One of the benefits of working at the EAC is having the opportunity to delve into the diverse materials this organisation is preserving. Items like letters, photos, circulars, invoices and memoirs: each of these documents tells a unique story of individuals who, because of varying circumstances and choices, spent a portion of their life abroad. Reading about their adventures, struggles, successes and setbacks can serve as a reminder of both the potential and the pitfalls of living a global life. Some cases may even go a step further. They can lead one to reconsider broader philosophical questions, like the role of ‘coincidence’ in life.
An example of such a ‘hidden treasure’ within the EAC is the story of a Dutch sailor stationed in Southeast Asia during the 1930s and 1940s. Having worked previously in Singapore, he was staying in Dutch East Indies when the Second World War in the Pacific erupted. When the Dutch colony was occupied by the Japanese in March 1942, he was captured and sent an internment camp in Cimahi. He would spent his remaining years there, until he succumbed to a disease, eight months before the end of the war.
The reason why we know so much about his case is because of his wife, who stayed in The Netherlands. Being separated from her husband during the entire course of the war, she started a search to find out what exactly happened to her husband during the war. To this end, she wrote letters to his fellow detainees, the camp’s pastor and his company, all of which in turn sent replies. This correspondence is currently preserved in the EAC. Reading these letters not only sheds some light on the experiences of Dutch prisoner in Japanese internment camps during the Second World War, but also on the seemingly random series of events and choices which led to this individual’s fate.
This is because, as it turned out, when the hostilities in the Pacific began, he returned to Singapore first, in order to wait for a reassignment to a ship. Coincidentally, his post became available on the same day that the Dutch consul issued an order for all Dutch nationals to evacuate to Java with a governmental vessel. This is because after that date, they could no longer take responsibility for further evacuations. Having befriended other Dutchmen in Singapore, he decided to take the second option, evacuating to Java together with them. This was the first step in the series of events which would eventually bring him to Cimahi, with his death as the sad conclusion of this tale.
Whether he would have feared better had he taken the other option is doubtful at best and unanswerable anyway. However, his story does stimulate to think about the individuals place within the larger structures. Although he had little control over the events of the war unfolding around him, his own choices nevertheless played a large role in determining the course of his life during the war. For most expats this is largely the same. Both factors beyond their control (sometimes even mere coincidence) and their own choices ultimately work together to write the unique tales of each their lives. Having the opportunity to read interesting stories like these, which may even lead to deeper insights, is what makes working at the EAC truly worthwhile.
Written by: Jasper (Intern at the EAC from May to October 2017)