Trying to bring joy in a dark time.

They say that music soothes the savage beast, But it can also bring joy and transport you back to a better time in your life. Benny Behr must have known this because he tried to keep up the spirits, by playing music.

Benny was Jewish Jewish and was married to a non-Jewish woman, Wien Bouwina Sijtina Havinga. Mixed-married Jewish people were exempt from deportation to concentration camps or death camps,initially. This meant that Benny Behr’s identity card not only had a stamp with the letter J, but also a Sperr stamp. He was one of the first mixed-married Jewish men to be forced to work in March 1944 at Fliegerhorst Havelte, a location in Drenthe that had been chosen by the German occupier for the construction of an airport.[Benny Behr was housed in the barracks camp at De Doeze on the Hunebedweg, which was also called the Jewish camp.

He became a room guard and was therefore able to access the leave passes. On leave without permission, however, the punishment for the Jewish men was immediate transport to camp Westerbork, a transit camp in Drenthe. When Benny Behr and a few other camp mates went home on July 28, 1944 with leave cards written out by himself, they were betrayed. As punishment, Benny Behr was transferred to Westerbork on August 1, 1944.

Benny started playing musical instruments when he was nine. He played violin, flute, saxophone and piano. Jazz in particular fascinated him immensely and it was obvious that he, like his two other brothers, became a musician. In 1920 he became involved in the musical life of Groningen and in 1937 he left for Amsterdam. He was taught there by the concertmaster of the Concertgebouw Orchestra. In Amsterdam Benny established his name in various orchestras. He used his talents to keep the spirits up in Westerbork.

Camp Westerbork could best be characterized with terms such as defeat but also hopeful expectation. You could see from the faces of the people that they were on the list to go on transport.

Education was compulsory in Westerbork for children aged 6 to 14. truants were severely punished by order of camp commander Gemmeker. Classes were regularly canceled because teachers were deported. At the end of a class period, a report in German was distributed to the children. From July 1942 to September 1944, a total of 17,500 children were deported from Westerbork to the extermination camps.

This is Benny’s story of his time in Westerbork.

“I played in the penal barracks for the children and also for the older people. Of course I played happy school songs for the children. The elderly also wanted to hear something classic. I have played pieces by Kreisler, among other things. And so I tried to amuse people. I was there in the penal barracks with Jews in hiding who, in the eyes of the Germans, had committed a criminal offense: they had tried to save their lives. They immediately put me to work. I got to the batteries. We were all sitting at long tables where we had to split these batteries, a terribly dirty job. After an hour you were pitch black from that powder that was in those batteries.

We all were terribly afraid, especially for the transports that went on Tuesday evenings. Then someone from the Ordedienst came to read the list of people who had to get ready for transport the next morning, or already that night. When the ‘B’ of my name was over, I must confess, I heaved a sigh of relief. So I wasn’t there this week. The next week you might have been there. But thank goodness I survived. And so the penal barracks slowly emptied.

At one point there was a court hearing. There were the so-called judges: Aus der Fünten, Gemmeker and Fischer. When that court hearing was held and I entered, the gentlemen were seated behind a table. I heard one say to the other: “Wieder ein Jude”. Within a minute the trial was over for me. So everyone was brought before the penal barracks. One or two days later, the news came that 59 persons were exempted from transport ‘bis auf weiteres’.(until further notice) And there I was at the top. The list started with the ‘B’. And so I stayed behind with 58 other people, the others all went on transport. This was at the beginning of September 1944. The 59 were discharged from the penal barracks and were allowed to join the so-called ‘free camp’.

After that I had several jobs. That’s how I started in the field. I also worked in the sawmill where I had to supply planks. In between the acts I also played the violin regularly. I also played there for the German Jews, some of whom lived in separate houses. Then I sometimes got cigarettes and some extra food. I also played in a trio with others.

Perhaps the best was my performance on the day of the liberation. Then that same evening I played for the Canadian commander and for the officers in the great hall. It was incredible. I then played for an hour in a row. Afterwards I got a lot of boxes of Sweet Caporal cigarettes, I can still remember that. I didn’t smoke myself and handed them out to the boys when I got back to the barracks. And those guys said, “Are you going to play again tomorrow night?” I said, “I don’t know yet. I haven’t been invited to that yet.” But I did play again the next night. That was my liberation.'”

After the war, Benny continued with his music career. In 1949 he started a weekly radio performance with a radio quartet, where he plays together with Sem Nijveen, whom he played with prior to the war and with whom he also had been with in Westerbork.

Benny formed a jazz orchestra: Benny’s Big Five, which became a success. Sem Nijveen and Benny Behr’s breakthrough internationally came in 1959 and gave many performances, including for the BBC in England. In 1963 Benny starred in a movie with Dutch comedian Tom Manders aka Dorus.
In 1967 he started playing in the Metropole Orkest in Amsterdam.In 1981 he played a violinist in a Dutch TV production of Mata Hari.

Benny Behr died on August 16, 1995 in Hilversum.

Benny’s family, like many other Jewish families, did not survive the war. His father, Hartog Behr died in Blechhammer , on March 31, 1944. His mother, Trijntje Behr was murdered in Auschwitz on October 26, 1942.


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