Liberation of Westerbork

Westerbork was liberated on April 12, 1945, by Canadian forces. At the time there were still 876 inmates there. Something which isn’t widely known is that this liberation nearly was a destruction. The Canadians thought the camp was a Germany military base. They had plans for shelling Weseterbork.

This was published in de Telegraaf on September 14,1998.

“Title: ESCAPED PRISONER SAVED WESTERBORK FROM BEING BOMBARDED
Publication: DE TELEGRAAF
Date of the Publication: 14-09-1993

————————————–Title————————————————

ESCAPED PRISONER SAVED WESTERBORK FROM BOMBARDMENT
————————————Summary———————————————

As now is evident, the last 900 Jewish prisoners held captive by the Germans in concentration camp Westerbork
escaped near death on the 12th of April 1945.
—————————————Text———————————————–

Escaped Jew saved Westerbork from being bombarded.
From our correspondent
WESTERBORK, Tuesday
As now is evident, the last 900 Jewish prisoners held captive by the Germans in concentration camp Westerbork escaped near death on the 12th of April 1945.
The Canadian Army, which liberated the camp that day, were about to destroy the camp by bombarding it. The Allies believed it to be a military camp housing German troops which were determined to fight to the end. A fatal error only averted in the very last moment through the intervention of a Jewish camp inmate from Amsterdam. He managed to escape in the night from the 11th to the 12th after the German SS guards secretly had fled on the 10th.
The man, who recently turned 70 years old (Ed.: in 1993) and now lives in Canada, told his perilous adventure last week for the first time to the Director D. Mulder of the herinneringscentrum – Remembrance Center Westerbork. “We keep his identity for the time being a secret because he still is quite undone by what happened to him during wartime.” according director Mulder.

Oranjekanaal – the Orange canal

In the meantime, this sensational statement has been confirmed by the second principle player in this near-drama, Brigadier-General Allard of the 6th Brigade, 2nd Canadian Division. Allard was promoted to Chief of Staff of the Canadian Army.
The escapee, who hailed from Amsterdam, managed to swim across the Oranjekanaal, in the early hours of the morning of the 12th of April. Next he was apprehended by recently arrived troops under Allard. The Canadians dit not believe the escaped prisoner who told them that only civilians were in the camp and returned him to Westerbork together with a reconnaissance patrol in order to obtain certainty. Although the patrol encountered wandering Germans with whom they exchanged shots, the soldiers managed to bring out report that the man from Amsterdam had been correct. This convinced Allard, resulting in the cancellation of the planned bombardment.
According to Mulder, the statement of the people involved is of significant importance, because very little is known about the circumstances surrounding the events dealing with the liberation of camp Westerbork. “I have arranged with Allard that together we would conduct an investigation into this matter,” according to the director.

It is unfortunate indeed that more that 60 years have gone by without having obtained a crystal clear picture as to what exactly happened on that momentous day, the 12th of April 1945. Various stories have emerged, several have been recorded on this Website. I believe all who were there and lived through the liberation period are sincere men. Each of them sheds a ray of light on an otherwise clouded over bit of history. Somewhere in between rests the truth.”

Westerbork was originally built in 1939 as a refugee camp. Given the increasing number of German Jewish refugees fleeing the Nazi regime.

Jacques Schol, a Dutchman, was commander of the camp from 16 July 1940 and until January 1943. On July 1st 1942, the Germans took over the control of Westerbork and transformed it into a transit camp.

On 1 July 1942, the camp was officially placed under the jurisdiction of the SS; it was no longer a refugee camp, but a transit camp. A fortnight later, the first deportations to the east began, dozens of cattle cars left the camp every week for the death camps of Poland.  Westerbork became the biggest transit point in Western Europe.

Although it was not a death camp, it was a cynical place. The illusion was created that things were not as bad as they seemed, given the inmates a sense of hope. It had a football league, schools and an orchestra and there were regular cabaret performances.

Actress Camilla Spira, who was briefly a member of the cabaret, remembered her disbelief at the enthusiasm of the audience:

“This couldn’t be, they enjoyed themselves so, and they sat there in rags. We were the collection camp, these people were dragged here, and then it was on to Auschwitz or Theresienstadt. These volleys of laughter, this excitement – in the moment when they saw us, the people forgot everything. And it was horrible, for the next morning they went to death … they were only there for a night.”

Etty Hillesum wrote in one of her letters:

“the comic Max Ehrlich and the hit composer Willy Rosen, who looks like a walking corpse. A little while ago he was on the list for transport, but he sang his lungs out a few nights in a row for an enchanted audience including the commander and his followers … the commander, who valued art, found it wonderful and Willy Rosen was spared … and over there is another court jester: Erich Ziegler, the favourite pianist of the commanders. There is a legend that he is so amazing that he can even play Beethoven’s ninth as a jazz piece, and if that isn’t something else…”

The camp even had healthcare services and a Hospital. Again to create this illusion that life would continue as normal as possible and that the accommodation was only temporary . Soon they would be resettled. For 107,000 people this resettlement meant being murdered in Auschwitz, Sobibor and other extermination camps or labour camps.

