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

The van Boeckel family are a tenacious lot. Eleven of Jan van Boeckel’s siblings and his parents made it through the war alive. Receiving Jan van Boeckel’s death certificate did not impede their search for him.

DSC_7067-01In the spring of 1956 Uncle F., one of Jan’s older brothers, writes to the  International Tracing Service (ITS) requiring if any new information has become available about Jan’s fate after he was transported  from concentration camp Flossenbürg. It is then that the van Boeckel’s learn why so little is known about what happened to Jan. That he had been labeled a Nacht und Nebel prisoner and that his family was not even allowed to know that he had died or where he was buried.

My grandmother never gave up her caring search for Jan. I cannot begin to imagine what she must have thought or felt, not knowing where and how Jan had died.  On the 31st of May 1960 she writes to the Dutch government with a very specific request. One of her sons had discovered that although Gérard, her aviator son who was shot down by the Japanese,  was mentioned on the Dutch Roll of Honour for the fallen,  Jan was not.

DSC_6840-02She immediately sets about to rectify this. Putting pen to paper she writes to Loe de Jong, the famous Dutch historian who compiled the complete history of the Netherlands in the second world war in fourteen volumes and 18,000 pages: Het Koninkrijk der Nederlanden in de Tweede Wereldoorlog (The Kingdom of the Netherlands During World War II). When I visited the Dutch Institute for War Documentation (NIOD) in October 2015 I saw what my grandmother wrote to him.  She describes that Jan was in hiding,  went to Belgium without her knowledge , joined the Maquis, was arrested and never came back. She explains that he has a right to be listed. On the 27th of July 1960, she receives a confirmation that Jan will be added to the group ‘Resistance’ of the Dutch Roll of Honour for the fallen. And he was.

At the end of 1965 Uncle C. is sending a huge amount of letters to archives, organisations of veteran resistance fighters, Anti-Fascist organisations, the Red Cross and many more.  In December 1965 there is some correspondence with a Dutch Television broadcaster concerning a short documentary about Jan on the Dutch Television.  How this happened to be made, and why Jan was put in the spotlight is not clear to me, though I think uncle C. must have had a hand in it. Saal camp 1965The film was aired on the 15th of December 1965. I had always known about the documentary,  as a photograph taken from this television show was pasted in my mother’s photo album, next to the picture of Jan. But I had never seen the film itself. I was not even born yet.

After an intensive search, I successfully obtained this very same television broadcast this December. A film which lasts about ten minutes. Ten full minutes in which the fate of Jan van Boeckel is described, including shots of Flossenbürg in the snow, and the fields, tunnels, holes and churchyard at Saal an der Donau,  the subcamp where Jan was sent. Saal an der donauAll accompanied by a dubiously apt soundtrack of military drums. Uncle C. is interviewed, as are the researchers from the Dutch Red Cross. The conclusions they made then were not all correct, but it is interesting to see what they knew at that time and how they interpreted the information.

When this documentary was aired, Theo,  Jan’s friend from Haarlem and the Maquis, saw it and immediately wrote a letter to the TV-station, regained contact with the van Boeckels, and offered to assist in any way he could. At that moment the focus was however directed at Jan’s death in Bavaria, and the family wanted to find people who had seen Jan during the spring of 1945, when all trace of him disappears.

In addition to working with this documentary, Uncle C. writes to many archives and witnesses, much the same as I am doing at the moment. He explains what urge is driving him on television: With a heavy heart – which he tries to hide – he describes how important it is for the family to know where Jan died and where he is buried.

Naturally there were many false leads in the subsequent reactions to all the letters he writes and to the documentary itself, but his intense search pays off in the end. Saal 1965 crematoriumIt brings him into contact with two Belgian men who knew Jan during his last days in Saal an der Donau, survivors of the concentration camps. One of them was Arthur Simon, who knew Jan from Ebrach, Flossenbürg and Saal, as I have described in earlier posts.

Uncle C.’s search reminds me of my own search these past months, although he was much closer to Jan historically and emotionally. He was one of Jan’s younger brothers, he had lived through very hard times during the war and was also in hiding, away from his family, at a very tender age. Similarly to his search, however, my quest is leading me to surprising meetings with people and places.

DSC_7058-01I have walked deep into the story, and still have some paths to take. A story that is teaching me about European history during these terrible war years. A story that illustrates the depth of human cruelty, and simultaneously the incredible generosity of the human heart. A story that shows me that people are capable of extreme generosity towards complete strangers, even in the face of severe risk to their own safety. I have come to know the depth and strength of my grandmother’s love, the importance of family bonds and bonding. I am bewildered at the resilience the van Boeckels, and many with them, showed in the face of terror. This story, which came into being through hatred and cruelty,  has actually taught me the strength of human goodness. I wonder where it will lead me next.

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

——–will be continued ——-


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