Thursday, July 07, 2016

Camp Westerbork: The Dutch Concentration Camp from WWII

What you are about to see and read here came out of the blue on our Zuidlaren trip 3 weeks ago, which is why I have saved it to the last.  It was something about which I knew nothing!

The route we took to Zuidlaren happened to take us by Westerbork, which is when Astrid remembered there was a concentration camp for the Jews during WWII.  It was built by the Dutch government in 1939 in nearby Hooghalen as a refuge for the Jews fleeing from Germany.

But, sadly, in 1942 it was taken over by the Nazis and became a transit camp for over 107,000 Dutch, Romani and German Jews, deporting them by train to the concentration camps of Auschwitz, Sobibor, Bergen-Belsen, Thereisienstadt and Mauthausen.

Even though visiting this camp was not in our plan for the already full day, we both instantly made the decision to change plans and visit it.

As you enter the camp, you first see the museum...for which we paid  
but didn't have the time to see, not knowing the actual camp, 3 km away, was free.

"Camp Westerbork is the story of the murder of one person 102,000 times."
It's also the story of 93 transports leaving the camp, with only 5,000 deportees returning alive,
one of whom was Anne Frank's father.

Our museum ticket actually did give us a free bus ride to the actual camp, 3 km away.
15 July 1942--the first train to Auschwitz
12 April 1945--Camp Westerbork liberated
107,000 deported; 102,000 victims; 5,000 survivors
20,706 children
239 children born in the camp
120 barracks

The camp existed from 1939-1945, first as a refugee camp and then as a transit camp.
It was demolished in 1970.
But remnants, like these boxcars, now tell the story, leaving much to the imagination.
For instance, on 8 June 1943, 3,019 persons were transported to Sobibor in 46 wagons/boxcars.

A Ghost of the 120 barracks sits eerily in the field...

while one across the road puts flesh on its bones.

The array of telescopes nearby makes you wonder...did the Universe see????

In the heart of the camp is the Jerusalem Stone, unveiled by Israel's President in 1993.
"My sorrow is continually before me." --Psalm 38:18

At the edges of the camp are the barbed-wire fences and watch tower.

Near the watch tower, at the former roll-call site, is the National Monument Westerbork
designed by a former prisoner, Ralph Prins.
It symbolizes the extermination of thousands of Jews, represented by the stones,
each memorializing a murdered man, woman or child.

Further out towards the perimeter, where the trees are still silent witnesses,
are the punishment barracks where Anne Frank and her family were detained.
The Nazis used the blocks for those Jews captured in hiding,
as well as for prisoners who disobeyed the camp rules.
Anne Frank's family was arrested while hiding in Amsterdam.
They were deported on one of the last trains that left the camp, 3 September 1944.
Anne was transferred to the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp, where she died of typhus
in Feb/Mar 1945, just weeks before the camp was liberated in April.

The commandant's house, with its glass dome, stands at the bus drop-off point
as another silent witness to the unimaginable forces of evil.

There were duplicates of notes written and B&W photos throughout the camp.
A potato cellar.  A model of the camp.  Cloves. 
Too many impressions without knowing the significance.

But the fields of lupines everywhere were not lost on us, a salve on our wounded souls.
Astrid read that the prisoners, too, were witness to them, midst their misery.

And the trees.  They were everywhere, whispering their secrets,
even when we walked the 3 km back to the museum.

In fact, near the beginning of the trail stands the JB stone and tree planted in 1937.
The then Dutch Princess, Juliana, and her husband Bernard were big on planting trees
to help reclaim land after floods.  
Little did they know for what they had prepared this land. 

Markers along the way shared dates and the number of persons transferred to concentration camps.
I picked 24 August because that's Astrid's birthday...and because Auschwitz is so well-known.

How do you find hope or solace midst such an unexpected diversion on our weekend trip?
I didn't cry then because I was numb.
But today...I cry.


