HOWELL TOWNSHIP, Mich. (AP) — Antoine Brouwer was born in Detroit almost 90 years ago and died, still a young man, in the Netherlands weeks after World War II ended in Europe.
That much is clear.
His final resting place remains unknown. But that is just one of the mysteries that Howell Township resident Ray Noble hopes to solve before all links to his late uncle are lost for good, Livingston County Daily Press & Argus (http://bit.ly/1A7x1LF ) reported.
Via email, he’s been pulling together records that offer fleeting glimpses of the 19-year-old known to family members as “Ton.”
“It’s like a jigsaw puzzle. I’ve been trying to put it together piece by piece,” Noble said.
Noble hopes to identify his uncle’s burial site within the next year as a gift for his elderly mother, whose stories kept alive memories of a man he’d never met.
It’s a story of an American who died abroad as a civilian, not a solider.
But Noble’s research, while not yet complete, sheds additional light on his uncle’s life and death.
Based on what he has so far uncovered in brief passages from archived government records, Noble is convinced his uncle was imprisoned and used as a forced laborer by the Nazis.
“This was a teenager — a U.S. citizen — and the Nazis knew he was a U.S. citizen,” Noble said.
“This is a story the world needs to hear — that the Nazis actually used an American citizen as a slave laborer.”
His beliefs are underscored by a vintage German-language document he received through the archives of the International Tracing Service, an organization that maintains records on wartime atrocities conducted in Nazi-occupied lands.
That document clearly states his uncle’s birthplace as Detroit. Noble says the family moved to Michigan from the Netherlands but moved back during the Great Depression for a simple reason.
“There was no work here,” he said.
While Noble has yet to obtain a complete translation, the typewritten document indicates his uncle worked from November 1944 to March 1945 on the Reichsbahn, Germany’s national railroad during the Nazi era.
Records also show his job was in Hamm, a German city 85 miles east of the Dutch border. The city remains a major rail center to this day.
It isn’t clear what he did, but Noble said the information gave him chills.
“I used to visit the Holocaust Center (in Farmington Hills) with schoolchildren,” said Noble, a former bus driver. “They have a boxcar that was one of the last ones used to transport people to the concentration camps. I thought, ‘My God, what if he worked on that car?‘ “
Despite an earlier pledge of nonaggression, Nazi troops occupied all or parts of the Netherlands from May 1940 to May 1945.
Best remembered through “The Diary of Anne Frank,” the occupation was devastating for Dutch Jews. An estimated 75 percent of the country’s prewar Jewish population — more than 110,000 people — perished, most in concentration camps.
The “hunger winter,” a famine that began in late 1944, added devastation to the nation as a whole.
Records obtained from the Dutch Red Cross indicated that Brouwer died at a medical facility in Vaals, Netherlands, on Sept. 4, 1945 — almost four months to the day after European hostilities ended.
The official cause of death was listed as kidney failure, a condition Noble believes was linked to his treatment by the Nazis.
“They literally worked him to death,” he said.
The Red Cross also told him that his uncle was interred at a Protestant cemetery in the city — contrasting Noble’s mother’s longstanding belief that her brother had been placed in a Catholic cemetery.
Despite numerous efforts to contact church and municipal officials, the trail has ended there.
“If they moved him, where did they move him to?” Noble said.
Noble hasn’t given up his search. He hopes more information will turn up in the coming months.
Stories about this year’s 70th anniversary of the D-Day Invasion, the event that set Europe’s liberation in motion, provided fresh inspiration.
So did the death last year of his brother, a man who carried his uncle’s name.
“We both suffered heart attacks the same day,” Noble said. “I made it, but he didn’t.”
Noble understands that finding the burial site won’t solve all the mysteries.
He knows that he and his mother may never visit his uncle’s grave site even if he finds it.
“That would be nice, but a trip to the Netherlands is something we probably couldn’t afford,” he said.
Still, he hopes his research will provide answers to a missing piece of family history, and maybe even world history.
“It would be nice to know,” Noble said. “That would be enough.”
Information from: Livingston County Daily Press & Argus, http://www.livingstondaily.com