“For my mother”
His family only had a single photo of Prosper de Rijcke, who died on November 30, 1944, in a satellite camp of the Neuengamme concentration camp. But now they also have a pocket watch – a personal effect that had been taken from the Belgian man when he was arrested a few months before his death. “It’s unbelievable, after all these years,” said his granddaughter Christine Rijckaert. She and her husband, Albert Heyrman, were given the watch on September 27, 2016, at the International Tracing Service (ITS) in Bad Arolsen.
In the early 1960s, the envelope containing the watch was sent from the Office for Restitution in Stadthagen to the ITS archive along with numerous other personal belongings of former concentration camp prisoners. Thanks to the ITS online archive, with the names of persecutees and photos of the personal belongings, it has now been possible to track down the family. “We simply couldn’t believe it when we got the phone call about the pocket watch," De Rijcke's granddaughter said.
According to the story told in the family, Prosper De Rijcke was celebrating at an inn in the Belgian town of De Klinge in July 1944. He is said to have put on a German uniform jacket at some point during the evening and forgotten to take it off again. As he made his way home, still wearing the jacket, he was arrested. “My mother was nine years old at the time," Christine Rijckaert explained. “She had gone cycling with him every Sunday. And Prosper always checked his pocket watch regularly to make sure they didn't get home too late."
The documents in the ITS archive show that De Rijcke was sent to the Herzogenbusch-Vught concentration camp on July 8,1944, and then deported from there to Sachsenhausen. After being transferred to the Neuengamme concentration camp in October 1944, he was moved to the Wilhelmshaven satellite camp, where he died just one month later at the age of 36. The prisoners in that satellite camp were forced to perform heavy labor in the navy shipyard for twelve hours a day, and the death rate was high.
Christine Rijckaert said the family spent many years searching for their murdered relative. “My grandmother never found out what happened to him. She couldn’t remarry and also didn't receive a widow's pension because he couldn’t officially be declared dead.” Rijckaert’s mother therefore had to start working and contribute to the family income at the age of just twelve. Christine Rijckaert views the returned pocket watch as a sign from her recently deceased mother. “She was so attached to her father. I’m positive that this has happened for her.”
The family has already determined who will take over the memento in the coming generations. “We’ll keep the pocket watch safe,” Rijckaert said. “We even have a watchmaker in the family. But I don’t think we’ll repair it. It’s a tribute to the people who never returned.”
Online personal effects portal
The ITS still has around 3,200 personal effects in its archive, most of them from the Neuengamme and Dachau concentration camps. In October 2015, the ITS published photos of all the personal effects in its archive on an online portal that is accessible worldwide.