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Westerbork Concentration Camp
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Westerbork concentration camp (Dutch: Kamp Westerbork, German: Durchgangslager Westerbork) was a World War II Nazi refugee, detention and transit camp in Hooghalen, ten kilometres north of Westerbork, in the northeastern Netherlands. Its function during the Second World War was to assemble Roma and Dutch Jews for transport to other Nazi concentration camps.
On 15 December 1938, the Dutch government closed its border to refugees. From then on, any refugees would not have any rights. In 1939, the Dutch government erected a refugee camp,Centraal Vluchtelingenkamp Westerbork, financed, ironically, partly by Dutch Jewry, in order to absorb fleeing Jews from Nazi Germany. The Jewish refugees were housed after they had tried in vain to escape Nazi terror in their homeland. During World War II, the Nazis took over the camp and turned it into a deportation camp. From this camp, 101,000 Dutch Jews and about 5,000 German Jews were deported to their deaths in Occupied Poland. In addition, there were about 400 Gypsies in the camp and, at the very end of the War, some 400 women from theresistance movement.
In 1950, the Dutch government appointed the Jewish historian Jacques Presser to investigate the events connected with the massive deportation of Dutch Jewry and the extent of the collaboration by the Dutch non-Jewish population. The results were published fifteen years later in The Catastrophe ("De Ondergang"), a book which shocked the reading public and had a profound and lasting effect on the Dutch perception of the war years. Presser also published a novel (The Night of the Girondins) set in Westerbork camp itself. The hero is a Jewish prisoner, who is appointed an officer and has the problematic role of helping the Nazis transporting his "brothers" to their obvious deaths in Occupied Poland.
Between July 1942 and September 1944, almost every Tuesday a cargo train left for the concentration camps Auschwitz-Birkenau (65 train-loads containing 60,330 people most of whom were gassed on arrival), Sobibór (19 train-loads of 34,313 people, all of whom were killed on arrival), Bergen-Belsen and Theresienstadt (9 train-loads of 4,894 people some 2,000 of whom survived the war). In the period from 1942 to 1945, a total of 107,000 people passed through the camp on a total of 93 outgoing trains. Only 5,200 of them survived, most of them in Theresienstadt or Bergen-Belsen, or were liberated at Westerbork.Parts of a rebuilt hut at Westerbork.
Anne Frank stayed in the hut shown to the left from August until early September 1944, when she was taken to Auschwitz. She and her family were put on the first of the three final trains (the three final transports were most probably a reaction to the Allies' offensive) on 3 September 1944 for Auschwitz, arriving there three days later.
Etty Hillesum stayed in this camp from 30 July 1942 until 7 September 1943, when she and her family were put on a train to Auschwitz.
The German film actress and cabaret singer Dora Gerson was interned at Westerbork with her family before being transferred to Auschwitz.
The Canadian 2nd Infantry Division liberated the several hundred inhabitants that were still at Westerbork on 12 April 1945. The first soldiers to reach the camp were from the Reconnaissance Regiment, followed by troops of the South Saskatchewan Regiment.
Following its use in World War II, the Westerbork camp was first used as a penalty camp for alleged and accused Nazi collaborators and later housed Dutch nationals who fled the former Dutch East Indies (Indonesia). Between 1950 and 1970 the camp was renamed to Kamp Schattenberg and used to house refugees from theMaluku Islands.Monument at Westerbork: Each single stone represents a single person that had stayed at Westerbork and died in a Nazi camp.
In the 1970s the camp was demolished. Near the site there is now a museum, and monuments of remembrance of those transported and killed during World War II. The camp is freely accessible.
The Westerbork Synthesis Radio Telescope (WSRT) was partially constructed on the site of the camp in 1969.Model of the Westerbork concentration camp. A view of the Westerbork camp, the Netherlands, between 1940 and 1945. The interior of a barracks at the Westerbork transit camp, after liberation. Westerbork, the Netherlands, after April 12, 1945. Arrival of Jews at the Westerbork transit camp. The Netherlands, 1942.
A wedding in Westerbork. (July 1942 - April 1945)
Refugee camp Westerbork circa 1939
Near the village of Westerbork, in the province of Drente, the Dutch Government owned a tract of heath and marsh land surrounded by dense woods. This isolated piece of real estate appeared to be the ideal place to build a camp for German Jewish refugees. It was far enough removed from the village proper of Westerbork that refugees would not interfere with the daily business concerns of the villagers provided supervision was in place. Hence, mr. D.A. Syswarda (no picture available), a former administrator of an organization for psychiatric patients in Amersfoort, was appointed as the Director of refugee camp Westerbork. A serious concern for most Dutch government officials and for politicians was the fact that the German Jewish refugees, who had fled Nazi Germany in large numbers, would integrate with the local villagers. Initially 50 barracks were built capable of housing about 1,800 people. When the German army invaded the Netherlands on 10 May 1940, 1,150 legal and 650 illegal refugees had received accommodation in camp Westerbork. Many others were housed in various refugee shelters, homes, and sub-camps, 25 in total, throughout the Netherlands. Now, once again, they were caught in the web the Nazis were weaving around the Jewish people who lived in Europe.
left to right: Blumensohn, 1942 - Blumensohn, 1989 - Commandant and Mrs. Schol
Photo courtesy: "Kamp van Hoop en Wanhoop - Camp of Hope and Despair," by Willy Landwer.
