This is Johannes Berens

Born on
January 27, 1924,
in Rotterdam, the Netherlands. The eldest of three children.

He followed in his father’s footsteps and joined the police.

When the house that the Berens family lived in was bombed in a German air raid, the family was left with only a few keepsakes.

Destruction of Rotterdam National Archives (208-PR-10L-3)
In May 1940, Nazi Germany attacked the Netherlands, a neutral country. In order to force a quick victory, the Luftwaffe had begun subjecting Rotterdam to massive aerial bombardment on May 14. When the Netherlands had to surrender, the Germans occupied the country.

We have pieced together what we know about Johannes from the photos and documents that he kept in his wallet.

Perhaps he liked to go dancing?

This membership card is one of the things he had with him.

He knew lots of girls. Maybe they were just friends, but perhaps they were his girlfriends.

He probably liked sport, and it is pretty certain that he smoked…

…but we can only make guesses about him really.

One thing we do know about him is that he was brave. Brave and decent.

He wasn’t one to blindly obey orders.

Deportation United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, courtesy of Lydia Chagoll, 15338
Immediately after the occupation, the Germans imposed the first antisemitic measures with the aim of excluding Jews from public life. Roundups and deportations to the extermination camps followed.

Johannes was supposed to help track down Jews who were in hiding and take them to a concentration camp.

Passport picture of Anne Frank Anne Frank House, Amsterdam
Many Jewish families went into hiding in an attempt to escape persecution and deportation. Of approximately 30 000 people, a third were betrayed or discovered and then deported, including Anne Frank and her family.

Johannes refused.

The Nazis deported him to the Neuengamme concentration camp near Hamburg in October 1944.

His prisoner number was 56240.

Prisoner jacket United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, Gift of Alec Tulkoff, 2015.586.2
Prisoners in concentration camps were given a registration number on arrival. It was stitched to their clothes. From that point on, their names no longer counted. They had to report with this number and it was also used to call them up.

He had to

do forced

labor.

Forced labor NIOD 67198
The prisoners were mainly deployed in construction work and in the arms industry. Hard physical labor in combination with too little food and inadequate hygiene resulted in high mortality rates among both men and women.

Johannes was sent to the Meppen-Versen sub-camp to dig anti-tank trenches.

On March 25, 1945, the SS evacuated the camp. Prisoners who were capable of marching were driven to Bremen on foot.

Their final destination was the Sandbostel death camp.

Johannes and thousands of other prisoners were left there to fend for themselves without food or medical assistance.

Those like him, who were still alive, were liberated by the Allies on April 29, 1945.

Liberation of Sandbostel Concentration Camp IWM, BU 6203
The British soldiers were shocked by what they saw at the camp. About 2,000 concentration camp prisoners had died in the final days before the liberation.

But it was too late for Johannes.

He died of tuberculosis a few days after the liberation. Aged 21 years.

Shortly after the end of the war, his little sister Johanna found his name on a list of victims.

And she was the one who had to tell her parents, too.

That he hadn’t made it.

All they had left were the few keepsakes that had survived the war.

It would take another 71 years before Johanna could be found. There was still a wallet to be handed over.

Inside it were the personal items that her big brother had with him during the last months of his life.

And that is how Johanna came to be given the only existing photo of her big brother as a child, a photo that she had never seen up until then.

See Johannes’s belongings

School and education projects

The “effects” and the fates of their owners are tangible and offer exciting opportunities for research-based learning about Nazi persecution in lessons and projects. Those who want to go deeper can help to find families.

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Our website can tell you more about the work we do. And about how you can help us to keep memories and keep history alive.

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