Literature and cinema are rife with accounts of World War II and the ensuing genocide of European Jews (and many others) through the Holocaust. Many of these works have great merit, but once in a while something comes along that provides a unique view on the horrors of that dark time. With All Ships Follow Me, Mieke Eerkens has written a unique and harrowing account of the era through the history of her parents, and while deeply moving and brilliantly written, the particular backdrops give the story’s flavor an air of ambiguity and controversy.
Eerkens’ parents are both Dutch but were raised under considerably different circumstances. Her father, Sjeffie (later Anglicized to Jeff), was born in Indonesia, the descendants of colonialists in the Dutch East Indies. Her mother, Else, was raised in the Netherlands in a more traditional Dutch environment. But World War II changed everything for both of them, and consequently, the world.
Eerkens has divided
All Ships Follow Me into three distinct sections: Father, Mother, and Coming Together, and while this meticulous symmetry seems to be in direct contrast to the horrors it describes, it’s a necessary structure for the telling of this important story. Present-day chapters describe Eerkens’ return visits with her parents to their respective homelands of Indonesia and the Netherlands, where the elderly Jeff and Else view their old haunts – some of them rebuilt, others somewhat abandoned – with a curious mix of emotion, sobriety, and expected (considering their ages) forgetfulness.
While both parents began life in somewhat idyllic circumstances, the war threw them both into very different tailspins. The Japanese set up internment camps in Indonesia for the Dutch and separated the children from their parents, subjecting them to a constant barrage of abuse and starvation. While Jeff persevered under the occupation, the end of the war gave way to a new horror, as it triggered the uprising of an Indonesian independence movement. After a period of unrest, the Dutch captives were eventually shipped back to the Netherlands.
What fractured Else’s family back in the Netherlands was completely different, yet equally horrific, especially for her and her siblings. Else’s father was a member of the country’s National Socialist Party (known as Nationaal-Socialistische Beweging in Nederland, or NSB). While hindsight is always 20/20 and to look at an NSB member with anything resembling sympathy may be understandably unseemly, Eerkens goes to great lengths to explain that her father was seduced by the more idealistic aspects of the party (and certainly didn’t sign up for the mass extermination of Jews):
“For a man like my grandfather who feels slighted and that his talents are overlooked in a hierarchal class system that values only commerce and not intellect, a proud man who thinks the existing system is run by idiots, the NSB’s message is irresistible. The movement preaches the country’s interests over group interests, and group interests over individual interests. The national socialists advocated for a strong leader who will make decisions that ostensibly benefit the whole country rather than the few, and for an economy focused on equal distribution of labor and wealth.”
Eerkens isn’t excusing her father’s actions, but rather trying to see it from the perspective of an intellectual disaffected by his country’s government.
The end of the war understandably generated enormous hatred and vitriol toward anyone affiliated with NSB, and while Eerken’s grandfather served a prison sentence, her grandmother, mother, aunts and uncles were shuffled around to what few people would take them in for brief periods of time. Loss of their property and possessions, frequent bouts of severe hunger, and a long period of persona non grata were part of everyday life for a family of civilians who — without the offending patriarch in the picture — had nothing to do with the atrocities that scarred the world.
Part Three of All Ships Follow Me is a time of rebuilding, with Jeff moving to California after being accepted to UC Berkeley to study nuclear engineering. (Eerkens notes that in a perverse way, the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, which freed Jeff from the internment camp, saved his life, and since then he always had a fascination for nuclear technology). During a brief return visit to the Netherlands he met Else. They were married, and created a new life in California, where Eerkens and her siblings were raised.
While their life as expatriates is a great deal less chaotic and horrific than what Jeff, Else, and their parents experienced during World War II, the Eerkens family deals with many aftereffects. Their fear of losing everything creates a hoarder mentality that extends to complex relationships with food and possessions. Still, they forge ahead. They have no choice.
The title All Ships Follow Me is a quote from Admiral Karel Doorman of the Dutch Navy, who said these words to his men as his ship headed out to meet its fate with the Japanese fleet during the Battle of the Java Sea. As Eerkens writes, “Doorman’s words… have gone down in Dutch history as some of the most noted because they represent persistence and unwavering bravery even in unwinnable circumstances.”
Eerkens’ book provides a unique look at a different aspect of World War II, and it’s a beautifully told story of an ambiguous situation. Can we truly feel sympathy for descendants of colonialists and Nazi collaborators? If we realize that the sins of the father are visited upon the children, the answer becomes much clearer.