There are still numerous people listed as missing from the Second World War. Sometimes this is because it has never been discovered where or whether someone has died, but can also be due to very unlucky, tragic chains of events, Truus de Witte has discovered. Her research into missing victims of the April-May strikes in the Netherlands in 1943 has revealed that institutions did actually know a lot of information about their fate and the location of their graves, but that often the relatives were not informed. De Witte will be awarded a PhD by the University of Groningen on 7 January 2010.
When the occupying German forces announced in 1943 that previously released prisoners-of-war had to report again for punishment, the April-May strikes broke out in the Netherlands. The shocked Germans crushed the strikes with a heavy hand. They were operating with a hidden agenda. De Witte: ‘On the one hand they were announcing publicly that the decisions were supported by a solid legal system, on the other they kept secret that randomly chosen victims were being shot and buried throughout the region. They needed a few quick fatalities to force the population back under the yoke.’
Relatives were only confronted with the facts of these murders after thousands of compatriots were sent to Germany as forced labourers. De Witte: ‘This fed the hope that their vanished loved ones had been sent with the workers. After all, Germany needed all the workers it could get and the Court Martial wouldn’t have condemned innocent people to death or for such a minor thing, would it?
After the liberation, a number of victims were found in mass graves. Others remained missing, including sixteen from the North of the Netherlands. Relatives continued to hope for their return ‘from the east’ for decades. De Witte: ‘They suffered from the missing status and from the fact that no-one seemed to be looking for their loved ones.’
When they were recently informed about the fate of the missing, after archive research, they were shocked and surprised to learn that certain institutions had known since 1946 what had happened to them and that they were buried at De Appelbergen near Glimmen. In their turn, the institutions were shocked to learn that the relatives had been left in ignorance for decades and had never properly been informed. Both sides wondered how on earth this could have happened and why it had gone on for so long. These questions formed the starting point for De Witte’s research.
De Witte: ‘The occupiers were set on keeping people ignorant to prevent the victims becoming martyrs, to prevent demonstrations and places of pilgrimage and to keep the population under control by intimidation. A tragic but unforeseen consequence was that the relatives could not come to terms with the disappearances because for decades it was not clear whether the loss was permanent.
After the war, the institutions did not mean to keep the relatives in ignorance. However, they were never or hardly ever informed about the fate of their missing loved ones due to numerous factors – information was ‘confidential’, information provision wasn’t their job, missing was defined in different ways, there was a habit of silence, wanting to spare people, reconstruction and strict hierarchies. In addition, the attitudes towards mourning and coping with loss were significantly different to those of today, and both missing and missing in action were completely unknown concepts until the mid 1990s.
After liberation, the relatives assumed that the government would do all it could to find their missing loved ones and waited for a response once they’d reported them missing. They then heard nothing. ‘The spirit of the times was also against them’, according to De Witte. ‘In many families at the time, children were kept out of “grown-up matters”, which meant that they never heard the tiny bits of information that did become known. They were completely deprived of information.’
De Witte had a personal reason for her research. After her father died she discovered that he and his brother had both been condemned to death during the April-May strikes. ‘My father was pardoned and sent to prison, but his brother wasn’t.’ De Witte decided to look for information about her uncle, still registered as missing. To her great surprise, she quickly found his name in a file with details about a whole group of missing people.
‘Knowledge is responsibility. Doing nothing with that knowledge is interfering in someone else’s life’, is how De Witte explains her motivation to continue researching the missing victims of the April-May strikes even after finding the answers to her personal questions. ‘There were probably many more people who knew nothing about the fate of their missing family members.’ In order to prevent ‘blind spots’ in her research, De Witte worked closely with historians Robert Boxem and Peter de Jong.
De Witte’s thesis is also being published as a book. It describes in detail the history of the April-May strikes, as well as the changing attitudes towards mourning, missing persons and being affected by the war. The first copy of the book will be offered to Tjeerd van Bekkum, the mayor of Marum, on 8 January. It is being published by Uitgeverij Elikser in Leeuwarden, ISBN: 978 908 954 1383, www.elikser.nl.
Truus de Witte (Bolsward, 1956) studied Adult Education at the University of Groningen. Her supervisors at the Faculty of Behavioural and Social Sciences are Prof. D.F.J. Bosscher and Dr J.J.M. Zeelen. Her thesis is entitled ‘Op een onbekende plaats begraven. De April-Meistakingen van 1943, een onderzoek naar oorlogsvermissing’. [Buried in an unknown grave. The April-May strikes of 1943, an investigation into those missing in war] De Witte is an advisor/researcher at Partoer CMO Fryslân. She is also involved with the Second World War Missing Persons Working Group of the Dutch Red Cross, which was founded in September 2008 partly as a result of her research.
Truus de Witte, tel. 058-23 48 532 (work), e-mail: info truusdewitte.nl
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