I have written about Westerbork before, but today I want to address the paradox and the misconception of the camp.
Camp Westerbork was a Nazi transit camp in Drenthe province, northeastern Netherlands, during World War II. It was used as a staging location for sending Jews to concentration camps elsewhere, mainly Auschwitz and Sobibor.
The Dutch government established a camp at Westerbork in 1939 to intern Jewish refugees, mostly from Germany. The first refugees arrived in Westerbork in October of that year. In April 1940, there were approximately 750 Jewish refugees housed in the camp. Some of them were German Jews who had been passengers on the St. Louis ship.
In May 1940, Nazi Germany invaded and occupied the Netherlands. In the first two years after the invasion, Westerbork continued to function as a refugee camp. From May 1940 to July 1942, the camp remained under Dutch administration. Under the Dutch, conditions were fairly good.
In July 1942, the Germans took over the administration of Westerbork and transformed it into a transit camp.
The camp administration was headed by a German commandant. Westerbork had three commandants, all of whom were SS officers: Erich Deppner (July 1942–September 1942); Josef Hugo Dischner (September–October 1942); and Albert Konrad Gemmeker (October 1942–April 1945). German SS men and a rotating group of Dutch civilian and military police guarded the camp. In addition to the German and Dutch personnel, a Jewish police force ,called the Ordedienst or the OD, kept order in the camp.
Camp Westerbork also had a school, orchestra, hairdresser, and even restaurants designed by SS officials to give inmates a false sense of hope for survival and to aid in avoiding problems during transportation.
Despite this illusion people still died in the camp, often they were murdered.
Jacques Schol, a Dutchman, was an officer in the camp from July 16 1940 until January 1943. He was known for his brutality against Jewish inmates, kicking inmates to death.
SS-Obersturmbahnfuehrer Albert Konrad Gemmeker, was the last commandant of Westerbork. He became to be known as the “gentleman-commander,” because of his polite and friendly behaviour. After the war, he declared, during his trial, like many perpetrators, that he didn’t know of the massive extermination of millions of innocents. Etty Hillesum, unlike Gemmeker’s judges, was not blindsided by his behaviour and in her letters she described and criticized the commander, exposing him as one of the most important executors of the extermination system, the key player in eradicating the Jews of the Netherlands.
After the war an eyewitness gave this heartbreaking account: “Indescribable scenes followed. Penetrating screams of a dead-scared half-crazed mother, the crying of children, the dumb-struck looks of some of the men, and the lamentation of the people who stayed behind. This caused shivers to run down my spine.”
Another eyewitness said “People who were selected for transport began packing their belongings and clothed their children. They got ready for the trip, knowing very well that no reprieve was forthcoming. Those who stayed behind for at least one more week often aired their relief by crying or they would break out in dance behaving like overjoyed kids.”
Transports were a traumatic experience for Jews in Westerbork. Witness testimonies mention confusion, distress, and brutality. For example, Dutch-Jewish journalist Philip Mechanicus, who kept a diary of life in Westerbork, described a transport that took place on June 1, 1943. He wrote:
“The transports are as nauseating as ever.… Men, quiet, stone-faced; women, often in tears. The elderly: stumbling, faltering under their burden, tripping on the bad road sometimes into pools of mud…. Whoever hesitates, whoever dawdles, is being assisted; sometimes herded, sometimes shoved, sometimes beaten, sometimes punched, sometimes persuaded by a boot, quickly shoved aboard the train…. When the cars are full, the prescribed number of deportees having been loaded, the cars are sealed…. The commandant signals the departure: a wave of the hand. The whistle sounds … a heart-rending sound is heard by everyone in the camp. The grungy snake, now fully loaded, crawls away”
Albert Konrad Gemmeker lived in a luxurious villa at the entrance of the camp where he would often entertain friends. Like this Christmas party(Gemmeker is on the far right)
He may have appeared to have been an SS officer who treated prisoners humanely, it was during his reign where most of the 100,000 plus Jews were transported to Auschwitz, Sobibor and a few other camps. There was no way that he didn’t know what the fate would be for those he put on transport.
On 3 September 1944, Anne Frank and the seven others who had been living in hiding in the Secret Annex were put on a transport to Auschwitz. Along with over a thousand other Jewish prisoners. This was the last transport from Westerbork to Auschwitz.
In 1949, when the Dutch left their over 300 year occupation of Indonesia, native Indonesians were left in political unrest. Some people who had collaborated with French, Algerian, and Dutch militaries were evacuated, because they were the subject of anger by the other indigenous people who had resisted colonization and felt betrayed at the Moluccan peoples siding with their colonizers. The peoples were promised a quick return to their homeland. However, from 1951 to 1971, former indigenous Moluccan KNIL soldiers and their families were made to stay in the camp. During this time, the camp was renamed Kamp Schattenberg.
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