A Family Memoir of War Across Three Continents

by Mieke Eerkens

Internment Camp Lampersari, Semarang, Dutch East Indies, December 28, 1942

Authority in Lampersari is established immediately. As they enter the camp, some women are pulled from the line and their suitcases opened to be searched for contraband: money, Dutch or English printed material, radios, and more. Sjeffie, now eleven years old, watches wide-eyed as the Japanese officers hit mothers with their batons to make them move when they get off the trucks. They shout orders in a language none of the prisoners understand, and when these orders aren’t followed, the flat ends of their sabers come down hard on whomever they happen to reach, sometimes splitting flesh and drawing blood. It’s a new violence for most of these children, and a cacophony of cries adds to the chaos. Luckily, Sjeffie’s  mother is  toward the back of the group of arriving prisoners and escapes injury, though  later in the year she  will not be so lucky, and her children will have to watch her being beaten to the ground  because she  doesn’t notice an officer approaching and therefore fails to bow to him in time.

Sjeffie and his mother and little sisters and brother are assigned to a small house on the Hoofd Manggaweg, the Main Mango Road.  There are already three families living in the two- bedroom house when they arrive, and they shrink themselves into the corners, hanging a sheet up for privacy. Soon more  women and  children arrive, truckload  after truckload, and Sjeffie and his  family contract their spaces repeatedly, compressing more tightly with each new  family  until  there are thirty  people living in the  house, crammed into  every square inch.  Children sleep in drawers, on and under tables, piled in sweaty heaps in the tropical heat. Snoring bodies lie shoulder to shoulder on mats on the floor. One toilet without running water serves all thirty of them in the house, and it soon overflows with human waste. They try to fend off malaria by hanging up klamboes over their sleeping bodies, a necessity in the Indonesian tropics, so that the house at night fills with ethereal clouds of hazy mosquito netting from wall to wall. My grandmother keeps a secret diary in the camp, penciled onto onionskin paper hidden in the pages of her Bible. She addresses her entries to my grandfather throughout her internment:

I am sleeping with the boys in what was once a kitchen . . . On February 2 the first group arrived [of the 2,000 new internees] . . .  860 people.  Until this point, they had been housed in nice, large homes where they had taken care of themselves.  There was a lot of hustling and the empty places streamed full…Tomorrow we’ll get another 250 from Soerabaya.

Photograph of Mieke Eerkens’s father’s family in the Dutch East Indies. Image courtesy of the author.

Almost immediately after they arrive in Lampersari, Aunt Ko begins covertly teaching Sjeffie, his siblings, and other boys and girls in the camp from contraband Dutch language textbooks she has smuggled in.  Every day, she sets up a little schoolroom in the tiny kampong house while the others clear out and stand watch in case an officer passes and hears them. Sjeffie gets to practice his numbers again. He gets to read, sucking up the words, reading the same books again and again. In one of the houses across the road, he and some other boys have set up a little hidden library under the thatched roof, where they collect their books— Jules Verne’s Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, Hector Malot’s Nobody’s Boy, Cervantes’s Don Quixote, and other books with wide appeal to young boys. Most of the children or their parents have brought pencils and notepads, but very quickly they realize how scarce these things are. “Sjeffie, make sure you write small. Save room on your paper,” Aunt Ko says sternly during class. Aunt Ko is very strict. She’s a religious woman who does not approve of waste or idleness. Sometimes she draws on the dirt floor with a stick so she doesn’t have to waste paper or pencil.

Meals during the first month in the camp are meager but sufficient. The prisoners get small portions, mostly of rice but also of some vegetables and meat in the beginning. The meat lasts only a short time. The vegetables last longer, but they too dwindle after several months.  After that, all meals consist of a cup of rice or tapioca porridge twice a day, sometimes once a day. Sjeffie lines up with his mother and siblings with all the other prisoners, holding their tin cups. When they get to the front of the line, their cups are filled from giant pots that the kitchen workers have cooked the rice or porridge in. One mea sured portion per person. Being assigned to work in the kitchen is a coveted job because there are chances to tuck food under one’s shirt, swipe a finger inside the rim of the pot when the officers look away, or sneak a second helping.

