December 31, 2009.
Honoring all who have experienced this camp’s injustices. The well-established Jewish community in the Netherlands on the eve of World War II, was almost totally annihilated by the Nazis in the space of just a few years. For the fast majority of these Dutch citizens, their last moments on the soil of their homeland was the ‘Boulevard of Misery’, the central street of the transit camp Westerbork that led from the camp to the train station.
Within the walls of the camp, lived a Jewish community divided into two: the privileged long-term residents, the German Jews; and the short-term inmates, the tens of thousands of Dutch Jews. Inequalities in power and prestige led to tensions between these two groups, although ultimately, both were to die in large numbers at the hands of the Nazis.
One of the most unique facets of life in Westerbork, was the remarkable cultural scene that developed there, including what some characterized, as the best cabaret in all of Europe within its prison walls, with major stars such as Max Ehrlich, Franz Engel, Camilla Spira, Kurt Gerron, Erich Ziegler, and Willy Rosen
Members of the Westerbork string orchestra pose on stage with their instruments – USHMM Photo Archives
Westerbork began its existence on a relatively modest scale, as a temporary home for several hundred German Jews, who had no family or friends in the Netherlands to vouch for them. Situated in a remote area in the north of the country and close to the German border, it was originally built in 1939 as a refugee camp. Given the increasing number of German Jewish refugees fleeing from the Nazi regime, Holland wanted to develop a centralized marshland near the small village of Westerbork.
Although the Nazi occupation began in 1940, the treatment of Dutch Jews was deceptively generous and slow-paced, particularly in contrast with that in eastern Europe, or in Germany itself. Even as the population of the camp grew, the refugees who lived there were not treated as prisoners. They were allowed limited freedom of movement and lived in tolerable conditions. This was to change in the summer of 1942, with the beginning of deportations to the death camps.
On July 1, 1942, the camp was officially placed under the jurisdiction of the SS, no longer a refugee camp, but now a transit camp. Two weeks 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. As a transit camp, rather than a work or death camp, however, it was organized very differently from other Nazi internment centers. No corpses, medical experiments, or SS guards with dogs and whips marred the camp grounds. Instead, Westerbork was set up like a miniature city, with a cafe, offices, a registry, a canteen, kindergarten, and hospital. Only the street names – ‘Boulevard of Misery’, “Suffering Alley’, and ‘Worry Street’ – hinted at the fears and ultimate fate of the inmates.
A map of the Westerbork transit camp. Until July 1942, Westerbork was a refugee camp for Jews who had moved illegally to the Netherlands. After the Nazi conquest of Holland, it was expanded into a transit camp, where it operated until April of 1944.USHMM (08049), courtesy of Toni Heller.
In addition to the deceptively normalized surroundings of the camp, one of its most nefarious aspects was the fact that its organization and the assemblage of the deportation list was left in Jewish hands, those of the Dutch Jewish Council in Amsterdam and the privileged German Jews housed in the camp. The German Jews decided who would be on the cattle-cars every week. They also, as German-speakers and often of middle or upper-class status, were treated better by the SS, received better housing, and managed temporarily to keep friends and families off the lists. The tensions that divided the population of the camp defined day-to-day life, and left its mark in the diaries and memoirs that have survived – of Dutch prisoners.
Cultural activity in the camp was also divided along these cultural, linguistic, and class lines. The first performance of which we have a record, took place in 1940 – a production of Shakespeare’s Midsummer Night’s Dream. The Jewish Council organized a chamber music ensemble, a choir, and a 30-40 person symphony orchestra that included some of Holland’s most talented musicians. It was, however, under Nazi rule that the camp cultural scene was to reach its full blossom, especially under the leadership of Albert Konrad Gemmeker, who was camp commander from October 1942 to 1945. Under Gemmeker’s leadership, Westerbork became, above all, a site of world-class cabaret.
At the beginning of 1943, the comedian Max Ehrlich was sent to Westerbork, where he applied to Gemmeker for permission to establish a theatre group. Gemmeker agreed, hoping that performance would distract prisoners, impress foreign visitors, and entertain the camp staff. The cabaret that resulted, was made up of many musicians and artists who had fled Nazi Germany for what was to be only temporary safety in Holland. While much of its theatrical activity drew on pre-existing material, the leaders of the Westerbork cabaret, Max Ehrlich, Willy Rosen and Erich Ziegler, composed six original revues during their less-than-two-year stay in the camp.
Such was the success of the first cabaret that Gemmeker gave Ehrlich free rein, providing funding, materials, and even the opportunity to purchase specialized products in Amsterdam. The SS did, however, censor the productions – all songs and texts had to be approved. Although there was some variation, particularly as the camp was fairly fluid, in general, Ehrlich was the director, Rosen wrote texts and lyrics, and Erich Ziegler, a chanson/cabaret composer from Berlin, provided the music. Along with Ziegler and Rosen on piano, eleven musicians made up a small orchestra, and the shows had up to eight dancers and sixteen actors, as well as a staff of up to fifty people taking care of lighting, costumes, and set design. These extravagant productions were often staged for the pleasure of the SS. The language of the shows were German, and political topics were avoided.
Ehrlich’s cabaret was, however, a source of controversy within the camp. Dutch prisoners in particular, were suspicious of the actors and their motivations. In addition, since cabaret is generally light-hearted, humorous, and often sexually explicit, many inmates were revolted by these shows, and by the fact that “on the wooden boards of the old synagogue of Assen, which were used for the construction of the stage, the choicest young girls, especially chosen by experts, will swing their legs to the rhythm of jazz music.” Despite the strong currents of protest, however, few could resist the allure of the night of laughter, music, and forgetting. Actress Camilla Spira, who was briefly a member of the cabaret, remembered her shock 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, they forgot everything. And, it was horrible, for the next morning – they went to death. They were only there for a night.”
The popularity of the cabaret increased with the Dutch Jews when the singing duo ‘Johnny and Jones’ joined the troupe. Their love song ‘The Westerbork Serenade’ was also a hit with the SS. (The two were killed in 1944 in Bergen-Belsen).
Popularity, however, was no guarantee of survival. Due to deportations, the cast was regularly changing, and new arrivals had to be taught to replace those who had been sent away. A letter from the Dutch inmate Etty Hillesum described with bitterness the simultaneous privilege and terror that defined the lives of the cabaret stars of Westerbork. Men like 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.
Performances ceased entirely between October 1943 and March 1944, because of constant deportations. The last two shows were done with a cast of ten, including the very final performance, a bitter opera parody titled Ludmilla, or Corpses on a Conveyer Belt. The program declared, “ach, we are meschugence [crazy], now we will perform for you an opera.” In March 1944, Westerbork was declared a labor camp, and on August 3rd, the order came to dissolve all cultural activities. As a memento, the cast gave the commander a photo album as a farewell gift, with the inscription, “If you’re sitting up to your neck in shit, you had better not sing. I sing nonetheless.”
The remaining members of the cabaret was sent to Theresienstadt, their ‘reward’ for their excellent service to Gemmeker. However, this was only a temporary delay, like the Dutch Jews before them. Many of them were murdered in Auschwitz and Treblinka. Of the central cast of the Westerbork cabaret, only the pianist Erich Ziegler survived to the end of the war. On April 12, 1945, Canadian troops liberated the camp. There were only 876 prisoners there, and not a trace of the jazz, the high-kicking girls, or the raucous jokes that had filled the reception hall months before.