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Transit Camps in the Netherlands

Last Update 16 August 2006






Westerbork

Camp Map
Camp Map
The town of Westerbork is situated in the northeast of the Netherlands in the province of Drenthe, about 130 km (80 miles) north of Amsterdam. In a resolution proposed by the Minister of Home Affairs and approved by the Dutch cabinet on 13 February 1939, it was determined to construct a camp "to house the refugees from Germany that live in this country". Opened on 9 October 1939, the costs of constructing the camp, amounting to 1.25 million gulden, were charged to the Jewish Refugee Committee in the Netherlands.
When the Germans invaded the Netherlands in May 1940, there were 750 refugees resident in the camp. Initially moved to Leeuwarden, they were moved back to Westerbork following the Dutch surrender. The camp came under the control of the Ministry of Justice on 16 July 1940. Refugees from other camps were subsequently moved to Westerbork, which by 1941 had a population of 1,100 in 200 small wooden houses. In the words of one commentator, it was a site "about as inhospitable as could be, far from the civilized world in the isolation of the Drenthe moorland, difficult to reach, with unpaved roads where even the slightest shower would turn the sand to mud." The camp was also plagued by hosts of flies during the summer months.

Watchtower
Watchtower *
Warning Sign
At the end of 1941, the Germans decided that Westerbork would become a transit camp for Jews destined to be deported to the east. Measuring 500x500 m, the camp was surrounded by a barbed-wire fence. 24 large wooden barracks were constructed. Eventually there were to be 107 such barracks, each designed to hold 300 people. The costs of this building work and of the camp's maintenance were to be financed from the proceeds of confiscated Jewish property, an amount that was to exceed 10 million gulden for 1942/43. During the first six months of 1942, 400 German Jews were transferred to Westerbork from cities in the Netherlands from which Dutch Jews had been evicted to Amsterdam.

Gemmeker
On 1 July 1942, the Befehlshaber der Sicherheitspolizei und des SD took control of the camp, and SS troops arrived to reinforce the Dutch military police guards. Erich Deppner, a member of the German administration in the Netherlands was appointed camp commandant, to be succeeded by an SS officer, Josef Hugo Dischner on 1 September 1942. Both men having proved to be equally incompetent, Albert Konrad Gemmeker became commandant on 12 October 1942. Gemmeker left the day-to day operation of the camp in the hands of German Jews, as had been the case from inception, an arrangement which was not to change even when the majority of the inmates were Dutch. The inmates rarely saw members of the SS other than Gemmeker. On 13 July 1942, most of the people who had lived in the camp, many of them for as long as two years, were dismissed from the camp administration. Those dismissed included virtually everybody who was not deemed purely Jewish by Nazi criteria. One day later all inmates born between 1902 and 1925 were examined on behalf of the Arbeitseinsatz (Work Allocation Department). Deppner explained: "Your labour is also needed for our victory."

Gemmeker's House in 2006
Gemmeker's House in 2006
The transfer of Jews from Amsterdam to Westerbork began on the night of 14/15 July 1942, and the first transport left for Auschwitz on the following day. In addition, on 15 July the Dutch railroad company Nederlandse Spoorwegen received an order for the construction of a 5 km railroad into Camp Westerbork. The timetable for the trains, their size and destination were determined by Adolf Eichmann's lVB4 office. Gemmeker left the composition of the transports to the Jewish camp leadership (Kampleiding). However, certain inmates, such as those of foreign nationality or veteran servicemen were exempt from transportation. Beginning on 2 February 1943, deportation trains left Westerbork on Tuesdays, although there were periods in which no deportations took place. Initially transports were in cattle wagons, although passenger cars were later also utilised.

Unlike other transit camps, Westerbork maintained a semi-permanent population who remained in the camp for a considerable time, ran their own affairs and maintained a near-normal life, especially in the periods when there were no deportations. Elie Cohen, a doctor, was in Westerbork for 8 months before being sent to Auschwitz. Whilst never pleasant, conditions in the camp were far more bearable than in the transit camps in the east, although the water supply was bad, and washing and sanitary facilities were inadequate. The great majority of those who passed through the camp only stayed for a week or two before boarding eastward bound trains, despite the Kampleiding's attempts to save people from deportation by providing them with jobs within the camp. For example, prisoners were enrolled in the Ordedienst, or in the Fliegende Kolonne, a section who were responsible for ensuring the transfer of deportees to the railway station in the nearby village of Hooghalen, used before the railroad into the camp became operational.

