As It Happens

Thousands of Nazi artifacts looted from Netherlands war museum

War museums across the Netherlands have experienced similar break-ins by highly organized thieves, stealing items linked to the Nazi regime.

'I'm a bit paralyzed': museum owner estimates $1.5 million worth of items stolen

Mannequins at the Oorlogsmuseum in Ossendrecht, Netherlands, depicting Nazi soldiers during German occupation from 1940-1945. Thieves stole most of the German artifacts from the museum. (Submitted by Jan de Jonge)

Read Story Transcript

Jan de Jonge has spent most of his life collecting artifacts and uncovering their histories for his war museum in the Netherlands. But he says he hasn't had the heart to work ever since thieves stole more than $1 million worth of items in an overnight raid.

De Jonge says that the most valuable items, 23 mannequins, were stolen from his Oorlogsmuseum in Ossendrecht, near the Belgium border. Most wore the uniforms, parachutes and firearms of the Waffen-SS, the military branch of the Nazi Party. 

"It's very sad for me. I'm 77-years-old and I collected all my life," de Jonge told As It Happens host Carol Off. "It was fairly difficult to get together. Some have long-time memories, and now that's all lost."

Although he could not provide an exact value for the stolen items, he estimated the value of at around 1 million euros ($1.5 million Cdn).

Rash of thefts of Nazi paraphernalia 

De Jonge's wasn't the only museum targeted by thieves. War museums across the Netherlands have experienced similar break-ins by highly organized thieves, each time stealing items linked to Adolf Hitler's Waffen-SS military and other parts of the Nazi regime, the Guardian reports. 

Museums in Ossendrecht, in north Brabant, and in Beek, Limburg have all been hit in recent weeks and months. 

But for de Jonge, the looting hits close to home, as he lives in his museum.

He built his original museum in the shed at his family house in the village of Sinoutskerke after quitting a job in education, he said. He later moved it to Ossendrecht after finding the perfect house with a built-in space for the museum. 

Jan de Jonge is the owner of the Oorlogsmuseum in Ossendrecht. (Submitted by Jan de Jonge)

The Oorlogsmuseum in Ossendrecht was running its normal programming for the elderly one morning two weeks ago when De Jonge says he realized something was wrong.

"I went in the back for some wood for the stove. Then I saw a bicycle standing outside. How is that possible? Normally, it's in the museum," he said.

"Then I discovered that the back door, the escape door, was destroyed. Then I ran down and I could not believe my eyes."

Thieves had made off with thousands of items the night before, including one that stood just five feet away from his bed, separated by a wall. 

"That's the strange thing," he said. "We did not hear a thing, and I discovered it the next day."

The Nazi artifacts he collected are considered to be extremely valuable, he said. 

He says he has closely studied the history Dutch soldiers and the entire events of the Second World War in the region. He and a group of volunteers found artifacts from the beginning of the war belonging to the French troops and then later the Germans. 

"Most of the uniforms collected were German because these paratroopers were fighting in this area. It was defended by the Germans and we were liberated by the Canadians," de Jonge said.

He says the thefts can likely be attributed to the rarity and value of Nazi artifacts. 

"After the war, everyone hated the Germans, so they threw away a lot of things. And that's the reason it's now so scarce," he says. "They [the thieves] took that chance to take it for free."

De Jonge says Nazi items are valuable because they are scarce. (Submitted by Jan de Jonge)

He noted, however, that they took at least one item that has little commercial value. 

"There is also a helmet stolen with a very special history. It was a very bad rusty helmet, but the history was so interesting. It [had] a big hole in it from shrapnel and some dents.… I found it 45 years ago on the border of a ditch. Only four or five years ago, we found out who was the owner of the helmet. In that particular place, where I found the helmet, there was only one German soldier [who had] died," he said.

"That rusty helmet has no value, only emotional value. And we cannot understand why they took that as well."

There have been no arrests yet in connection to the thefts. As the investigation proceeds, de Jonge says he has little motivation to work. 

"I'm a bit … paralyzed. I did not work much the last two weeks," he said. 

Written by Mehek Mazhar. Interview produced by Jeanne Armstrong.

Add some “good” to your morning and evening.

A variety of newsletters you'll love, delivered straight to you.

Sign up now