Makassar from The M.S. De Tegelberg
by Thea Droog
Mientje heard the grown-ups talking softly as they sat on the terrace.
She listened and recognized the deep voice of her father, the gentle but perfectly clear words that Aunt Laurien said. She narrowed her eyes a bit at the short, scornful laugh of Uncle Hoogeveen.
She couldn’t fall asleep. Tomorrow they had to embark but nothing had been packed yet. Hadn’t anyone thought about that? They didn’t have suitcases of course, but they didn’t even have large bags. Mien brooded for days over this, but when she asked one of the adults, she received no direct answer. Then dad said somewhat annoyed: “That’ll be all right, girl. You go play,” Aunt Laurien stroked her head.” Don’t worry, Mientje” And mum didn’t seem to pay much attention to her since dad had come back from Singapore.
“Dad and I will take care of that, you only have to play.”
Play! Here in Makassar you had to play, even if you did not know how.
In Kampili, the concentration camp where she had lived for three years, it was better not to play. The Japs were everywhere and could, at any moment, shout an order that you didn’t understand. You could not run away, and you were struck if you disobeyed. Therefore, she had always acted outside the barracks as if she was doing something she was told to do. It couldn’t look like play or doing nothing.
Usually she was inside somewhere. Early in the morning she was sometimes taught by a nun in the wooden school building, but each day at 11 AM, the mica splitting began: fairly light work to be done by the girls under fourteen. The thin slices of mica, which fell apart, were used for the Japanese war effort. Mientje had, like the other children, learned what that difficult word meant so they all worked as slowly and as awkwardly as possible.
Then she had to watch her three-year-old brother Johnny until mum had finished work. She was mum’s confidant, like her brother Ap: they could keep secrets and ensure that things were in order and that Johnny got his plate of food at the distribution and was not pushed aside. Also, she had to be careful that the boy did not attract attention and therefore, perhaps provoke the Japs’ anger.
She still especially watched out, now the Japs had lost and they were released from the camp. Now she lived in a real house in Makassar and they had a whole room for the four of them. The Hoogeveens lived in another room with their two children and Aunt Laurien slept in the dining room. Manja and Peter Hoogeveen and Ap and Mientje had rummaged through the garden and outbuildings thoroughly for hiding places. Who knows where they might still need them, because the Japanese still walked occasionally through the city.
There was something else that Mien had to look out for: more and more men came to live at her house. She was not used to men. Would they be the boss, just like the Japs? Every man asked the children: “And? Do you still remember me? “But Mien didn’t recognize any of them. Uncle Hoogeveen was the first to come back to town from his men’s camp. He had found this house, and he had collected them from the Kampili women’s camp, so he had lived there before and the women and children had joined him. Then came Aunt Laurien’s husband. Then suddenly one afternoon, papa appeared. (Come home, mum said). A long and wide, thin man with black hair, who was somewhat familiar, but who still looked like a stranger.
“That’s my Mientje” – his voice was so loud. He placed his arm around Mientje. She understood that she had to remain standing – Mom smiled so happily towards her – but she was frozen with fear because she was trapped and could not escape if necessary. Imagine if a Jap suddenly came inside! She could not even stand up in that embrace. She could not run away to protect Johnny, nothing. After that she stayed a safe distance from dad, so he could not hold her tightly again.
Her father! Mien didn’t really know him anymore. In the camp they had often and eagerly talked about the time he would be with them again, in their own house in Makassar. And now he was there. They lived in another house, where they only had one room, but they were together again. Mien sometimes looked with wonder at mum as she put an arm around dad’s neck and kissed him. Mum was very happy that he was there. She did not mind, as he held her, that she could not get away. But Mien’s heart was anxious when dad came closer, he wanted to play the boss, like the Japanese always did—and she did not quite know what tricks she could use to evade his orders. And mum just laughed when Mien wanted to discuss her problems with her.
Now the adults had decided that they were going to leave for Holland. Everyone in the house had been able to book passage aboard the MS De Tegelberg, which awaited them in Batavia. And tomorrow they would all leave on a smaller ship that would take them from Makassar to Java.
They came out of the camp with nothing, because in the last fire the last of their belongings had gone up in smoke. Mien knew very well that the mattresses and mosquito nets, on and under which they slept, were new and could only be rolled up in the morning.
But what about the pans that they had bought and Johnny’s new clothes? The stuff they found in the ashes and that they were never supposed to lose: the brass table bell whose clapper was tied up with string, and the bag of six clay marbles, the beaded blocks she had found later in four different colors? The shrapnel which Ap had brought; the feather-decorated, little slipper that you could hang up and that mum had received for her last birthday in the camp from Aunt Laurien, and that had survived everything?
And then there was the sewing box that the sweet Australian soldier had made for her. Australian soldiers had opened the camps, so everyone was very kind to them. They were welcome in every house and Mientje was not afraid of their uniforms.
Mien turned and turned in the warm bed. She heard Aunt Laurien say, “We’d better pack up and go to bed. Tomorrow morning we have to be at the dock at nine o’clock.” Mum added: “We’re taking back a lot less to Holland then when we arrived! I think it won’t take us more than ten minutes to pack. But we’ll go to bed one last night listening to the frogs in the slokan. ”
The frogs croaked deeply, sonorously and rhythmically. Weren’t there any frogs in Holland to listen to, so that you had listen to these closely again one more time? And how was mum going to pack everything in ten minutes?
Still, she was reassured. If they got up at six o’clock, as usual, maybe there would still be enough time for packing. She went over in her mind, once again, what still needed to go with them and then felt sleep come over her in slow waves.
Translated by Bryan R. Monte