to survive and do what she is told or run the risk of being beaten. In the end the dutch army comes in and takes them out  sending them to the Netherlands.  Layson’s tough personality helps build the theme of never give up. I did not enjoy this book because I felt it was too fast- pace. I would recommend this to senior citizens.
swim4life More than 1 year ago
I read this book for a 5th grade book report and I loved it! It is a great story and I think that evrybody should get a chance to read it.