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“Remembering the victims”

The Dutchman Erik Dijkstra helps find relatives of concentration camp victims so as to return personal belongings kept in the ITS archive. In the interview he talks about what motivates him to carry out the extensive research and how he goes about looking for family members. His starting point is the ITS online archive.

Can you tell us briefly how you learned about the online archive of the ITS and what motivates you to look for the relatives of former concentration camp inmates?

For me the whole thing started in October 2015. I saw a feature on Dutch television about how the journalist Pauline Broekema found a notebook once belonging to Rudy de Wijs, a victim of the Neuengamme concentration camp. Several years earlier, I had already gained some experience looking for people on the internet when I researched inmates of a labor camp in the Netherlands where my grandfather had also been imprisoned. I was at the Neuengamme Memorial several times, and that made a deep impression on me, partly because I knew the personal histories of several victims. On a monument in Neuengamme there’s an inscription: “Your suffering, your struggle and your death shall not have been in vain.” I believe this is the last thing we can do – remember the victims and try to give meaning to their suffering.

How do you go about your research?

Several archives have gone online in the Netherlands in the past years. You can also read various newspapers on the internet. First I check the birth and death dates, then the personal data on the parents. I search newspaper archives for obituaries, which often include the names – and sometimes even the addresses – of the siblings and/or other relatives. The archives often don’t contain any current information, which makes the search a bit more difficult. I contact people by way of Facebook or Twitter or I call them on the phone. Sometimes it takes me several days; in the case of Johannes Berens it took several months.

How often have you managed to find relatives?

To date I’ve found four families. When I was doing research on Johannes Berens and another person, I realized I wasn’t the only one. Annelies Sijtsma was working on the same cases. We contacted one another and coordinated our searches.

One valuable aspect of my research is that there are often unknown stories behind the personal effects. My most recent research had to do with two young policemen. I found out that the Nazis arrested many policemen in the Netherlands during the war. A great number of them died in the Neuengamme concentration camp and its subcamps. The rediscovery of the effects has sparked new interest in this matter. A number of publications will follow, and there will also be a website.

I would like to add that I greatly appreciate the contact and cooperation with the ITS. And the contact with the relatives is also excellent. I have high respect for the entire staff of the ITS and their valuable work.