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On the Unknown Grandfather’s Track

Nahannee-Fé Gillet from Canada went on a journey exploring her roots in summer 2012. Her grandfather Gerrit Schuitemaker, Dutch by birth, had been persecuted by the Nazis for his alleged “refusal to work” and died in Concentration Camp Neuengamme. Late in July 2012, she met Dr Susanne Urban, Head of the Research and Education Department at the International Tracing Service (ITS), and Dr Reimer Möller, Archivist at the Neuengamme Memorial, who provided her with more information on her grandfather’s fate. “I am willing to find all parts now to piece together the jigsaw puzzle of his life, because he is part of my family and my heritage.”  

Gillet’s grandfather was arrested on 29th August 1944 and interned at Dutch Police Transit Camp Amersfoort. At the time, Gerrit had been living in Haarlemmermeer together with his pregnant wife Anna and their two children. A few days later he was deported to Concentration Camp Neuengamme. “In which unit of the camp he was kept prisoner and in which labour commando he had to work are questions we cannot solve any more because we lack the documents allowing us to”, so Möller. “One thing is sure, though: on 14th February 1945 Gerrit died of “chronic enterocolitis”, a cynical Nazi euphemism for “long-term malnutrition“.”  

Möller and Urban gave guidance to the 24-year-old on her round of the exhibitions and the Memorial’s site. Möller related and explained to her the history of Concentration Camp Neuengamme describing the single stages a prisoner had to undergo, the camp’s apparatus of bureaucracy, the slave labour its inmates were subjected to at the brickworks and in other commandos. The last visit stop of the three was the crematorium, the stele where people’s ashes were unloaded and the room of memory where pieces of cloth commemorate the victims.  “As soon as I had left my Canadian home I became aware that I was coming closer and closer to that place. This morning I started shivering, and it took me a great will power to pass the gate, the former entrance to the concentration camp”, Gillet puts her feelings into words. “Every brick and every building here is so replete with history that you can feel it virtually underneath your feet walking on the ground of the site.”  

It was not until her father fell severely ill that she learned the true story of her grandfather’s life. “I came to understand only then why my father used to retreat into himself on my birthday”, relates Gillet. “He did so because my birthday was my grandfather’s death day.” A meeting with Urban at a conference in Vancouver in March 2011 encouraged her to go on her journey to Germany this year. After telling her about her grandfather’s fate, the Canadian spontaneously was sent documents from the ITS archives. “I needed some time to take in the “news”. My grandfather had always seemed so far away from me. Though a part of my family, he had been a somewhat shadowy figure over many years only.”

The Canadian carries with her a special family situation in so far as her mother belongs to the Mohawk tribe, one of the First Nations in Canada. The Canadian Government’s political attitude to these ancient and initial inhabitants of the country manifested itself in a brutal suppression of their culture and way of life. “I am facing two historical burdens I will and have to bear“, resumes Gillet. “I wholly identify myself with my indigenous background and heritage. That is to say that I belong to those who had been brutally colonised – the country my father came from, the Netherlands, being a colonial power here. And my grandfather in his time had refused to involve himself in the doings of the German occupiers and paid the highest price for his doing so.”