Two weeks ago I had never heard of the archives of the Dutch Red Cross. But then in two days a Belgian archivist, a Dutch editor and a footnote all suggested that I needed to go there. They were right.

Like its counterparts everywhere, the Dutch Red Cross acted as a missing persons bureau during and after the second world war. In fact, as soon as the way was cleared into Germany, they sent teams in to gather up as much documentation about missing Dutch nationals as they could find. (They weren’t the only ones, “capturing” German documents was a bit of a sport at the time). They also asked all repatriates to fill out a form specifying with whom they had been arrested, which prisons and/or camps they had been in, who they had seen die where, and who they had seen be transferred to which prison or camp. But a quirk of Dutch law pushed the efforts of the Dutch RC Information Bureau beyond anyone else’s. The Dutch required that death certificates be issued by the town in which the death occurred.

It was hard enough to figure out what happened to a missing person in 1945 let alone get a death certificate from the town clerk of Auschwitz or Bergen-Belsen. Yet without the death certificate widows and orphans could not collect life insurance or apply for pensions or benefits. Property could not be sold or estates settled. Survivors were gridlocked financially as well as emotionally.

The families turned to the Red Cross not only to discover their missing loved ones but to provide a death certificate for those who would never return. And the Red Cross did its utmost to help in extremely difficult circumstances and despite the town clerks in Germany who kept writing back to demand more documentation from Dutch town clerks.

Finally a court case impelled the Dutch supreme court to make an exception to the rules regarding death certificates. As of 1949 the Ministry of Justice and the Ministry of Social Affairs were able to issue them based on the most probable place and date of death as determined by the Dutch Red Cross. In order to do that the RC Information Bureau reconstructed every transport that left the Netherlands into booklets that specify how many prisoners were on the train, where it stopped, how many people were taken off where. They collected the card indexes of the Amsterdam Jewish Council and of prisons and camps in the Netherlands. They gathered up official photocopies of the prisoner registers from concentration camps across the Third Reich.

But of course the Red Cross helps anyone in need so they also have dossiers on the thousands of Dutch men who volunteered to fight Bolshevism in German uniform and disappeared on the Russian Front. They also have forms of Dutch nationals who found themselves in Brussels in 1944 and list after list after list of Dutch citizens incarcerated by the Japanese in the Netherlands East Indies.

Extraordinarily, what the archives of the Information Bureau of the Dutch Red Cross has, is a detailed register of the displacement of the Dutch population by the Second World War.

That includes a good many Dutch members of Dutch-Paris who were arrested and/or deported by the Germans. My thanks to Raymund Schütz who has not only gone far out of his way to help me find the files of people whose names are often misspelled, but has made room for me in the archivists’ office to read through them.