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Return of an Effect Item to a Belgian Family

“A bit scary”, says Willy Huybrechts at the sight of the pen, which is an effect from Concentration Camp Neuengamme that the Belgian received back from the International Tracing Service (ITS) on 24th May 2012. “My uncle survived the concentration camp by a few months only, but his pen still exists more than 65 years later. That says a lot about the system behind it.” The pen was the property of his uncle Franciscus Broothaers who died in the subsidiary camp Watenstedt near Salzgitter on 8th March 1945.

The effects’ transfer to the family takes place in the Salzgitter Memorial Center. “For us it is the first time that we can hand back personal belongings”, says Elke Zacharias, Head of the Memorial. She had already shown to Huybrechts the sites at Salzgitter that are testimony to persecution: the subsidiary camp and the “Jammertal” cemetery where Willy’s uncle was buried in 1945. The site of subsidiary camp Watenstedt is an industrial zone today where an inconspicuous remembrance plate alone explains the history of the place.

The “Jammertal” cemetery that was erected for forced labourers in July 1943, is still well preserved. In contrast to other cemeteries or mass graves from the Nazi era, the dead were registered by their names here. The cemetery index includes about 4,000 names which, by initiative of people from the area, were set into grave plates and written on memory plaques. “It is hard for me to imagine what people’s life was like at the time”, admits Huybrechts. “That is why it is good to have facts and not to have to rely on speculations.”

Four family members were deported, only two returned home

In 1941, the Belgian married couple Broothaers lived with their eleven children about 15 kilometres south of Antwerp. While the mother and the little ones were staying behind, the father and the three eldest children had to leave for Germany for labour. The children Horthensia – Willy’s mother –, Franciscus, Armandus and their father Bernhard worked as forced labourers first at the “Bayer AG” in Leverkusen and then at the railway repair works in Opladen. Willy’s mother was able to walk back home in March 1945.

The men, however, were deported via Concentration Camp Sachsenhausen to Concentration Camp Neuengamme near Hamburg late in September 1944. “I have not yet learned the reason of their deportation. That is a question that remains to be answered and preoccupies me most”, reports Huybrechts. “I definitely want to know more, I definitely want to understand how they could have ended up in this system.” Bernhard died in Neuengamme shortly before the war end.

The two eldest sons were sent to the subsidiary camp Watenstedt near Salzgitter. Amandus and Franciscus had to produce bombs and grenades at the Hermann-Goering factory. “The average age of the forced labourers here was between 16 and 22. Life conditions were so hard that the young people remained fit to work for a few months’ time only. As of mid-January, the death rate shot up hitting a peak”, knows Zacharias. Franciscus was one of those who did not make it, his brother Amandus survived until liberation. “But he came back home in a very frail condition. Despite his height of about six feet, he only weighed 33 kilograms”, recalls Huybrechts. “He did never really recover and died already in 1955, two months before I was born. He is reported to have said that someone ought to hammer his head so that life would be over.”

There had been only three objects in his mother’s household which reminded of the National Socialist era, reports Huybrechts, among them a photo in his mother’s bedroom, a letter returned from Concentration Camp Sachsenhausen and the official notice on his uncle’s death dispatched by the Belgian Government in 1950. “We never talked about that in our family. The subject was not touched but briefly. And it was not until my mother died in 2004 that I began pursuing research.”

2,900 Effects kept in the ITS Archives

Accordingly, it has only been recently that Huybrechts has sent a request on his family to the Salzgitter memorial. “The mail reached me while I was pursuing research at the ITS archives. So, I could answer fairly soon”, reports Zacharias. “And I discovered here the reference to an effect.” In addition to millions of documents on Nazi persecution, about 2,900 effects are still kept in the ITS archives of which the staff knows the original owners’ names. The ITS tries hard to give back the personal belongings and is thankful for any assistance with the search for family members by memorial centers. “I have been pleased about the find”, says Zacharias. “It is good to feel that we do our research work not only for paper, but can return something tangible like in this case.”

The effects and documents on the persecution of the Broothaers family were transmitted by ITS employee Manfred Kesting who travelled from Bad Arolsen to Salzgitter. “I am very happy about the information”, says Huybrechts. “My mother searched for my father’s whereabouts for 20 years. With the help of the internet, one can clear up within hours now what she could not succeed in doing in all those years. It is a pity that my mother didn’t live to be with us today.”

Seven of her siblings are still alive and about 90 years of age. “It will certainly not be easy to address the subject”, explains Huybrechts. “I do not know yet how they will deal with it and will start talking to their children.” In any case, it was “good that the pen and the documents were preserved. We will come together as family and think of a worthy way to handle it.” The Belgian is sure that he will keep on looking for more information. “For me this is not yet the end of my search, even though I will surely not get answers to all my questions.”