Holocaust Records Help Reconstruct Lives

The Associated Press
Sunday, December 17, 2006; 12:37 PM

BAD AROLSEN, Germany -- The path to uncovering the life and death of Cornelis Marinus Brouwenstijn begins with a plain manila envelope containing a purse, an ID booklet, a cracked leather wallet, a slew of family snapshots, and a typewritten risque joke about women in the army.

Plucked from a metal cabinet in a warehouse of death lists, concentration camp registrations, transport lists and forced labor rolls, it is a first step in piecing together the upbringing and final movements of an ordinary Dutchman who, at age 22, became one of the millions consumed by the Nazi inferno.

Brouwenstijn is one of 17.5 million people on file at the International Tracing Service (ITS), an archive sprawling over 16 miles of shelf space at a former Gestapo barracks in the central German town of Bad Arolsen. Closed to the public for 50 years, it contains the most complete collection of Nazi records in existence on their web of concentration and labor camps.

Since the International Committee of the Red Cross took responsibility in 1955, the ITS' files have been used exclusively to find missing persons and to document reparations claims. ITS is now committed to opening them, and when it does, researchers hope to find clues to help them better understand the machinery of Nazi persecution.

The records also have the potential to help reconstruct a life of victims such as Brouwenstijn, who vanished into a Nazi labor camp and has no known family still alive to safeguard his memory.

The photograph in Brouwenstijn's Dutch ID booklet shows a young man with neatly trimmed blond hair, a firm jaw line and a bullish neck, looking pensively away from the camera.

That he was arrested for possessing a radio and transported to a labor camp in Germany is clear. It's probable that he died in the final days of World War II when a ship commandeered by the SS to evacuate prisoners was attacked and sunk.

Also in the packet is a typewritten sheet, folded inside the wallet, called "The 11 Commandments for the Conscripted Woman," a naughty word play in Dutch about the mixing of the sexes in the military. And there are about 30 ruffle-edged photos: children posing in ties and knickerbockers, group portraits of several generations, a stern-looking middle-aged woman holding a baby, a christening, a pair of smiling preteen girls who could be sisters.

There is no knowing whether Brouwenstijn is among them, or how they are related.

In keeping with its oath to protect the privacy of victims, ITS refused to release anything from Brouwenstijn's file besides the envelope.

However, following a decision last May by its 11-nation governing body, ITS is committed to giving greater access to survivors, victims' relatives and historians _ though it may be a year or more before that happens. But meanwhile, records obtained by The Associated Press from the Amsterdam Genealogical Archives and the Dutch Red Cross in The Hague add flesh to the bare bones in the ITS file.

They show that Brouwenstijn came from a broken home. At a time when divorce and mixed marriages were frowned upon, his Protestant mother, Maria Johana Seiffers, had divorced her first husband, Cornelis Marinus Wimmers, and had remarried, to a Roman Catholic named Gerardus Brouwenstijn, in 1937. She was 40 at the time. Cornelis took his adoptive father's family name, while his younger brother kept the name Wimmers. He died childless in 1975.

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