BAD AROLSEN, Germany – The path to uncovering the life and death of Cornelis Marinus Brouwenstijn begins with a manila envelope containing a purse, an ID booklet, a cracked leather wallet, family snapshots and a typewritten 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, 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 service’s files have been used exclusively to find missing persons and to document reparations claims. The service is now committed to opening the files, and when it does, researchers hope to find clues to help them better understand the machinery of Nazi persecution.
The records have the potential to help reconstruct the lives of victims such as Brouwenstijn, who vanished into a Nazi labor camp and has no known family alive to safeguard his memory. 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.