Lampersari is one of the first camps in Indonesia to be targeted for the infamous “comfort women,” the women specifically selected to be raped by the Japanese officers. A recruiter is sent to Lampersari for this task. However, the women hear the rumor about what is about to happen and gather en masse to fight back. They block access and fight fiercely to protect the young mothers and teenage daughters whom the Japanese officers prey upon, forcing the Japanese to abandon Lampersari as a suitable source for comfort women, not worth the trouble after repeated violent beatings only seem to strengthen the prisoners’ resolve to fight back. The Japanese have set up two hundred internment camps throughout the Dutch East Indies, and prisoners at the smaller camps are easier to overpower.

The officers who guard them inside the camp quickly get Dutch nicknames. The officers include John the Whacker; Little Ko; Hockey Stick; Pretty Karl; the Bloodhound; the Easter Egg; Bucket Man; Chubby Baby; and Dick and Jane, who patrol together. Seikon Kimura, the man known as John the Whacker, is arguably the most sadistic. He earns his nickname for the way he seems to enjoy striking internees indiscriminately, without warning. When he discovers that a woman in the camp has been hiding money, he confiscates it and punches her in the face. He kicks her in the back until she is unable to stand while her children scream. He has her carried to the center of the camp, where he makes her lay injured in the equatorial sun from morning until evening without water. After the war, the Allied war crimes tribunal will sentence him to death for his human rights violations during the war. He is convicted of “carry ing out a systematic reign of terror,” with witnesses at his trial describing his beating of a woman with a piece of wood until her arms broke in several places for sitting down during her work, causing a woman to go permanently deaf after being beaten for thirty minutes for smuggling cigarettes, forcing prisoners to stand in stress positions, withholding water and food, and whipping children until their flesh was in tatters, among other atrocities. Hockey Stick earns his name from the wooden hockey stick he carries with him throughout the camp and uses to take the legs out from under a prisoner. Then he makes them stand up so he can do it again, over and over, laughing every time. The Bloodhound is more selective, but he is capable of beating people into a coma when he does lose his temper.

In September 1944, the Japanese officers announce that the boys on the hill  will be transferred out of Lampersari and tell the  mothers to say goodbye to their sons,  those scab- kneed, lizard- catching  children now considered mature enough to do hard  labor in a separate camp. The phrase the Japanese use is “men over ten.” As in, “All of the men over ten are hereby reassigned to new camps.” And so with a change of one word, with a relabeling, they justify the transfer.

The women clutch at their sons and weep. They whisper words into their ears as they hug them goodbye, hasty insufficient summaries of all the things that they would have taught them in the remaining years of childhoods that now have to be condensed into a few minutes. Sjeffie’s mother tries to remember things to tell him. Wash whenever you can, check for lice and ticks, find a buddy and work as a team, don’t fight, keep practicing your equations, whatever you do just  don’t do anything to anger the officers, that’s very important, OK, you have to promise me, can you promise me that? Aunt Ko says, “Say your prayers every day.” Sjeffie’s little sister Doortje hugs him and gives him some coffee. Fien, his youngest sister, hugs his legs, and my father kisses the top of his baby brother Kees’s head. Through the agitated buzz of the Dutch mothers, camp officers shout angry words in Japanese, words like iikagennishiro and teiryuu and shuutai and hikihanasu, words that tumble into one another and mean nothing to the women until the guards start whacking them with their batons and whips, pulling son from mother and mother from son like starfish from wet rock. Then the boys are marched out of Camp Lampersari as their mothers wail and their younger siblings watch wide- eyed. The cries of Mammie, Mammie rise repeatedly from their midst as they pass through the camp gates, heads swiveling for their last looks back. The newly branded “men” march with their little suitcases banging against their knobby knees for what Sjeffie believes is many hours, along the banana trees and the warungs and the kopi carts. A rumor spreads in low tones through the group as they walk. “I heard they’re taking us to Bangkok.” “Yep, they definitely said they’re taking us to Bangkok. I heard the Jap say it.” “Psst, hey, word is we’re going to Bangkok.” “Bangkok! That’s not even in the Indies! I won’t ever see my family again!” “Well, that’s where we’re going. Bangkok.”

Within what is in all likelihood less than one hour, they arrive at the front g ate of a convent, and the officers leading them stop. This is Camp Bangkong, their new home.

Excerpted from All Ships Follow Me: A Family Memoir of War Across Three Continents. Copyright © 2019 by Mieke Eerkens. Published by Picador USA. All rights reserved.

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