The return of a wallet
When the International Tracing Service (ITS) contacted them, the eighty-seven-year-old Johanna Aykens-Berens and her son Janwillem Aykens from Amstelveen in the Netherlands immediately got into their car. A wallet in the archive in Bad Arolsen had belonged to a member of their family whom the Nazis had deported to the Neuengamme concentration camp. “I wanted to pick it up in person,” Johanna Aykens-Berens says. “He was my brother, such a dear boy.”
The find in the ITS archive was simply incredible, they both agree. “After such a long time!” The effects – a wallet containing photos, letters and papers – once belonged to Johannes Wilhelmus Hendrikus Berens, born in Rotterdam on January 27, 1924. The collection testifies to a fun-loving person: photos of girlfriends and schoolmates, letters from his mother, membership cards for a sports and a dance club. Berens had started police training at the age of sixteen. He wanted to learn his father’s profession. By the time he entered that profession, however, the Netherlands had been occupied by the German Wehrmacht.
Berens demonstrated decency – and paid for it with his life. “He refused to participate in the search for and deportation of Jews who had hidden from the Germans,” his sister explains. According to the documents in the ITS archive, the young policeman was committed to the Amersfoort police transit camp on September 16, 1944. The deportation to Germany and the Neuengamme concentration camp took place a few weeks later, on October 11 – “for labour deployment,” the documents state tersely, citing 56240 as Berens’s inmate number. His transport to the Meppen-Versen subcamp followed on January 16, 1945. The Sandbostel subcamp was his final stop. Berens lived to be liberated, but died of tuberculosis on May 11, 1945. He was initially buried at the “Foreigners’ Cemetery I” in Sandbostel, and later transferred to the Cemetery of Honour (Nationaal Ereveld) in Loenen, near Apeldoorn in the Netherlands.
“The whole time, we never knew where my brother was,” Johanna Aykens-Berens remembers. She had been fourteen when the task of informing their parents about her brother’s death fell to her. “That was hard,” she recalls. She had seen his name on a list of victims posted in Nijmegen in 1945 after its liberation. “It also showed his date of birth. There was no doubt.” Johannes had been the oldest of three children. “My mother always had a cheerful disposition.” That had helped her cope with the loss of her son. “She lived to be 101.”
The two Netherlanders eagerly inspect the contents of the wallet once belonging to their loved one. Johanna Aykens-Berens reverently touches the leather. “My last nice memory of him was when he gave me a hockey stick.” On account of the bombing of Rotterdam on the early afternoon of May 14, 1940, the family had only one photo of her brother. “Until then, I had no idea what war really means,” the sprightly old woman remarks. “Our house was destroyed. All we had left were the clothes we were wearing.”
In the wallet the family retrieved on December 8, 2016, there’s a photo showing Johannes Berens as a little boy. “It’s good to have something you can see and touch,” Janwillem Aykens says. Next summer, the Dutchman is planning to visit the Neuengamme and Sandbostel memorials with his two sons. “It’s important and interesting for my children. I want them to be informed about that period.”