My Dutch grandfather was a sort of a secret until last year. Grandfather in Dutch is ‘Opa’ and the Opa I knew was not my mum’s officially recorded father. My Dutch family does not talk a lot about this. I don’t think they want to keep it a secret, it’s just no one really knows what exactly happened to him during world war two.
A few years after my mum had passed away I began to wonder who my mum’s father, my actual Opa really was. After my mum divorced she changed her surname back to her maiden name – the family name of my grandfather: Akkermans. But that was not enough to find out who he was. There are hundreds if not thousands of Akkermans in the Netherlands.
I requested a copy of my mum’s birth certificate from the Dordrecht town hall. The original entry listed my grandfather’s full name: Hermanus Petrus Akkermans.
Now I had the full name of my grandfather. But what happened to him? According to this document, he married my grandmother Hendrika Schefferlie a few months after my mum was born. With this information, I searched for Hermanus Petrus Akkermans death certificate: ki
I learned that he was born in the Brabant village of Vught. That in itself is interesting. While I was working in Singapore I had two job offers: one offer was to return to the UK and work in Bolton near Manchester, UK. The other offer was in Breda, Brabant, the Netherlands. I chose Breda, to be closer to my mum. Now I live not far away from the village of Vught where H.P. Akkermans was born.
I also learned that Hermanus Petrus Akkermans died on December 13, 1943 in Hamburg Harburg, but is buried at the War cemetery Loenen in the Netherlands. I looked up my grandfathers grave via the Dutch War Cemetary Foundation and found this entry. How did he get there?
I traveled to Loenen, paid my respect and learned that Hermanus Petrus Akkermans had been taken as forced labourer to Hamburg Harburg. I can only speculate on the most likely cause of his death and this is what I found out:
On December 13, 1943, the 445th Bombardment Group, was targeting Bremen and Kiel. More than 600 aircraft were dispatched. Poor visibility meant that 78 B-17s continued to strike ‘targets of opportunity’ in Hamburg. It is very likely that my grandfather was killed during that air raid: the day of the bombing is the day of his recorded death.
The Hamburg Centre for political education and the concentration camp foundation of Neuengamme publish an interactive chart showing the locations of all known forced labour- and concentration camps in and around Hamburg.
I discovered that my grandfather most likely worked for the Phoenix AG in Hamburg-Harburg in of their camps. My German half likes to think that he stayed in an open camp, unlike the closed camps for Eastern Europeans or POWs.
The Phoenix AG produced rubber products and my grandfather being a shoemaker had the skills they needed. Phoenix AG was bought by Continental AG in 2004. Continental AG produces car tires.
Every time I see Continental tires, I think of my Dutch grandfather. I contacted the company but never heard back from them. It would have been nice to have had at least an acknowledgment of my request.
I could not have found out any of this without online access to government archives or Hamburg’s interactive forced labour camp map. It feels good to know what happened to ‘Opa’.
My grandfather’s story shows how successful Europeans have managed to keep the peace for over 70 years. This is a huge achievement in the history of Europe. Hermanus Petrus Akkermans’ story is a reminder of how fragile peace really is. Let’s make sure we keep that peace for all of us and those that follow. Like our children and my son.