  1. Camp Westerbork is a place to walk around and be silent and try to think what happened there. Impossible, our mind does not know how handle all that cruelty, murder, sadness, despair and tragedy. It made an impact.

    1. I know we missed a lot but it was enough to leave a lasting impression, for sure. The saddest thing for me was finding out there was such a place here in this wonderful country. I had no idea.

  2. Thank you for sharing this post. I cried reading it.

    Our inhumanity to each other is beyond description. We need to remind each other if this tragedy so it is never repeated. However I wonder sometimes how close to it we could come so quickly seeing developments in the world today.

    1. I share your sentiments exactly, Marie. It appears history has taught us next to nothing!

  3. Very horrible and beautiful! Unfortunately when original buildings are gone, and things look like they might be re-constructuons, the holocaust deniers start claiming it is all a Jewish hoax. Part of the 7th grade curriculum at my school was study of WWI and the holocaust. The year they broadcast the TV series, my friend, who sometimes used movies and video to teach, decided to use one or two episodes from the TV series in his class. A group of town residents started a protest campaign to get the material banned from his classroom, There were hearings before the board of ed and passionate statements on both sides. Among them was a man who had escaped from the Nazis during a forced march. Until that moment he had disliked the TV series because he felt it made light of what really happened. However, when he came to the board meeting he realized how necessary such programs are, and volunteered to come back every year and speak in my friends classes about his own experiences. IN the end, the video was shown and the class, which was angry that they might be prevented from their lessons, got a lesson in democracy.

    One of the deniers was a local septic guy who had a truck with the slogan, “Your septic is my bread and butter.” His son was in the class, and there were a series of letters back and forth between father and teacher that led to a discussion of whether Christ was a Jew. The son was very smart. Later he was my student in 9th and 11th grade English, and my friend and I both had him again in 12th grade Democracy. From time to time he posts a message on my Facebook timeline, and I’m glad to say that he is politically sharp and decidedly progressive.

    Thanks for sharing this profound place. I had no idea it existed. Interesting to learn how easily a refugee camp becomes a concentration camp.

    1. Interestingly, Ted, at one point, while we were walking around, Astrid sarcastically said, "But of course, "We all know this never happened!" There is something to be said for demolishing the atrocities of such history. Thankfully (or not), some remnants, like the commandant's house, still remain to verify the authenticity. I have a feeling there is much inside the museum that also remains. Perhaps we'll go back one day and spend more time.

      Till then, my heart was indeed broken to realize (after 6+ years here) that such a place existed here in the Netherlands. How good could have been turned into such evil is still the horrible truth of history that lives on today.

      I often wonder if we ever learn anything...and then we hear a story such as yours and find hope amongst our students. Thanks for sharing.

    2. I think it is all about bonding, and that it takes remembering what happened to resist its force. Today on Nat’l Pub Radio there was a s tory of a woman with Asperger’s Syndrome who had undergone a new treatment with magnets that has shown signs of restoring the ability to read the common signs of discourse. In the treatment she was shown pictures of three men. Two were picking on the third. Before the treatment she would simply have wondered, “How can people do that to each other.” With the treatment she understood in a flash that it was not about demeaning the boy being picked on, but on strengthening the bonds between the two bullies.

      Narcissists and megalomaniacs like Trump are just bonding the mob who will try to outdo each other to belong. These things seem to happen everywhere. Will concrete relics help us better remember the barbaric results. I suppose that’s why religions glorify martyrs. Of course, the suffering of the martyr is often used to incite the mob.

  4. I had the same reaction when I was in's not even conceivable the brutality that humans can do to each other. I think we should go out of way to experience these brings it right up in front of our face so we never forget. Thank you for sharing...

    1. It does no good to shield ourselves from these horrors, Robin, as you and I both know. But it still grieves me that after all these years/centuries of horrific acts by humans on humans we seem not to have learned our collective lessons about love, respect, and treating each other humanely.