Singing in a monastery

This is an episode in “the quest for Jan van Boeckel: From Holland to Bavaria” .

As I was watching a performance of the opera Don Carlos by Verdi this week I realised that Jan’s life has all the ingredients of a grand literary tragedy.  Based on a story written in 1787 by Friedrich Schiller, Verdi’s Don Carlos relates an imposing mix of power abuse, politics, occupation, heroism, idealism, oppression and cruelty. And there is music. The deeper I delve into Jan’s story, the more I touch upon these very themes.

Jumping forward in time I will now relate to you what I know about his time in Ebrach, Bavaria.

DSC_6632Ebrach was a former monastery transformed into an infamous ‘Zuchthaus’. There were jails in Germany, and there were penitentiaries. The latter were named Zuchthäuser. A tougher type of criminals was imprisoned here and there was a stricter regime. Nacht und Nebel (NN) prisoners from the occupied territories were often brought to these penitentiaries. After doing time there they would often end up in concentration camps. Earlier on in the war, the prisoners from France, Holland and Belgium were jailed along the western German border, but as the allied bombing intensified many NN-prisoners were brought eastwards to Zuchthäuser such as Amberg, Bamberg and Ebrach in Bavaria.  That is how Jan found himself in Zuchthaus Ebrach.

Jan or Jean as he was now known, travelled there with part of the group of maquis with whom he was arrested: Milou, Dédé and André. And Charles Raskin also travelled with him, someone he had presumably met in the Liege Citadelle prison. They arrived on the 29th of August 1944 where they were probably first put into a large cell.

On the first of September Jan is taken out of the cell to undergo an intake examination, a health check.

DSC_6873-01There is no prisoner card or other registration available at Ebrach administrating his arrival. According to the archivists and historians this is probably due to his NN-decree. But this intake exam and the related form proves that he was there. Perplexing, that is the word that best describes the administrative obsession of the Nazis. Amongst others, I have now seen interrogation reports, intake reports, illness reports, transfer reports and death reports and they all contain totally unexpected, and in my eyes, somewhat superfluous information. Luckily for me they left this crumble trail, even for a NN-prisoner.

So what do we learn from this health check? Jan told the deputy physician how old his parents were, that there were no hereditary disorders in the family and that he was not part of a set of twins. He had measles, but no other illnesses as an infant. He drinks and smokes a little. The physician describes his physical state, and includes the strangest details. He weighs 71 kilograms and is 178 cm tall. His health is good. He has clothes lice. According to the doctor his psychological state does not seem abnormal. In the concluding paragraph he is deemed DSC_6874-01able to work 100%, including labour in the open air. He can be put into solitary confinement if needed and he does not seem to be dangerous to others.

Jan was first put in a cell with Charles Raskin, but Charles Raskin and Milou were sent on to a camp in Bamberg. Later he was put into a cell with Arthur Simon and a Lieutenant Fabry. Arthur was a Belgian military man who had been active in the Resistance. Thanks to him and his daughter we know a bit about Jean’s life in Ebrach.

Every morning  Jan and Arthur did gymnastics and Judo in their jail cell to stay in shape. The men talked a lot amongst themselves, especially about the future. Arthur valued Jan for his bright spirit.

Jan was very musical and had been part of a choir. He loved jazz and improvised on the piano at home, something his sister I. remembers with awe. With Arthur Simon he sang a lot of songs, including a song Arthur always remembered, Long long ago:

Tell me the tales that to me were so dear,
Long, long ago; long, long ago.
Sing me the songs I delighted to hear
Long, long ago; long ago.
Now you are come, all my grief is removed.
Let me forget that so long you have roved.
Let me believe that you love as you loved, Long, long ago; long ago.

Arthur describes Jan as being his best friend in prison, with his uplifting character and strong convictions he was never discouraged and remained an idealist.  Sometimes Jan had the opportunity to seek out other Dutchmen to speak to about home. One such prisoner, Bas de J., wrote to my grandmother in 1947. He describes Jan as being cheerful and very easy to know. And he remembers that Jan was always supportive of the ‘weaker brothers’.

WallsSinging is what Arthur and Jan did to keep their spirits up during the hard times. In December 1944 Arthur and Jan sang Christmas songs. Ebrach was by far not the worst place they had been to and would still be going to, but it was far from easy. Arthur Simon describes it as a civilised prison, the cells were warm enough and there were reasonably comfortable bunks. Although the food was far from sufficient, the work they did was not especially taxing. Unpicking uniforms, probably gathered on various battlegrounds, was part of their daily task.  According to historians the workday was 10 hours long. The work was easy enough and took their minds off their plight.

