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October 7, 2010

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Finding lost victims of the Nazi era

THE opening of an immense World War II archive yields the minutae of mass persecution. Last month 14 Dutch families received personal effects of their loved ones, victims of the Nazi era. Arthur Max reports.

As a child, Frank Seiffers did not have a fond impression of his older cousin, Cornelis Brouwenstijn. He says he thought of the young man as something of a scoundrel.

Even after Brouwenstijn was arrested in World War II, disappeared into a German labor camp and died in the closing days of the conflict, Seiffers says he didn't give him much thought.

Then, earlier this year, he received a call saying that Brouwenstijn's personal effects were among the records of Nazi-era victims. Would he like to have them?

Seiffers found himself strangely moved when a Red Cross official opened a manila envelope and extracted a battered wallet, a small stack of family snapshots and a Dutch ID booklet for Cornelis Marinus Brouwenstijn.

One by one, 13 other families also received the effects of long-lost relatives after a brief ceremony on September 22 at Amersfoort, a transit camp in eastern Netherlands through which 40,000 people, many of them Jews condemned to extermination, were dispatched to concentration camps in Germany or Poland.

Those 14 families are among the beneficiaries of a renewed effort, spurred by the opening of the archive after decades of secrecy, to fill in the many personal, individual blanks still left in the murderous record of the Nazi era 65 years after it ended.

"That's my face when I was young," Seiffers said after the ceremony, looking at the photograph in Brouwenstijn's ID booklet. There seemed little resemblance between the 73-year-old former civil servant and his square-jawed cousin, who was 22 when he died, yet it still astonished him.

"After 65 years - wow!" he exclaimed.

Dutch researchers discovered Seiffers through a 2006 report on the 3,500 parcels of belongings that remained unclaimed for more than half a century in the archive in a former Gestapo base in the German town of Bad Arolsen.

The packages are among some 50 million documents - concentration camp registrations, transport lists, medical records and other minutiae of mass persecution. In 1955 the archive was put under the administration of the International Tracing Service, an arm of the Geneva-based International Committee of the Red Cross.

Over the years, ITS personnel used the records, containing information on 17.5 million people killed, missing, interned or displaced by the war, to act on requests for information from victims' relatives about missing persons or from survivors seeking documentation to support reparations claims.

Responding to a campaign of many years, the 11 nations governing the archive ordered the files opened to victims' relatives and researchers in 2007.

Katrin Flor, communications director for the tracing service, says the unsealing of the archive was the key to finding many more relatives than its staff could ever locate on its own. It allowed people with local knowledge, language and contacts to join the hunt.

Groups from the Netherlands, Poland and France began contacting the archive, initiating their own searches in the vast warehouse of steel-gray cabinets and cardboard binders.

One group that has already reaped results is the October '44 Foundation, created in 1982 in the Dutch town of Putten to uncover the fate of 660 male townspeople arrested after a resistance attack on a German military vehicle. Most were sent to the forced labor camp at Neuengamme, in northern Germany.

Gert van Dompseler of the foundation gathered 90 Dutch names from a list of camp inmates whose effects were in the archive and has traced the families of more than 60 of them

"If we don't do this, no one will," he says of the time-consuming search. Three brothers of van Dompseler's grandfather perished in the war.

Van Dompseler and his friend, Pieter Dekker, worked mainly through the telephone book, calling everyone with the family name of the person sought. Early this year they enlisted Internet-savvy Kitty Brom, who scoured city archives and cemetery records.

It was she who found Seiffers after reading the reconstruction, fleshed out by studying Dutch records, of his cousin's life.

It's said that Brouwenstijn's mother, Maria Johana Seiffers, had two children before she divorced her first husband, Cornelis Marinus Wimps, and married Gerard's Brouwenstijn in 1937. Her son Cornelis, whom she called Nell's, took his stepfather's name.

Records show that Nell's went to a school for troubled or slow youngsters. Seiffers says he frequently got into trouble.

Brouwenstijn was arrested on May 2, 1944, for hiding a radio in a suitcase, Seiffers says. Radios were outlawed because they could pick up broadcasts by the Dutch government-in-exile. He was jailed for six weeks in Amsterdam, then sent to Camp Amersfoort. On September 8, 1944, he was put on a train for Germany.

His family never heard from him again.

After the war, his parents repeatedly asked the Dutch Red Cross for information. In May 1949 they received a terse reply that their son had died between April 19 and May 3, 1945, near Neuengamme, the labor camp to which the detainees from Putten also were sent.

The circumstances of his death were unconfirmed, but he probably was among the inmates evacuated from the camp as British troops were advancing. The camp commander gave the order that nothing was to be left when the British arrived. Documents were burned, and prisoners evacuated.

SS guards marched them to Lubbock on the Baltic coast and put some 8,000 inmates onto two ships, the Cap Arcane and the Thielbeck. On May 3, a British air force squadron, whose pilots knew nothing about the ships' human cargo, bombed and sank them.

Seiffers said he once asked his mother, Brouwenstijn's aunt, what happened to him. "She told me he was on a ship that sank."

In the courtyard of what is now a Dutch army camp and a World War II memorial, he thumbed through the photographs he had just been given. Although he could not identify anyone for sure, he said he was surprised at his reaction.

"It does more for me than I thought it would," he says.


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