Abraham Mol ,a former civil servant of the Ministry of Transport and Public Works and former male nurse of camp Westerbork recalled his memories of the liberation in an interview a different liberation story of Transit Camp Westerbork. This camp was located in the moors of the province of Drente, from where Dutch Jews were deported to the extermination centers in Poland.

Abraham Mol a former civil servant of the Ministry of Transport and Public Works and former male nurse of camp Westerbork recalled his memory of the liberation during an interview with ‘De Telegraaf’

“Commandant Gemmeker, together with his SS guard unit, absconded on the 11th of April, 1945, when the Allied forces moved in northern direction. They posted posters which said that the camp was turned over to the Red Cross. For the last Jewish prisoners still in the camp it said that we could remove our Jew stars. Furthermore, we were advised to remain in our barracks, seeing the camp had now become front-line.”

After the liberation, the 876 Jews that were liberated, had to stay in the camp for a few more months longer. This was initially as security measure The entirety of the Netherlands hadn’t been liberated yet. There was still fighting further up north. In addition, the Canadian and Dutch authorities first wanted to investigate why these Jewish prisoners hadn’t been deported: were there people amongst them who had worked with the Nazis and had to be imprisoned (again)? It would take to July 1945 before the last prisoners were allowed to leave Camp Westerbork. In the meantime, most people had received the heartbreaking news that their deported family members, friends, and acquaintances who went to ‘the East’ were murdered there by the Nazis and would never return.

The prisoners had asked civil servant Aad van As to take charge as soon as the SS had left. Van As belonged to one of the few Dutch citizens who held a position in the camp.

Van As issued this statement:

“Since I have accepted the position of leadership for this camp for the time being, I issue the following orders:

1e. The present “Dienstbereiche – Heads of Service” have been changed as follows:

                        Administration .......................  R. Friend
                        Field Service .........................  E. Zielke
                        Technical Service ................... E. Wachsmann
                        Guard Service .......................  A. Pisk
                        Medical Service ..................... Dr. F. Spanier
                        Clothing Repair Shop ............. G. Frank
                        Woodworking Shop ............... H. Beyer

2e. In order to maintain discipline in the camp, the above mentioned services will continue to operate.

3e. The representatives in whom I have placed my trust, and who have promised to work alongside with
me in the interest of camp life are as follows:

                         M. de Jong
                         F. Schiff
                         K. Schlesinger
                         Dr. Speijer
                         A. van Witsen

These men will form together with me the leadership of this camp.

4e. Everyone is advised to carry out his or her task in his own best interest, and to maintain camp
discipline.

5e. I will not hesitate to take corrective action against anyone who, one way or another, attempts to
disturb order and discipline in the camp.

6e. Labor hours will be changed as follows:

  women: from 8 until 12 o'clock, or when required at other times.
  men: from 8 to 12 o'clock and from 14 to 16 hours (2 to 4 in the afternoon).

  No work will be required after Saturday at noon until Monday morning.
  Should it be in the best interest of camp life these hours may be adjusted to a longer work schedule.

The office for the directors of the camp is in Barrack No. 33 as of this afternoon.

                                                                              Signed by Aad van As

     Westerbork, d. 12 April 1945.                            ( A. van As Jr.)

Translation of the Dutch order issued by Aad van As, dated 12 April 1945″

The late Ed van Thijn, former Mayor of Amsterdam and Dutch Minister for Interior affairs, was one of the 876 people who were liberated.

In the spring of 1943, Eddy van Thijn and his mother are taken from home in a raid. They end up in camp Westerbork and after three months they go on the train, not to Auschwitz but back to Amsterdam.

Thanks to a ruse by his father, the family did not have to go to the concentration camps in Eastern Europe.

However, he had to go into hiding as a 10-year-old boy.

He went into hiding in Brunssum, a town in the province of Limburg, and subsequently went to 18 different hiding places in Limburg and Overijssel. The eighteenth address was betrayed and so he ended up in Westerbork again in January 1945

Hidden in a kitchen cupboard, he heard soldiers’ boots on the stairs. He was betrayed and arrested. But because the war was coming to an end, he again avoided transport from Westerbork to the Auschwitz extermination camp. ,,I wasn’t allowed to exist, but I do exist’, said Van Thijn later. Both his parents survived. Ed van Thijn died on December 19,2021

Ed asked himself the following questions most of his life, I think we can ask ourselves some of those questions also.

“Had I not been a child in the war, how bravely would I have behaved? Would I have joined the resistance? Would I have resisted? Would I have been as untouchable as my father? Would I have had the courage to jump out of a moving train? Would I have succeeded in getting my child out of Westerbork?’

sources

https://www.normandy1944.info/blog/liberation-of-camp-westerbork-nl

https://www.annefrank.org/en/timeline/225/westerbork-transit-camp-is-liberated/

https://holocaustmusic.ort.org/places/camps/western-europe/westerbork/

https://www.ushmm.org/learn/timeline-of-events/1942-1945/liberation-of-westerbork

https://kampwesterbork.nl/en/history/second-world-war/durchgangslager/66-history/durchgangslager/268-liberation

https://kampwesterbork.nl/de-stichting/nieuws/item/in-memoriam


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