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Effects’ Handover at Amersfoort

On 8 September 2012, staff of the International Tracing Service (ITS) could return the personal belongings of former prisoners from the concentration camp Neuengamme to eleven Dutch families at the Amersfoort Memorial. “It’s a pity I do not remember my father”, said Wilhelmina van Beek-Dijkhuizen who received letters and papers. “Only through my mother’s narratives I have learned something about him. I was just ten months of age when he was captured.”

With in all eight members from three generations, her family came to receive the personal belongings of Matthijs Dijkhuizen. The Dutch had been committed to Police Transit Camp Amersfoort as political prisoner on 25 February 1944. He had been denounced to the Secret State Police for hiding Jews. Their mother had frequently gone to Amersfoort to bring him food, knows Wilhelmina. “Hoping, of course, that it would in fact be given to him.” On 11 October 1944 the 39-year old was deported to the Neuengamme Concentration Camp.

“The worst thing for our family has been this year-long uncertainty“, relates Wilhelmina. “After my father’s deportation to Neuengamme, we lost his track. We wrote to the Red Cross and interviewed former co-inmates. But no one we asked was positive about what had happened to him.  We used to imagine that he might have died on one of the ships at Lübeck bay.” The British Army had bombarded the ships on 3 May 1945 unsuspecting that the vessels evacuated the prisoners from Neuengamme Concentration Camp. More than 7000 people lost their lives. The documents that have been preserved do not include any information on the death of Matthijs Dijkhuizen.

Among the personal effects handed back to his daughter are letters his wife had sent him while he was detained. “Everything in our house lives with and for you alone, my dear husband”, she wrote him on 12 June 1944. “Whatever I do and ponder over, my thoughts are always with you. I hope that we will see each other again soon.” Wilhelmina confirms that these letters are very special to all her family. “Our mother has died meanwhile, but she would have loved to know that the letters still exist.” All letters that her father could write in return had been kept by the family. “We had to handle them with care because they were written in pencil which tended to smudge the paper“, explains granddaughter Mathilda. The return of the effects evoked ambivalent emotions in them, concedes the family. “While we are happy that something personal of him is still there, we are sad to receive it only now.”

“This moment is rich in emotions”

Another family was joined by the sister of the murdered Neuengamme prisoner. The over 80-year-old Johanna van der Vlies-Peters has never set foot on German soil and has hardly ever talked to her own family about the occupation era so far. “It is too painful for her”, comments her nephew Hermann van der Vlies. Nevertheless she came herself to receive her brother’s belongings – a purse, an identity card and photos.

“We are astonished that there are so many effects”, wonders Johanna’s son, Hans van der Vlies. “And we are happy about the documents’ copies. These historical events happened such a long time ago, and we as family have tried to forget. And therefore as time goes by, facts get lost.” Following an arrest in Amsterdam for having “refused to work”, Hermann Peters had been deported on 25 May 1944 first to Amersfoort and four months later to Neuengamme. Owing to unwholesome food and hard work at Neuengamme subsidiary camp in Ladelund, where trenches and gun emplacements were dug for the defensive fortification of the “Frisian Wall”, the 19-year-old survived not even for full three months. “My mother once went to see the mass grave at Ladelund”, Hermann remembers. “The era was traumatic for her.“

The Amersfoort Memorial organised the effects’ return caringly and sympathetically. Harry Ruijs, the Head of the Memorial, his fellow-worker Jan van Haeften and the voluntary researcher Kitty Brom gave a short, moving address to the visitors. “It is good that the ITS staff has come and joined us today”, said Ruijs. “For all of us, this moment is rich in emotions.” During a concluding ceremony, all participants laid down roses for the victims.