Those Jews who had been caught in hiding within Holland were labelled "Convict Jews" and were placed in a punishment block, Barrack 67. Unlike other inmates, they were not allowed to keep their own clothes, but were forced to wear blue overalls and wooden clogs. Men and women in the punishment block had their hair shaved, received no soap, less food than other prisoners and were forced to work in the most arduous labour details.

Arrival at Westerbork
Arrival at Westerbork *
Departure from Westerbork
Departure from Westerbork *
The camp administration consisted of twelve subdivisions. On 12 August 1943, one of the subdivision heads, Kurt Schlesinger, was appointed chief of the department dealing with the vital main card index, from which the list of deportees was compiled. A Joodsche Ordedienst (Jewish Police Force), commanded by an Austrian, Arthur Pisk, was also created, with a maximum strength of 200 young men responsible for maintaining order within the camp and at the transports. Westerbork took on many of the characteristics of a small town. There was a hospital headed by Dr F M Spanier, with 1,800 beds, a maternity ward, laboratories, pharmacies, 120 doctors and a further 1,000 employees. Other facilities included an old people's home, a huge modern kitchen, a school for children aged 6-14, an orphanage and religious services. Workshops existed for stocking repair, tailoring, furniture manufacturing, and bookbinding. There were divisions for locksmiths, decorators, bricklayers, carpenters, veterinarians, opticians and gardeners. The camp included an electro-technical division, a garage and boiler room, a sewage works, and a telephone exchange. In 1943, when the "permanent" population was at its peak, 6,035 people were employed at the camp, not all of whom were Jewish.

Although men and women were segregated at night, there was no restriction on their movements during the day. Services within the camp included dental clinics, hairdressers, photographers and a postal system. Various sporting activities were available, including boxing, tug-of-war and gymnastics. Gemmeker encouraged entertainment activities there was a cabaret, a choir and a ballet troupe. Toiletries, toys and plants could be purchased from the camp warehouse. There were no shortages in the camp, since it was regularly supplied by the Dutch administration and Gemmeker had a fund at his disposal appropriated from the Jewish property that had been confiscated.

In case it should be thought that this was an idyllic existence, it should be born in mind that every inmate had the spectre of imminent death hanging over them. The railway line into the camp had been completed in November 1942 and allowed trains into the centre of the compound. 101,525 of the 107,000 Dutch Jews deported to the east were interned at Westerbork 41,156 men, 45,867 women and 14,502 children. More than 95% of those deported from the camp perished.

Postcard from 1943
Postcard from 1943
Fear of death dominated Westerbork and defined the behaviour of many of its inmates. Although no detailed knowledge about the destination of the transports was known, the prisoners were only too aware that the Germans were not planning anything that would prove to the deportees benefit. In order to keep their names off the transport lists, people would do anything "sacrifice their last hoarded halfpenny, their jewels, their clothes, their food, or in the case of young girls, their bodies."
As each Tuesday approached, every inmate had to endure the trauma of possible deportation. A single example of the horrific nature of these transports will suffice. An eyewitness, Philip Mechanicus, a renowned journalist and author of a camp diary, recorded on 10 June 1943:
"About fifty children who were on the transports from Vught have been admitted, dispersed in the isolation barracks for the ill. They suffer from scarlet fever, measles, pneumonia, and mumps."

On 8 February 1944, a transport of more than 1,000 Jews was deported from Westerbork to Auschwitz-Birkenau. Among them were 268 of the camp's hospital patients, including children with scarlet fever and diphtheria. Many of the sick were brought to the train on stretchers. On arrival at Auschwitz-Birkenau , 142 men and 73 women were admitted to the camp. The remaining 800 deportees, including all of the children, were gassed. Mechanicus wrote:
"Of all these bestial transports, perhaps this was the most fiendish."

