Music in Westerbork.

Compared to other concentration camps ,Westerbork was ‘reasonably’ safe and life was less harsh there, But that is also what made it a more sinister place.

From 1942 to 1945, Westerbork was a transit camp (Durchgangslager) located in the Netherlands. As a transit camp, Westerbork served as a temporary collection point for Jews in the Netherlands prior to their deportation by the Germans to killing centers and concentration camps in the east.

Westerbork was originally established in 1939 by the Dutch before the German invasion of the Netherlands. It began as a refugee camp for German Jewish refugees who had fled Nazi persecution.

The Nazis created an illusion that all of the measures they had introduced for the Jews were only temporary. They even had a football league in the camp.

Music also played a big part in Westerbork. The picture at the start of the blog is of Jazz violinist Benny Behr. He is playing for some of the children of the camp. For them he would play uplifting children’s songs. Fr older people who would also play classical pieces.

Benny Behr was married to a non-Jewish woman, Wien Bouwina Sijtina Havinga. Because of that he enjoyed freedoms which other Jews did not have. But these freedoms were only temporary On August 1,1944 Benny ended up in Westerbork, where he remained until the camp was liberated in April 1945.

The Westerbork Serenade is the title of a love song written by Dutch singing duo,Nol (Arnold Siméon) van Wesel and Max (Salomon Meyer) Kannewasser aka Johnny and Jones, just before their deportation to Auschwitz in 1944. The play tells the true story of Jewish cabaret performers held by the Nazis in the Dutch transit camp of Westerbork, and portrays songs and vaudeville sketches that were actually staged in the camp revues. Some of Berlin’s greatest stars performed at Westerbork, thereby delaying their transport to death camps.

In 1943 Max,Nol and their wives were arrested and were send to the Westerbork transit camp.In the camp they performed once under the name Jonny und Jones because only the German language was allowed during performances. In 1944 they were sent on a day’s work assignment from Westerbork to Amsterdam, during which they managed to secretly record the song “Westerbork Serenade”.

The song starts off , with them singing that they don’t feel like themselves and that they aren’t great. Their hearts beat like the airplane demolishing yard, which was actually the job assigned to them in the camp, dismantling crashed warplanes.

This the translation of the lyrics

Hello we feel a little out of order,
To pull myself together is quite hard,
Suddenly I’m a different person,
My heart beats like the airplane wrecking yard.

I sing my Westerbork serenade,
Along the little rail-way the tiny silver moon shines
On the heath.
I sing my Westerbork serenade
With a pretty lady walking there together,
Cheek to cheek.
And my heart burns like the boiler in the boiler house,
Oh it never hit me quite like this at Mother’s place
I sing my Westerbork serenade,
In between the barracks I threw my arms around her
Over there
This Westerbork love affair.
And so I went over to the medic,
The guy says: “there is nothing you can do;
Oh but you will feel a whole lot better
After you give her a kiss or two
(But that you must not do…)”

Even in this dark period they managed to keep composure and a sense of humour.

On 4 September 1944 Van Wesel and Kannewasser were deported on one of the last transports from Westerbork to a number of concentration camps: Theresienstadt, Auschwitz, Sachsenhausen, Ohrdruf and Bergen-Belsen. They died of exhaustion during the last days of the war in 1945.

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.”

The transport Mechanicus describes included 3,006 people. It arrived at the Sobibor killing center on June 3, 1943. Jules Schelvis, who had spent six days in Westerbork prior to deportation, was the only known survivor of this transport.

Looking back at the picture at the start of the blog. When you take it out of context, you might think it is a group of scruffy kids hassling a violin player. However when you put it in the context of Westerbork and the Holocaust, there is the realisation that most, if not all, of these kids listening to the music in Westerbork, will have been murdered shorty afterwards. And that knowledge breaks my heart.




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