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Last Trace in Below Forest

Patrick Vereecke is researching his grandfather’s fate. The SS deported Leopold Vereecke from his native Rièzes, a town in Belgium. He never returned home. His grandson recently visited the International Tracing Service (ITS) in Bad Arolsen to have a look at documents testifying to Leopold Vereecke’s persecution.

“I can’t really say what motivates me to do this research,” observes Patrick Vereecke. “All I know is, I have to do it.” It all started in 1993 with a powder box where his grandmother had kept her husband’s neatly folded final letters. “She had never once said a word about the war years.”

On February 25, 1944, the SS surrounded Rièzes and arrested about forty-five men, among them Leopold Vereecke, who was thirty-three at the time. They locked him up in prisons in Dinant and Namur before deporting him to the Buchenwald concentration camp in Germany. “Someone presumably informed on him,” his grandson explains. “He was active in the resistance.”

The ITS archive contains numerous documents on Leopold Veerecke’s imprisonment in the Buchenwald and Mittelbau-Dora concentration camps. The Heinkel-Werke in Oranienburg, a subcamp of the Sachsenhausen concentration camp, was his final place of detention. From there he and the other camp inmates were sent off on a death march on April 21, 1945. Leopold Vereecke did not survive the march.

Shortly after the war, Leopold’s wife received a postcard from a former fellow inmate, René Lorge, who wrote that he had last seen Leopold on April 25, 1945 eleven kilometers north of Wittstock. “After that, every trace of him is lost,” says Patrick. „I try to reconstruct the death march village by village and day by day.“ At the time, the SS herded about 16,000 inmates together in the Below Forest near Wittstock. There was nothing to eat and, weakened by their martyrdoms in the concentration camps, many of them died.

Patrick Vereecke, now fifty-seven, wants to fill in the gaps in the information about his grandfather, and analyze all existing documents and traces. “I want to preserve his memory.” When he died, the Belgian partisan left a wife and four children behind. “My father was so young at the time of his father’s arrest that he couldn’t even remember him.” Patrick Vereecke expressed his gratitude to the ITS for supporting him in his research efforts. “I’ve realized what an open institution the ITS is today. That’s tremendously important.” Now he plans to return to the sites of his grandfather’s persecution and follow the route of the death march.