For most of her young life, Martine van Dam knew her grandfather’s name, but not what he looked like. Holocaust survivor Nathan van Dam died in 1986, seven years before she was born, and left no photographs of himself behind.
Through her father Marcel, van Dam knew the basic outlines of Nathan’s life, including that he fought in the Dutch resistance, but she had no images to associate with him.
This changed in 2012, when van Dam unexpectedly saw for the first time not only a photo of her grandfather as a young man, but also ones of his parents, siblings, and first wife — all of whom were murdered by the Nazis.
The family photos weren’t discovered online, or in a book. Van Dam, a social worker living in Leusden in the Netherlands, held the precious images in her hands, after discovering them in her grandfather’s wartime wallet, which was returned to her family by the International Tracing Service (ITS).
ITS is a massive archive containing a staggering amount of material, most of it collected by Allied forces as they liberated Europe, beginning in 1943. Located in Bad Arolsen, Germany, it is a complex of six buildings filled from floor to ceiling with 30 million original documents relating to the fates of 17.5 million victims of Nazi persecution. Since the war — and especially in its immediate aftermath — the institution’s primary purpose has been to trace the fates of these people.
Nathan van Dam’s wallet is one of thousands of prisoners’ personal items confiscated for the most part by the Gestapo in Hamburg, or at the Neuengamme, Dachau and Bergen-Belsen concentration camps. In 1963, the German government transferred some 4,500 envelopes containing these items to ITS from various restitution organizations that were closing. Between 1963 and 2015, roughly 1,500 items were either successfully returned directly to owners, or were given to Red Cross societies operating behind the Iron Curtain in hopes that they could help in the effort.
Thanks to a new #StolenMemory campaign by ITS to restore these items to their rightful owners (mainly family members at this point), more and more are expected to leave the institution’s storerooms.
The campaign launched on International Holocaust Remembrance Day in late January with the placement of large-format posters around the exterior perimeter of the UNESCO headquarters in Paris. Each poster features a confiscated personal effect, like a watch, wedding ring, fountain pen, or comb, and whatever information ITS has been able to find on its original owner and his or her fate.
The hope is that passersby will recognize a name on a poster, or be spurred by specific information provided, and help ITS find the depicted object’s owner. ITS plans to bring customized versions of the posters to different countries, and to launch a dedicated #StolenMemory collaborative website this spring.
“We already have requests from Poland and Greece to bring customized versions to those countries, and we are getting significant media exposure in France and other places about the project,” ITS director Floriane Hohenberg told The Times of Israel.
Of the 3,000 objects still held by ITS, a tiny number belonged to Jews, for the reason that Jews were generally sent to death camps and their belongings immediately exploited by the Nazis.
Although the Nazis attempted to destroy much of what they stole from prisoners in German concentration camps as the Allies closed in, they were not entirely successful. This explains why the wallet of the Jewish Nathan van Dam, who was imprisoned several times for his underground activities, had a chance of eventually ending up at ITS, while the belongings of his family deported to the east did not.
The inaugural version of the exhibition includes items belonging to five other Jewish men:
- A pocket watch belonging to Daniel Schwartz, who was born in Budapest in 1901. He was imprisoned in Neuengamme in November 1944 and died in a subcamp in Bremen on March 17, 1945. The Allies buried his ashes but could not find any family members to inform of his death.
- A wedding ring belonging to Antal Grünfeld. Born in 1899, he lived in Budapest. He was imprisoned in Neuengamme and liberated by British troops. ITS traced him to DP camps in Hanover and Gröpelingen, but after that the trail runs cold.
- A watch and wedding ring belonging to István Züsz. He was born in Budapest in 1900, was a carpenter, and was deported to Neuengamme in November 1944. ITS has his death certificate, indicating that he died in a subcamp in Hamburg on March 13, 1945.
- A pocket watch belonging to Ernö Gottlieb, who was born in Klenovec, Hungary (later Czechoslovakia) in 1897. A Budapest accountant, he was deported to the Neuengamme subcamp Wilhemshaven, where he died on March 25, 1945. His grave is in Wilhelmshaven.
