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The story behind the war victims

Herta Mohr was a promising Egyptologist who died in Bergen-Belsen. Lawyer Amandus Wolfsbergen died in Auschwitz, without knowing that the his work would continue to be a respected authority for many years. Thanks to research by PhD candidate Adriënne Baars, some more personal information has been added to the university's list of 'Leiden' war victims.

Honouring victims by telling their stories. This was the motivation for Baars to work on a new list of the victims of the Second World War. The commemorative book In Memoriam 1940-1945 was published in 1952, commissioned by the Executive Board of Leiden University. It contains a list of the names of 663 students alumni and staff who died in death camps, were executed because they were members of the Resistance or perished during the war in Asia. The book mentions the year and place of death of each person. 

‘Everyone should have a face’

Baars, an external PhD candidate, who is conducting research on the published memories of camp experiences, was gripped by the bare list giving just the names of the victims and the dates and places where they died. ‘Every one of these victims should have a face. I want to give these victims back their stories.' She went looking for the stories and discovered that many of the victims’ stories were actually known. Last year she mentioned several examples in the article  ‘Leiden victims of WWII are given a face’. Now she has added further personal information to the In Memorian list, as this new version of In Memoriam 1940-1945 shows. Baars is working together with the national War Graves Foundation that also gathers many portraits of victims on the website. If a visitor to the site searches for 'Leiden University', he or she will find all the victims who are known to have been connected with Leiden University.  Everyone is welcome to add to the list with photos and any missing information. 

Gerrit Kastijn. Photo: War Graves Association

Suicide

Besides the database of the War Graves Foundation, Baars also found information on the website of the Jewish Monument and Leiden4045. She also traced a lot of personal information in books, articles and other sources. There are some things you do have to bear in mind when looking at the new In Memoriam list, Baars advises. Not everyone on the list died a cruel death; we know that some of the people on the list, such as Professor of General History Johan Huizinga, died from natural causes. A relatively high number of those who died apparently committed suicide; seven in May 1940 and others later in the war. These include neurologist and Resistance fighter Gerrit Kastein who jumped from a window during his arrest in 1943. Or Elsa Molhuyzen-Oppenheim, who worked at the University Library until she was dismissed because she was Jewish.  

Work in progress

The list as it now is remains a 'work in progress', Baars emphasises. 'New stories crop up and additions are always welcome.'Earlier this year, for example, 82-year-old Leonard Wolfsbergen telephoned because he couldn't find his father Amandus on the list. He was there, but because the list is arranged by year of arrival, he was hard to find. In the new file you can also search by surname. You do need to remember that there may be differences in the spelling of names in and from the former Dutch East Indies. 

Amundus Wolfsbergen. Photo: War Graves Association

Amandus Wolfsbergen

At the Memorial Culture and Leiden University symposium on 4 May, an initiative of Professor Yra van Dijk, Baars will talk about her research, focusing on the stories of several victims, such as Amandus Wolfsbergen (1903-1944), a Jewish lawyer.  Wolfsbergen started his study of Dutch Law in Leiden in 1921, and also obtained his doctorate here. He became a partner in a Rotterdam Law Office and married  Dora Ebes, with whom he had a son. Because of his Jewish origin, he was dismissed in November that year as substitute judge at the Rotterdam law court. 

In his last letter from Westerbork Wolfsbergen wrote to his wife: "Here is my book at last. I would like to have it published if that is possible. Would you get in touch with Aad [Schadee to whom the manuscript was entrusted] about this. . (…) I seem to have written a kind of will, and yet it is not that at all. It's not that I  believe this is a 'must'; it is simply my desire, if possible, to arrange everything in advance."

In the early years of the war, Wolfsbergen was working on an important legal publication Onrechtmatige daad. (Unlawful Act). From September 1943 he had a key position in the Jewish Council in Rotterdam. He and others members of the legal circle collected money to help Jews who were in hiding. His position in the Jewish Council did not prevent Wolfsbergen himself being arrested in April 1944. He was taken to Westerbork, and then to Auschwitz, where he did on 20 November 1944.  The University Press published Onrechtmatige daad in 1946, with an 'In Memoriam' written by Professor of  Civil Law Eduard Meijers (who was also persecuted during the war because of his Jewish descent). The book was to be the leading publication for several decades on article 1401 of the old Civil Code. 

Herta Mohr. Photo: War Graves Association

Egyptologist Herta Mohr

Another tragic example is the history of Egyptologist Herta Mohr (1914-1945). At the memorial symposium on 4 May, Leiden PhD candidate Nicky van de Beek will talk about this Catholic woman of Jewish descent. During a study of a tomb in the National Museum of Antiquities she came across the study conducted by Mohr, who, like Vande Beek, had examined this same tomb.  In the 1930s Mohr fled from Vienna with her family. She studied  Egyptology in Leiden and was a member of student association Augustinus. In the war she was working on a book about the tomb of Egyptian judge and priest Hetepherakhty (who lived in around 2,400 BC). Mohr had black and white photos with many details of the decoration of the grave, but because the chapel was no longer accessible in the war, she had to base her facsimile drawings on photos taken by an earlier researcher. 

Died shortly before the end of the  war

In 1942 she was arrested and sent to Westerbork. Shortly before that or during her time in Westerbork she wrote the foreword of her book on the tomb. The book was published in 1943 and made a big impression; a number of  German universities even bought copies during the war. After Westerbork, Mohr was sent to Auschwitz. According to official records, she died on 15 April 1945 in Bergen-Belsen, although she may actually have died earlier en route to this death camp, Van de Beek explains.   

Monument for the whole academic community

Baars is curious whether more new information will come to light as a result of the new list and the memorial symposium. But, she stresses, the list will never be completely finished. The complete list should be regarded as a monument to the whole university community affected by the war.'