AMERSFOORT, Netherlands — 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
Sept. 22 at Amersfoort, a transit camp in the eastern Netherlands
through which 40,000 people, many of them Jews condemned to
extermination — were dispatched to concentration camps in Germany or
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.
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
"After 65 years — wow!" he exclaimed.
researchers discovered Seiffers through a 2006 Associated Press 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, transportation 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
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.
communications director for the tracing service, said 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
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
"If we don't do this, no one will," he said 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
It was she who found Seiffers after reading the AP's
reconstruction, fleshed out by studying Dutch records, of his cousin's
The AP found 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 said he frequently got into trouble.
was arrested May 2, 1944, for hiding a radio in a suitcase, Seiffers
said. 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 Sept. 8, 1944, he was put on a train
His family never heard from him again.
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.
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.
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."
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 said.