Transit Camp Westerbork, Netherlands

Camp Westerbork, the Netherlands

In 1938, tensions are building up in Europe. Although the Europeans still hope to avoid yet another war, the developments in Germany are very alarming. In the recent years it has changed it’s political course and the Nazi Party has gained full control the country. Things have changed dramatically for the German and Austrian Jews. The Night of Broken Glass and the burning of books in 1938 shakes them and the people of Europe rudely.

Many German and Austrian Jews flee their homeland in hope for a safe haven in the neighboring countries. Many German jews reach the Netherlands, next to other destinations of course. Until in 1938, the Netherlands closes its borders to refugees, in hope to keep their “neutrality” towards Germany intact.

Refugee Camp Westerbork

In 1939 the Dutch Government decides to build a refugee camp to give the German Jews a home and safety. This camp was located near the small town of Westerbork. On October the 9th in 1939 the first occupants arrive, these are 22 refugees of 900 who tried to flee to Cuba by boat, but failed in their attempt.

The Dutch hope to stay neutral, like in World War I, but on the 10th of May 1940 Germany invades the Netherlands. Fall Gelb, the attack on the Low Countries starts in the Netherlands with the attack of German Fallschirmjäger. They are dropped at key objectives, bridges and airports, to take over and hold until the panzer divisions reach the paratroopers and relieve them.

A maquette of Camp Westerbork

German take over Camp Westerbork

After Hitler unleashed his Blitzkrieg on the Netherlands, things would change for the refugees of Camp Westerbork.
Although at first the camp was left untouched by the Germans, it was not until the successes of the war started to take its course on the Wehrmacht and the need of laborers arose. But the final solution changed things drastically for the refugees in Camp Westerbork.

In 1942 the camp came under control of the SD, the Sicherheitsdienst. This Security Service was the intelligence agency of the SS and the Nazi party. Commander Erich Deppner was put in charge of the camp and let the former Dutch General Manager J. Schol stay in service as well.
A few days after Deppner took control of the camp, the SD fenced the complete compound. In a matter of days refugees became prisoners, losing their freedom instantly.

On the 13th and 14th of July 1942, mixed married couples were separated, forced to say goodbye to their loved ones. About 1200 people had to leave their partners behind in Camp Westerbork.

“Forbidden for Jews” – Camp Westerbork, the Netherlands

The next day, on July 15th 1942, the Nazi’s gave a rural command, that all Jews had to report for labor. This was the first sign things were changing rapidly in the Netherlands. To house all the Laborers the order was given to expand Camp Westerbork. 24 new barracks were built to house more Dutch and German Jews.
Beds for the new arrivals came in from the Maginot line in France, stacked three high to make the most use of space in the barracks.

A barrack with the bed bunks (from the Maginot Line), Camp Westerbork, the Netherlands

Deportation of Jews

Also on the 15 of July 1942 the first transport of jews departed for Auschwitz. 1137 people were on this first train, of which more than 830 of German origin.
Camp Commander Deppner ordered that the 51 orphans of the camp should be on this first transport to Auschwitz. General Manager Schol objected fiercely against this decision. But Deppner insured him of their well being and that they would be taken to an orphanage in Auschwitz.

When the teacher of the orphans, Mr. S. Calabash, heard about the departure he volunteered to travel along with the children for their comfort and guidance on their journey to their new home.

Upon arrival in Auschwitz most of the 1137 got jobs and were put to work instantly. A smaller group was murdered on arrival.
A report from the Red Cross shows that in late august 1942 only 35 to 40 from the first transport were still alive. Only seven, including one woman, survived the war from the 1137. All the 51 orphans including their teacher were murdered in Auschwitz.

A sign for the transportation between Westerbork and Auschwitz

From the first transport on, every week, mostly on Tuesdays, a train departed from Camp Westerbork.
Jews, Roma, Sinti, and resistance fighters were transported to different camps in Auschwitz, Bergen Belsen, Sobibór or Theresienstadt.
On the 9th of October 1942 Commander Josef Hugo Dischner took over from Commander Deppner, then Martin Bohrmann was in command for a few days and finally from 12 October 1942 until April 1945 the SS commander Albert Konrad Gemmeker ruled the camp.

