An envelope in a vast Holocaust archive starts the paper trail of a lost life

Researchers hope to find clues to help them better understand the machinery of Nazi persecution.

nazi archive 298 88 (photo credit: AP)
nazi archive 298 88
(photo credit: AP)
The path to uncovering the life and death of Cornelis Marinus Brouwenstijn begins with a plain manila envelope containing a purse, an ID booklet, a cracked leather wallet, a slew of family snapshots, and a typewritten risque joke about women in the army. Plucked from a metal cabinet in a warehouse of death lists, concentration camp registrations, transport lists and forced labor rolls, it is a first step in piecing together the upbringing and final movements of an ordinary Dutchman who, at age 22, became one of the millions consumed by the Nazi inferno. Brouwenstijn is one of 17.5 million people on file at the International Tracing Service (ITS), an archive sprawling over 26 kilometers (16 miles) of shelf space at a former Gestapo barracks in the central German town of Bad Arolsen. Closed to the public for 50 years, it contains the most complete collection of Nazi records in existence on their web of concentration and labor camps. Since the International Committee of the Red Cross took responsibility in 1955, the ITS' files have been used exclusively to find missing persons and to document reparations claims. ITS is now committed to opening them, and when it does, researchers hope to find clues to help them better understand the machinery of Nazi persecution. The records also have the potential to help reconstruct a life of victims such as Brouwenstijn, who vanished into a Nazi labor camp and has no known family still alive to safeguard his memory. The photograph in Brouwenstijn's Dutch ID booklet shows a young man with neatly trimmed blond hair, a firm jaw line and a bullish neck, looking pensively away from the camera. That he was arrested for possessing a radio and transported to a labor camp in Germany is clear. It's probable that he died in the final days of World War II when a ship commandeered by the SS to evacuate prisoners was attacked and sunk. Also in the packet is a typewritten sheet, folded inside the wallet, called "The 11 Commandments for the Conscripted Woman," a naughty word play in Dutch about the mixing of the sexes in the military. And there are about 30 ruffle-edged photos: children posing in ties and knickerbockers, group portraits of several generations, a stern-looking middle-aged woman holding a baby, a christening, a pair of smiling preteen girls who could be sisters. There is no knowing whether Brouwenstijn is among them, or how they are related. In keeping with its oath to protect the privacy of victims, ITS refused to release anything from Brouwenstijn's file besides the envelope. However, following a decision last May by its 11-nation governing body, ITS is committed to giving greater access to survivors, victims' relatives and historians - though it may be a year or more before that happens. But meanwhile, records obtained by The Associated Press from the Amsterdam Genealogical Archives and the Dutch Red Cross in The Hague add flesh to the bare bones in the ITS file. They show that Brouwenstijn came from a broken home. At a time when divorce and mixed marriages were frowned upon, his Protestant mother, Maria Johana Seiffers, had divorced her first husband, Cornelis Marinus Wimmers, and had remarried, to a Roman Catholic named Gerardus Brouwenstijn, in 1937. She was 40 at the time. Cornelis took his adoptive father's family name, while his younger brother kept the name Wimmers. He died childless in 1975. They were simple people, living in a blue-collar section of Amsterdam. Gerardus was a street cleaner. Cornelis worked as an assistant in a bicycle repair shop and attended a special school for slow learners. His mother's letters are marked by spelling errors and plain language. Holland had gone through hard times in the 1930s, and unemployment was high. After the German army rolled in unopposed in May 1940, the occupation created an economic revival and won some sympathizers. About 20,000 Dutch enlisted in the elite German Waffen SS, while thousands more joined "Landstorm," an SS-type Dutch paramilitary unit. The Aryan-looking Dutch felt relatively safe from Hitler's race discrimination laws, and people mostly looked away when the occupiers committed outrages against other Dutchmen. "I don't think there was ever a government so successful in creating new jobs," said Johannes Houwink ten Cate, a professor of Holocaust and genocide studies at the University of Amsterdam. "The first years of occupation were relatively rosy." Later a resistance movement arose which at its height numbered 50,000 fighters, compared with 150,000 who actively collaborated with the occupation, Houwink ten Cate said. As the tide of war began to turn in 1943, the occupation grew harsher. Arrests of Jews intensified. Most went without a struggle, unaware they were destined to die in gas chambers or by hard labor. About 25,000 Jews went into hiding, but 8,000 of them were turned in - many for cash bounties by their fellow Dutchmen. Among the 6 million killed in the Holocaust were 107,000 of Holland's 140,000 Jews. Meanwhile, Dutchmen aged 16-24 received call-up notices to work in Germany, filling jobs vacated by German men at the battlefront. Tens of thousands evaded the labor draft, but there was no bounty on their heads, said Houwink ten Cate. Brouwenstijn may have been one of those who refused to go. He was still in Holland on May 2, 1944, when he was arrested for possessing a radio _ outlawed because it could pick up broadcasts by the Dutch government-in-exile. He was jailed for six weeks, then sent to Camp Amersfoort in the eastern Netherlands where low-level members of the resistance often were taken. On Sept. 8, 1944, he was put on a train for Germany. He had turned 22 the previous month. His family never heard from him again. After the war, his mother wrote repeatedly to the Dutch Red Cross for information. "Dear Sir: Because I haven't heard from you, I am writing this post card to see if you have heard anything about my son, Cornelis Marinus Brouwenstijn, born 23 Aug. 1922, in Amsterdam. I hope that you can soon send me a message. Thank you in advance," wrote his mother in 1948, filling both sides of the tiny postcard that remains today in the Red Cross archive in The Hague. In May 1949 a form letter came from the Red Cross. "We regret to inform you ...," it began, informing the parents that their son had died between April 19 and May 3, 1945, near Neuengamme, a labor camp in northern Germany. The circumstances of his death were unconfirmed, but the likely sequence of events seems to be this: British troops were advancing on Neuengamme. Hitler had committed suicide a few days earlier, and SS chief Heinrich Himmler had given orders not to surrender the camps with their prisoners. SS guards put some 8,000 inmates onto two ships, the Cap Arcona and the Thielbeck. On May 3, a British air force squadron, knowing nothing about the ships' human cargo, bombed and sank them. Though his body was never found, the Dutch national War Graves Institute in The Hague lists Brouwenstijn as "buried at sea."