Many of the sick were brought to the train on stretchers. On arrival at Auschwitz-Birkenau, 142 men and 73 women were admitted to the camp. The remaining 800 deportees, including all of the children, were gassed. The final transport from the Netherlands to Auschwitz was on 3 September 1944. Two days later the camp was crowded with members of the NSB (Dutch Nazi Party), who tried to flee to Germany after false rumours of an invasion of the country by Allied forces ("Mad Tuesday"). The last transport to Bergen-Belsen left on 15 September 1944. After this deportation, less than 1,000 inmates remained in Westerbork.

Gemmeker remained an enigmatic figure. He rarely raised his voice or dealt out punishments to the prisoners, and was said to be incorruptible. He took an interest in the camp's entertainments and afterwards joked with the performers. Jewish gardeners cultivated flowers for him and he was treated by Jewish doctors and dentists. Yet on Tuesdays he stood quietly watching the trains depart for the east. Gemmeker had a film made in Westerbork which was to show everything, good and bad, of the camp's daily life. Scenes from the film appear frequently in Shoah-related documentaries. One particularly haunting image from the film, that of a 9 year-old girl staring from the doorway of a cattle wagon, has become synonymous with the Holocaust. The girl, who was in fact not Jewish, but Roma, was named Settela Steinbach. She perished in Auschwitz-Birkenau.

On 12 April 1945, as allied forces approached Westerbork, Gemmeker handed the camp over to Schlesinger. On that day, there were 876 prisoners in the camp, of whom 569 were Dutch. The remainder were of various nationalities, or stateless. Gemmeker was sentenced to 10 years imprisonment by a post-war Dutch court. Extenuating circumstances were taken into account in arriving at the sentence, in that "in general he had treated Jews decently during their stay in the camp."

As with some other transit camps, Westerbork had its own currency.

See Westerbork today!


Vught

Camp Map
Camp Map
Chmielewski
Originally established as a Schutzhaftlager for Dutch political prisoners, the camp at Vught, near the southern city of `s Hertogenbosch, capital of the province of Noord-Brabant, was taken over in late 1942 by the WVHA (Wirtschaftsverwaltungshauptamt - SS Economic-Administrative Main Office). Now designated KL Herzogenbusch, the camp became part concentration camp housing political prisoners, and part transit camp for Jews. Karl Chmielewski was appointed camp commandant. Chmielewski had previously served at KL Mauthausen/Gusen, and on his appointment transferred 80 Kapos from that camp to Vught. However, in contrast to Mauthausen, there were strict instructions to refrain from mistreating prisoners at Vught. Experience at Westerbork had shown that deportations were more easily managed if cruelty was avoided.

The camp, measuring 500x200 m, consisted of 36 living and 23 working barracks. A double barbed-wire fence with a ditch between them surrounded the camp. Watchtowers were placed every 50 m around the perimeter. Situated outside the camp boundary were the SS barracks, an execution area and a Philips industrial plant.

Grünewald
Hüttig
The first Jewish prisoners arrived in Vught in January 1943 and by May 1943 their number had grown to 8,684. There were also non-Jewish prisoners in the Schutzhaftlager section. Conditions in the camp were very poor, although some improvement occurred following a visit by David Cohen of the Joodsche Raad. From April 1943, a number of male prisoners were sent to work outside the camp, although most inmates were employed within the camp in the manufacture of clothing and furs. The most desirable workplace was that of the Philips company, where 1,200 prisoners were employed. The company insisted that its Jewish workers should enjoy decent conditions, including a hot meal every day and also not be subject to deportation. Dr Arthur Lehmann was appointed head of the Jewish administration in the camp in October 1943. He did his best to care for the prisoners and was very popular with them. For a time religious and cultural activities had taken place and a school had functioned, but circumstances changed for the worse with the appointment of Chmielewski's successor, Adam Grünewald in October 1943. Grünewald was removed in turn in January 1944 because of the excessive punishments he had meted out, and was succeeded by Hans Hüttig.