- A fountain pen belonging to István Rokza, who was 16 when he was deported to Neuengamme at the end of 1944. From there he was moved to Bergen-Belsen, where he was liberated by British forces. On July 15, 1945, he was released from the Bergen-Belsen hospital, and shortly thereafter he was evacuated to Sweden aboard the “Prins Carl.” He is known to have been in the Beth Bialik camp in Salzburg in June 1949, a transit camp for Jews on their way to Israel.
- #StolenMemory is one of Hohenberg’s first major steps in opening up ITS since her arrival in January 2016 (another was releasing an online searchable general inventory in English and German in early 2017). She has been tasked with raising the institution’s profile and reaching out to the public following a protracted struggle to make ITS’ archival holdings and operations transparent to scholars and survivors and their families.
- According to Hohenberg, upgrading the database of personal effects, dedicating six full-time staff to finding owners, and creating the #StolenMemory exhibitions and dedicated website makes a lot of sense in terms of priorities at this point in ITS’ history.
- The ITS shelves are crammed with concentration camp documents, transport and deportation lists, Gestapo arrest and prison records, and forced and slave labor documentation. The archive also includes millions of displaced persons’ I.D. cards and files, as well as postwar resettlement and emigration records. There are cemetery records for deceased forced laborers and prisoners, and concentration camp survivor testimonies taken by liberating forces.
- Some 2.5 million files contain post-WWII correspondence from people inquiring about the fates and whereabouts of their loved ones.
The prisoners’ personal effects don’t fit in with this vast amount of paper, nor with the institution’s primary function of tracing people. Finding the owners of these items, or their descendants, was not a priority over the last seven decades. But now it is.
“They burns my hands,” Hohenberg said metaphorically about the personal effects, some of which have been loaned out over the years to museums.
“There is something wrong for us to have these here. It’s not something we can justify. They have to be returned to the owners,” she said.
Hohenberg is confident that focusing first on the personal effects is the right approach, noting that these days objects and images catch people’s attention better than documents.
Van Dam hopes other people will be reunited with their loved ones’ possessions, as she was with her grandfather’s wallet, which she learned was taken from him at the Amersfoort concentration camp in the Netherlands.
“After I visited the camp with my class in school when I was a girl, I learned that my grandfather was the only person to ever escape from the camp,” van Dam said.
What appears to be a bullet hole through the front of the large brown leather billfold hints at Nathan van Dam’s audacity. The same hole penetrates the photos and documents inside.
“We found many different things in the wallet, like a driver’s license, family photos, a New Year’s card, and letters with negative responses to his pleas to government agencies and friends for information about the fate of his wife, Esther Israel, whom he married on July 29, 1942, when he was 24 and she was18,” van Dam said.
Nathan’s wife, parents Simon and Betsy, sister Esther, and teenage brother Benjamin were all deported from their home in Smilde to Auschwitz and murdered there, according to van Dam. (The Times of Israel found them all listed as murdered in Yad Vashem’s Central Database of Shoah Victims’ Names.)
After the war, Nathan van Dam returned to Smilde as the only surviving local member of the resistance. Residents accused him of being a German collaborator and drove him out of town.
“He was left with no family and no town,” his granddaughter said.
Nathan van Dam moved to Amersfoort and remarried. The marriage, however, did not last. He later married his third wife, a much younger Jewish woman who had also lost her entire family in the war, and who had survived as a hidden child. The couple’s son Marcel is the father of Martine van Dam and her younger sister Jeanita, 21.
A volunteer with the Amersfoort concentration camp museum conducted the research that traced Nathan van Dam’s descendants so his wallet could be returned to them. ITS is partnering with many such organizations on the #StolenMemory project.
Martine van Dam and her sister were invited to speak at the opening of the #StolenMemory exhibition about what having their grandfather’s wallet and its contents means to them.
“It obviously means a lot to us,” van Dam said.
She may never have met her grandfather, but she felt his presence that day in Paris.
“It was January 25, which would have been his 100th birthday had he still been alive,” van Dam said.
The #StolenMemory exhibition runs in Paris until February 28, 2018.