“All Ships Follow Me: A Family Memoir of War Across Three Continents” by Mieke Eerkens

All Ships Follow Me: A Family Memoir of War Across Three Continents, Mieke Eerkens (Picador, April 2019) All Ships Follow Me: A Family Memoir of War Across Three Continents, Mieke Eerkens (Picador, April 2019)

Relatively little had been written about Indonesia during World War II and the conflict between the Dutch and Japanese in the Pacific. In her recent memoir, All Ships Follow Me, Mieke Eerkens starts with the complexity of her father’s upbringing in colonial Indonesia. The son of a Dutch family that had lived in what was then called the Dutch East Indies for three generations, Eerkens’ father spent his first ten years living a life of privilege in Java. 


In old black-and-white family films, my father rides around in a cart being pulled by a goat, his face lit up with laughter. A house staff member dressed in a white Nehru jacket leads the goat around the tropical garden. Later in the film, this man serves the children drinks from a tray.


War broke out and the Dutch royal family fled the Netherlands for exile in London. The Dutch in Indonesia listened to their radios at night, desperate for news from their home country, even though many of them, like the Eerkens, hadn’t spent much time there.


In the thick midafternoon drone of the tropics, with its motionless geckos pressed against the walls to keep their bodies cool, the pregnant hours of silence eat at one’s nerves.


After Japanese bombed  Southeast Asia on 7 December 1941, the Dutch in Indonesia really panicked.


In a matter of a few days, like many of their colonial neighbors, the family goes from a life of very little worry, with a nanny and a chef making sure they are clothed and fed each day, to being invaded by hostile forces.


By 9 March 1942, the Dutch East Indies fell to Japan.


From speaking with family and reading first-hand accounts of survivors, Eerkens derives a clear description of what happened next. The Japanese didn’t just replace the Dutch government officials; they executed them. The year 1942 became 2602 to correspond to the Japanese calendar. The Japanese took control of  the media, including newspapers and radio. The punishment for printing a flyer or larger publication in a language other than Japanese was death.

The paterfamilias, Eerkens’s grandfather, was a military doctor and was sent away from home, to a military base where he could prepare for the casualties of war.  After the rest of the family was moved to a prisoner of war camp in central Java, the Japanese sent out a notice that all males over the age of ten were to be moved to another camp. Eerkens’s father was twelve at the time and was separated from his mother and younger siblings.


The boys sleep on two-by-four kesilirs, thin mats on the floor. At night, bedbugs crawl over their bodies, the camp being completely infested with them, and many of the boys’ journals describe the stench of the bedbugs that hangs perpetually in the air. The welts pepper their skin. But the boys’ bodies are exhausted, and eventually, despite the biting bugs, they sleep the sleep of the fatigued, having come home from a day in the patjol field to one cup of rice or half of a three-inch square of rubbery tapioca.


It got worse. Anyone spotted with enemy propaganda—books, radios, pamphlets—would be lashed with a whip or worse. The young boys suffered heartbreaking abuse in the camps from both the Japanese guards and adult Dutch men. Eerkens’s father learned to fend for himself and through his father’s connections got a job in an infirmary, instead of working in the fields under the intense heat of the sun. He didn’t see his parents for these years and that experience of not knowing when and if he would ever see his family again would stay with him for the rest of his life.


At the end of the war, Eerkens’s father and his family switched from being the enemy of the Japanese to the enemy of the Indonesia independence forces. The Japanese stayed at the request of the Allied troops because there weren’t enough of the latter to protect the Dutch in Indonesia and, ironically, the Japanese guards suddenly turned into protectors of the Dutch colonials. The Indonesians didn’t want the Dutch to take back Indonesia and fought for their independence. Eerkens’s father expressed amazing how some of the guards could be so sadistic one moment and faithful bodyguards the next.

The family sailed back to the Netherlands, a place where they hadn’t lived in generations. Seven decades later, Eerkens accompanied her father on his first trip back to Indonesia since the end of the war. It was a difficult trip for her father, returning to what was once his homeland, even though he had been in the United States for more than fifty years by then. And for Eerkens herself, having grown up in Los Angeles, far from the colonial setting of her father, it was also a bittersweet visit.


I imagine it as it once must have been, upscale and filled with people eating at teak tables, a chandelier overhead perhaps, a piano in the corner, then almost immediately I feel ashamed of my romanticization of the colonial era… I feel the anxiety of representing the face of hundreds of years of colonial ancestors to an entire population of Indonesians. I don’t know how to negotiate this history that was never my choice, never my father’s choice as someone born into it.


It was even more difficult for Eerkens to come to terms with the fact that  her maternal grandfather was a Nazi sympathizer and member of the Nationaal Socialistische Beweging, or NSB.

As it turns out, children of NSB members were ostracized and persecuted in the Netherlands at the conclusion of the war—and for many decades after. Eerkens’s mother was all but orphaned when her parents were arrested after the war and taken away. Family members and friends with family members in the resistance were ashamed to house the children. Eerkens’s mother and some of her siblings were sent to a children’s home. They assumed their own mother had died.

Even after 100,000 NSB members and their spouses were released, they were stripped of their voting rights and often couldn’t find jobs. Eerkens’s paternal grandfather moved to Amsterdam because he was one of the lucky ones to find a job far from his hometown. The family stayed back in a small town that had been hospitable to Eerkens’s maternal grandmother and her children after her release from custody.

Although it was difficult to empathize with  a Nazi sympathizer—no matter how many Jewish families Eerkens’s maternal grandfather could have turned in and didn’t—Eerkens is nonetheless compelling when she writes of the ways innocent children and grandchildren have suffered because of their families’ membership in the NSB. Eerkens’s was, she writes, a socialist at heart and thought the NSB would best serve his ideology, even after the party affiliated itself with the fascist Nazis.


I discover that I have more questions than answers now, and must be content with the idea that the true character of my grandfather lies somewhere between idealist and monster.


The book concludes in the US. Her parents were never able to give their children a sense of home: even in Los Angeles, her parents hoarded as if they were waiting for the next war to arrive, nor did they buy furniture that matched or give their home a sense of permanence.

This can be read as a case of the sins of the fathers being visited on future generations, but Eerkens herself was in many ways fortunate. She concludes


This is why it matters that we lay bare the whole complicated, conflicted snarl of the past, examine our preconceptions, and try to do better. My family is just one family with transgenerational trauma. There are millions. It’s time to talk.


Susan Blumberg-Kason is the author of Good Chinese Wife: A Love Affair with China Gone Wrong.