Childrens Memorial
Childrens Memorial
A proclamation was issued by the Vught Kampleiding on 5 June 1943. Two transports were to be sent to "a special children's camp". In accordance with the terms of the proclamation, all children up to the age of 3 were to be accompanied by their mothers and those aged between 3 and 16 by one of their parents. The "special children's camp" was Sobibor. The first train, containing 1,750 victims, many of them unaccompanied sick children, arrived at Westerbork on 7 June 1943. The second arrived a day later. 1,300 tired, filthy people were transferred, "amid snarling and shouting, beating and pummelling" from the dirty freight cars in which they had arrived to the dirty freight cars that would transport them to Sobibor.

With the exception of two transports which were directed to Auschwitz, all transports from Vught were routed via Westerbork. The first of these transports to Westerbork had left at the end of January 1943, shortly after the transit camp at Vught had been established. The camp's population peaked in May 1943 but steadily declined until 3 June 1944, when the camp was liquidated. The last group to be transported from Vught, on 3 June 1944, was made up of 517 Philips' employees, the company having failed to save them, but even in Auschwitz this group received preferential treatment, being employed by Telefunken under an agreement made between Telefunken and Philips. Nonetheless, most of the men in this party perished. 160 of the group survived; two-thirds were women and 9 were children.

Today the former camp is part of the army barracks of the Dutch Royal Engineers.


Barneveld

A third transit camp was established at Barneveld in the province of Gelderland. Between December 1942 and September 1943, some 700 Jews were housed in a castle, "De Schaffelaar", and in a former relief camp for unemployed people, "De Biezen." These were mainly socially or culturally prominent Jews academics, lawyers, artists, and the like. The inmates led a relatively privileged existence. They were allowed to bring their own furniture with them, were not required to perform hard labour and were adequately supplied with rations. However, overcrowding and the resultant lack of privacy remained a problem. The camp, commanded by a Dutch former army officer, had 6 "controleurs" who served as guards. The staff were not paid by the government, but from a camp fund financed by the inmates.

The camp was closed on 29 September 1943. About 680 prisoners were transferred to Westerbork, of whom 22 managed to escape in transit. The inmates from Barneveld continued to enjoy their privileged status in Westerbork. None of them were transported to Auschwitz and when deportation did occur, they were sent in a group to Terezin (Theresienstadt).


Other Camps

There were other camps in which Jews were interned, normally prior to being transferred to either Westerbork or Vught. These were situated at Schoorl in the province of Noord-Holland, Amersfoort in the province of Utrecht and Ommen in the province of Overijssel. More properly categorized as concentration rather than transit camps, they were not primarily intended for the incarceration of Jews, although some Jews were temporarily held there. The regime at these camps was much harsher than that of Vught and especially that of Westerbork. Elie Cohen, who was held for a time at Amersfoort, said that "transfer from Amersfoort to Westerbork was like going from hell to heaven."


Photos: GFH *
Vught camp map: Nationaal Monument Kamp Vught

Sources:

Gutman, Israel, ed. Encyclopedia of the Holocaust, Macmillan Publishing Company, New York, 1990
Hilberg, Raul. The Destruction of the European Jews, Yale University Press, New Haven, 2003
Gilbert, Martin. The Holocaust The Jewish Tragedy, William Collins Sons & Co. Limited, London, 1986
Lee, Carol Ann. Roses from the Earth: The Biography of Anne Frank, Penguin Books, London, 2000
Gill, Anton. The Journey Back from Hell, Grafton Books, London 1988.
Dr. J. Presser, Ondergang, de vervolging en verdelging van het Nederlandse Jodendom 1940-1945, Staatsuitgeverij, s-Gravenhage 1965
J.C.H. Blom e.a.. Geschiedenis van de Joden in Nederland, Olympus, 1995
Dr. L. de Jong, Rijksinstituut voor Oorlogsdocumentatie.Het Koninkrijk der Nederlanden in de Tweede Wereldoorlog, deel 8, Gevangenen en gedeporteerden, Martinus Nijhoff, 's-Gravenhage,1978


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