This is an episode in “the quest for Jan van Boeckel: From Holland to Bavaria” .
The story of Jan van Boeckel cannot be told without describing the painstaking search for him. A missing person in the family feels to me like a link lost or broken in a chain. There is a ‘not there’, an emptiness that appears nearly physical. If I feel it this strongly, and I know more members of my generation do, just think about what it felt like for a mother, a father, for siblings. The loss of Jan and of the first-born, Gérard in addition to the war hardships really tested the van Boeckel’s fibre to it’s core.
Not only is Jan’s story fragmented, the search for him is fragmented in both geographical space and time. In several countries and across several generations, Jan is never forgotten. The family is a tenacious lot, to say the very least.
Between March and June 1944 there was silence, there was no sign from Jan. A printed message from the Saint Leonard prison arrived on the doorstep in Haarlem after Jan was arrested. Probably sent by Amt IV – the Gestapo- it only stated that he was being held there and it mentioned that they were not allowed to contact him or he them. I believe this must have been sent around 14 July when Jan was condemned under the NN-decree. The military court in Lille handed him over to the jurisdiction of the State police for shipment to the Reich. This decree was conjured up by Hitler to terrorise the peoples of the occupied territories in the West. The relatives and the population were to be kept in uncertainty about the fate of NN-prisoners. In order to achieve this, the NN-decree states that prisoners of this kind should be prohibited to write, to receive mail and parcels, to talk, or that any information should be given about them.
According to oral family history F., Jan’s brother, immediately decided to find a way to travel to Liege and see what he could do. Through his network he was able to join a company that transported Friesian horses across the Dutch/Belgian border in Zeeland. Off he went with a bundle, packed by my grandmother, containing food and clothes for Jan. But all to no avail. On the way over one of the horses kicked him hard in the knee and tore something. Uncle F. made his way, in acute pain to Liege and found the Saint Leonard prison. Aunt I. Relates what happened as follows:
F. spoke to the German guard posted outside the prison gate and asked if he could visit Jan. The kindly man said that was impossible. Uncle F. then asked if he could leave my grandmother’s package with him. The guard said he would see what he could do.
F. made his was home to Haarlem in acute pain. My grandma and the young ones were walking down their street when they saw him at the opposite end, moving slowly with a pronounced limp. They got uncle F. safely home, but his knee never quite recovered from this ordeal.
In the family chronicles, which might be more hope than truth, there is a story that some of the things contained in the parcel did get to Jan because amongst the belongings listed on his personal effects card at Flossenbürg concentration camp items from the package were recognised.
As I wrote in the post ‘Where is Jan’ liberation came to Haarlem in May 1945 after extremely trying times, Jan did not show up. The family members went to the station on a daily basis to meet the trains pulling in, sometimes cattle wagons filled with people returning home. The names would be called out but never did Jan van Boeckel step on to the platform into their waiting arms. The brothers, sisters or parents were there every day as May merged into June, and then into July and August. Slowly the thought crept into their consciousness that perhaps…maybe….he was not ever going to return.
“On the third of August 1945 a letter arrives on my grandmother’s doorstep. A letter addressed to Jan. She opens it, as this is the only sign from Jan since March 1944. It is from a friend, M. Vanhove from Liege, Belgium. He asks, in French, if Jan is ok, and which camp he went to and that he would love to hear from him because he was such a good friend. Luckily my grandmother grew up bilingual in Brussels, and her French was perfect. And so she started her search for her lost son Jan in Belgium”.
My grandmother writes to Marcel Vanhove, but we do not know what the result of that communication was. She wrote letters to the Dutch and the Belgian Red Cross, had interviews with civil servants, wrote letters to old friends and anyone she heard of who might know of him. She left no stone unturned.
On 10 September 1945 she receives a first answer from the Belgium Red Cross. ‘Jean’ van Boeckel was detained at Liege from 30-05-1944 to 18-08-1944, and deported to Germany. There is a name of a prisoner listed who was deported at the same time, Charles R. On 3 November they write again with news, Charles R. has stated that he travelled with Jan to the Ebrach penitentiary and shared a cell with him. Charles R. says there was another prisoner who had a lot of contact with Jean – Victor M. I have no idea if there ever was contact between Victor M. and the van Boeckel family. We know him from the post The Mill at Rahimont that he was in the maquis with Jan. I learnt a short time ago that he was in Switzerland after the war for a year to heal from the effects of the concentration camps/prisons he had been to. Perhaps they were not able to contact him.
The official channels moved very slowly. On the 10th January 1946 the Dutch Red cross writes – Sorry, there are no results yet. As Jan was caught in Belgium and was transported to Germany from Belgium the Dutch authorities had limited grasp on the situation, and the Belgian Red cross was probably focussing the search on missing Belgians. From 1945 up to 1950 my grandmother tried to move heaven and earth to learn where her son was.
The trail of evidence from the next couple of years illustrate how complex the search was. Nearly every communication was done by letter sent from one country to the other in different languages. Some of the trails lead nowhere, some did. Every crumble of information was grasped and researched. One and a half years have gone by before they receive a letter from Leon C. (4 February 1947), a Belgian who was also in Ebrach with Jan. He names Raphael M. as a contact who might know more about Jean’s fate. Raphael contacts Bas de J. after having written to my grandma. Raphael says that he knows Bas, a Dutchman, knew Jan. On 14 April 1947 Bas writes a very friendly and empathetic letter to my grandmother about meeting Jan in Ebrach. I describe what he wrote in Singing in a Monastery.
Browsing through the archives at the Dutch Institute for War Documentation (NIOD) I found a report from the “Tracing mission for missing people during the occupation”. It stated that on 27 April 1948 my grandmother and grandfather visited the Ministry of Social Affairs in The Hague, probably out of their own accord, to tell the mission what they themselves had discovered. My grandparents tell the civil servant that they have found out that Jan was in Block 11 at Flossenbürg at the beginning of 1945. They also provide a list of contacts who might provide more information. The official promises to contact these people.
Meanwhile in Germany the UNRRA (United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Organisation) started in the middle of 1945 with the impossible task of gathering information on the dead and living strewn in and between concentration camps (see my post about Kathryn Hulme). The tracing of these individuals was later also attempted by the International Red Cross, and military and civil organisations of all relevant countries. Insight into the big picture at that moment in time was inadequate, hampered by the lack of understanding of the Nazi machine. It has now become obvious to me that not only was the understanding of the organisational landscape of the Nazi’s still limited in the decades following the liberation, let alone just after the war, but the understanding of Nazi terminology also formed a barrier. In some research areas such as the satellite camps of the concentration camps and the death marches, an adequate picture has still to be drawn.
These years after the war had ended was a time of great hope and bitter disappointment, anguish and acceptance for Jan’s family. On the 26th of September 1951 his mother received a letter from the Dutch Red Cross:
Based on the facts and circumstances encountered during the research we have to conclude Jan van Boeckel died at Ring-Me (commando of the concentration camp Flossenburg) or during the evacuation towards Dachau, not before 16 april 1945 and not later than 24 april 1945.
On the 31st of January 1952 the family recieves Jan’s death certificate from the authorities at the city of Haarlem.
Not knowing where and how Jan had died was painful to say the least and the finality of his death certificate certainly did not end the search for him. But the rest will be divulged in a next blog post.
This is an episode in “the quest for Jan van Boeckel: From Holland to Bavaria” .