Camp Westerbork was different than most camps we know of. Unlike concentration camp Bergen Belsen or transit camp Amersfoort, whole families lived in the camp. There was work, education, schools for the children and means for relaxation. Torture or ill treatment of the prisoners was not common practice in Westerbork.
Some executions took place though. Performed by a Dutch SD member Pieter Johan Faber and his brother, a Dutch SS member, Klaas Faber. The latter was part of Action Silbertanne (Action Silver Fir), a murderous group active in the northern part of the Netherlands.

The original house of Camp Commander Gemmeker is still there in Camp Westerbork, the Netherlands

From July 1942 to September 1944, 93 trains deported more than 107.000 people from Camp Westerbork to concentration camps in the German Reich. Only 5200 of these people survived the holocaust. Most of the 5200 were liberated in Bergen Belsen.

Camp Westerbork was home to some well know victims of the Nazi regime. Anne Frank, her sister Margot and her mom and dad stayed in Westerbork.
Settela Steinbach, a gypsy child known for the famous picture of the child in a train ready for deportation stayed in Westerbork as well. Etty Hillesum (like Anna known for her diary), Philip Mechanicus (a reporter for a Dutch newspaper) and Dora Gerson (cabaret singer / actress) all of them imprisoned in Westerbork.

The deportation of Setella Steinbach, Photo from Wikipedia

The last train left Westerbork on 13 September 1944 to Bergen Belsen.

Liberation of Camp Westerbork

On April the 12th 1945 Camp Westerbork was liberated by Canadian soldiers of the 2nd infantry division. The first soldiers to arrive at the camp belonged to the 8th reconnaissance regiment directly followed by the Sasquatch regiment. At this time about 850 prisoners lived in the camp.

In the Aftermath of World War Two camp Westerbork was used to imprison Dutch collaborators.

View of Camp Westerbork today – the Netherlands

Camp Westerbork in numbers

From camp Westerbork more than 107.000 people were deported to Germany;

  • ± 101.000 Dutch Jews
  • ± 5.000 German Jews
  • ± 400 Gypsies
  • ± 400 Female resistance fighters

Destination of the 93 trains;

  • 65 went to Auschwitz                                               – 60.330 most of them gassed on arrival
  • 19 went to Sobibór                                                   – 34.313 Deported, 34.295 killed on arrival
  • 9 went to Bergen Belsen and Theresienstadt     – 4.894, ± 2.000 survived the war
Memorial stones for the train deportations at Camp Westerbork, the Netherlands

Visit Camp Westerbork

Nowadays Camp Westerbork is open to the public. It has a beautiful documentation center, with a good collection of books and films about camp Westerbork and the holocaust in general.

You can visit the former camp grounds. There is a free bus that will take you there from the documentation center, or you can choose to take a nice walk through the woods, about 3 kilometers from the documentation center.
In the seventies al the barracks were demolished, but there is still lots to see. The location of the barracks are marked with grassy hills, to give you an idea of the size and number of barracks. Information signs next to them tell you what the barrack was used for. Some barracks have been partly reconstructed to give the visitor some more sense of what it was like.

Replica of a barrack at Camp Westerbork, the Netherlands

In the centre of the former camp grounds is huge reminder of the victims that were deported and killed from camp Westerbork in the Second World War.
A 102.000 memorial stones represent all perished by the holocaust or due to forced labour.

A view of the square with memorial stones for the victims of Camp Westerbork, the Netherlands

A piece of rail is still present in the camp, bend to the sky next to a guard tower as a memorial. Camp Commander Gemmeker’s original house stands right beside the camp grounds, unfortunately on our arrival it was under construction.

The train tracks at Camp Westerbork, the Netherlands
Memorial stone placed by Israeli president Chaim Herzog in 1993 at Camp Westerbork

Check the website if you like more information about visiting Camp Westerbork.

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