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An Indonesian Migration Story

This money box from the 1920s is one of the very few items my grandfather brought back with him when his family migrated back to the Netherlands from the Dutch East Indies after the Second World War. When someone takes it from the bookshelf where we keep it, we are often told stories about my family’s life in the Indies.

My great-grandfather Henry Bernardus Verwayen migrated as a young man to the Dutch East Indies (modern Indonesia) to find work. At the time, in the early 1930s, the economy in the Netherlands was very weak and the east was a place full of opportunities. He hitchhiked his way over there by working on ships doing odd jobs, and finally found a career in the Dutch East Indies army (Koninklijk Nederlands-Indisch leger). He met my great-grandmother on the island of Celebes and they had one child, born just before the Second World War broke out. That baby was my grandfather, also named Henry Verwayen. You can see all three of them on the photograph.

You can read what kind of life they had in my grandfather’s baby-book that was kept by his mother. The first year reads as any baby book, but then the war broke out in December 1941 and everything changed. My great-grandfather was taken to a prisoner of war camp and made to work on the Burma railroad. My grandfather and his mother went to a separate camp, all the time holding on to the few things they were allowed to bring, including the money box. Luckily, they all survived the war and migrated back to the Netherlands where they were reunited. We still eat Indonesian food regularly, and sometimes Indonesian words like ‘Kassian’ (which means ‘compassion’) are used in conversation. My grandparents have all passed away now, but the money box still reminds us of the experiences my family had when they lived in the east.