Ludwig Schirmer, warden at Ebrach, states during the Neurnberg trials that Ebrach originally had place for 595 prisoners. In 1944, however, the prison became overcrowded due to the many Nacht und Nebel (NN) prisoners from France and Belgium. In 1945 the prison population grew to at least 1,400 prisoners. There were frequent outbreaks of diseases, such as tuberculosis and consumption. Containing the spread of disease was impossible due to the very poor medical care: the physician showed up only two or three times a week. And there was undernourishment.

“Although there were stocks of food at hand, the feeding of prisoners was bad; people got only soup and turnips for weeks. NN prisoners were crowded together, four in a single cell. From time to time a certain number of the prisoners was transferred to the concentration camp.” 

DSC_6643There were solitary cells in which you could only feel your way around by touch, Jan might have had to spend time there, the other prisoners around him certainly did. Prisoners did sometimes make plans to escape. Both  Arthur and Bas heard in Ebrach that they were condemned to death, and although I cannot find the relevant documents yet, I am sure Jan received the same sentence, at the same time. They expected to be shot or beheaded at any moment but both Bas and Arthur  were not executed. Probably the administration got messed up in Berlin around that time and the orders did not come through.

Both Bas and Jan became very ill during their stay and had to go to the infirmary. And here there is once again a mystifying dossier I recovered from Ebrach: the infirmary papers on Jan van Boeckel. Another registration form:

Krankenbogen (Infirmary)

2.10.1944: Intake: has head, breast and throat pains. Cheeks are red, the tonsils are swollen. Temp: 39.7 °C. Bed rest, Chest wrap, 3×1.0 aspirin. Gurggle with Alaun.

4.10.1944: Still has high temperatures. Complains about bad headaches, more aspirine.

6.10.1944: Temp. is down, headaches continue, gets 3×1 antineuraldicum tabl.

Temperature chart of Jan van Boeckel during his 10-day stay in the infirmary


11.10.44: Still complains about headaches, a bit high. Especialy the points at the Trigaminus li. (tempels) are painful. Treatment as before. Warm wrap.

12.10.44: Is discharged due to lack of space. Feels much better.

On the second of February 1945 the register in the huge Prison Book shows that Jan was transported to Flossenbürg, together with Dédé from the maquis and probably Arthur. On 1 February 1945 the men are gathered together outside and they are weighed. Arthur Simon says later that he cannot figure out why the jailors did this. I guess it was to see how much labour they could still get out of the men . They wrote down the weight including information on any illnesses they had such as tuberculosis or STD’s. DSC_6868-01On Jan’s transfer card a note says that he spent time in the infirmary and his weight is noted on 1-2-1945. It has than dropped to 60 kilograms. He has lost 11 kilograms in about 4 to 5 months. Arthur Simon relates that most of the prisoners lost a lot of weight, except those with special positions such as the spokespeople for the different nationalities.

They were transported to concentration camp Flossenbürg via Nürnberg-Fürth and arrived there on 3-2-1945.

A very special thanks to Anne Autin, the daughter of Arthur Simon,  for her help in reconstructing this, and other parts of Jan’s storyIMG_6505


Will be continued…….

This is an episode in “the quest for Jan van Boeckel: From Holland to Bavaria” .


  • Croix Rouge Belgique (1945-1947). Correspondence with W. van Boeckel about Charles Raskin, Raphael Matyn, Leon Calembert.
  • Ebrach prison records (1944-1945).
  • Jong, Lou de (1978). Het Koninkrijk der Nederlanden in de Tweede Wereldoorlog, deel 8: Gevangenen en gedeporteerden. Rijksinstituut voor Oorlogsdocumentatie.
  • J., Bas de(?) Witness account Ebrach.
  • J., Bas de (1947) Correspondence W. van Boeckel
  • Neurnberg military tribunal (1946-1949) Volume III · Page 1044
  • Roden, Dimitri (2010) Van aanhouding tot strafuitvoering. De werking van de Duitse gerechtelijke apparaat in bezet België en Noord-Frankrijk, 1940-1944. Cahiers d’histoire du Temps Présent/ Bijdragen tot de Eigentijdse Geschiedenis, 22 . pp. 113-161.
  • Simon, Arthur (1995/97) Witness account.
  • Simon, Arthur (1965). Letters to C. van Boeckel.
  • Simon, Arthur (1967). Interview by C. van Boeckel.
  • Quesneé, Guilliame (2004), La  deportation «Nacht und Nebel»  au départ de France. Origines, procédure et promulgation du décret. Bulletin trimestriel de la Fondation Auschwitz 84, pp. 27-52.

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