The first 22 German Jewish refugees were interned in Centraal vluchtelingenkamp Westerbork - Central refugee camp Westerbork on 9 October 1939. Leo Blumensohn, who survived Westerbork, Auschwitz, Gleiwitz, Blechhammer and the death marches, was the first refugee officially registered at the Town Hall of the village of Westerbork. Reserve kapitein - Captain in the Reserves Jacques Schol of the demobilized Dutch Army Reserves and former commandant of yet another refugee facility called Hellevoetsluis, was appointed commandant of refugee camp Westerbork on 16 July 1940. He replaced mr. Syswarda who had held that position since the camp's inception.
Captain Schol introduced new regulations for the German Jewish refugees in February 1941. Since the internees for the most part spoke German, new camp rules were written and introduced in the German language. Schol incorporated all refugees over the age of fourteen into work groups. Several of these work groups together were called a Dienstzweig - Service Branch. He appointed over each Dienstzweig a Dienstleiter -Branch Head. The Heads of Service were responsible for the proper and effective operation of the Service Branches. Since Schol was unaware of the intent of the Nazis to not only exterminate the Dutch Jews but also the German Jewish refugees, the measures he took unfortunately set the stage for a most regrettable situation later on. Namely, he appointed the Heads of Service for these work tasks from among the German Jews already interned at Westerbork.
One of them was Kurt Schlesinger, who was made Oberdienstleiter - Chief over the Heads of Service. Dr. Fritz Spanier was appointed to the position of Chief Medical Officer, and Arthur Pisk was appointed to the position of Chief of the Ordnungsdienst - Head of the service for maintain order, a.k.a. OD. The OD was a service deemed necessary to function as camp fire brigade within camp perimeters. Later, following the transition from refugee camp to transit camp, the OD became known as the internal Jewish police force. It served to maintain order and discipline among the hapless detainees. Especially during the times of the dreaded transports 'to the East.' The OD consisted foremost of young German refugee Jews who earlier had served in the camp fire brigade. As a result, in comparison to the number of surviving Dutch Jews, quite a few German speaking Jews remained in Westerbork after the camp had been changed from refugee camp to Durchgangslager - transit camp for Dutch Jews. It must be acknowledged that most of the German speaking Jews did not belong to this elite group of Alte Lagerinsassen - senior camp inmates. They too were deported for Arbeitseinsatz im Ost - work detail in the East, whatever that stood for. At first the victims thought that they were relatively safe, but they would soon learn that deportation meant certain death in one of the Nazi operated extermination centers in Poland.
Captain Schol remained in office until early January 1943, having served under two German SS commandants. The third commandant, Gemmeker, made sure he was removed from office. During the first two years of Nazi occupation, the German internees lived in a status quo. The camp as yet lacked barbed wire and refugees were not treated as prisoners. However, they had to obtain a travel permit every time they wished to leave camp for whatever reason. Toward the latter part of 1941 orders were issued from Berlin for the German occupation authorities to commence with the Entjudung - cleansing process of Jews in the Netherlands. The existing and almost completed refugee camp near Westerbork was the ideal place. Tailor-made, so to speak. Early 1942, 24 barracks - large, but made of poor quality wood - capable of housing 300 people each, were added for this purpose. With the internal camp organization already in place and the barracks built, the wheels of evil were set in motion and the deportation of Jews from the Netherlands could begin.
Juden Durchgangslager Westerbork from 1942-1945
Portal of Auschwitz
vltr: the barracks in cold anticipation in 1939 - Same barracks in 1942 - Deppner (2), the first commandant
Photo courtesy: USHMM Photo Archives and the collection Remembrance Center Camp Westerbork
On 1 July 1942 Refugee camp Westerbork officially became Transit camp Westerbork sending 104,000 Dutch and German Jews and 250 Dutch Sinti and Roma making use of the regular rail service, mostly freightcars, to their death in extermination camps in Poland. The Nazi's had tightened the noose for the Dutch Jews issuing restricting orders on an almost daily basis. As of 1 July 1942, Transit camp Westerbork officially fell under the jurisdiction of the Befehlshaber der Sicherheitspolizei - Sipo - und Sicherheitdienst - SD - Commander in Chief of the Security Police and Security Service. The first German camp commandant was SS-Sturmbannführer - SS Major, dr. Erich Deppner. He was in charge from 1 July 1942 to 1 September 1942. Deppner was a cruel individual totally lacking compassion.
On the 1st of September 1942, Deppner was quickly replaced by SS-Sturmbannführer - SS Major, Josef Hugo Dischner (no picture available). Dischner was an alcoholic who regularly beat inmates with his whip causing great panic among the detainees. It was Dishner who caused a near riot when, in order to fill the required weekly quota of 1,000 deportees, he added mothers and children to the transport of 5 October 1942 who had just arrived from Amsterdam. They were still outside the camp, so-called to be reunited with their husbands, who earlier had been transferred from workcamps and were now incarcerated in Westbork. Without registering them he added them to this transport from Westerbork to Auschwitz/Birkenau. Dischner lasted six weeks. In order to dupe the unsuspecting Jews passing through Westerbork into believing that the future really was not too bad, the Nazis quickly replaced him on 12 October 1942 with the gentleman/criminal SS-Obersturmführer - 1st Lieutenant in de SS, Albert Konrad Gemmeker. Gemmeker quickly saw to it that Schol was discharged in January 1943 by the Dutch Department of Justice. Obviously he did not want witnesses to the Nazi Entjudung plan. Gemmeker continued as commandant of Westerbork until 11 April 1945, one day before the arrival of the Canadian liberators.
A second camp, smaller in size but more vicious in its treatment of prisoners, was Camp Vught close to den Bosch, the capital of the province of Noord Brabant. Located in the south-eastern part of the Netherlands it was foremost used to incarcerate political prisoners and hostages. Nevertheless, also this camp was used to house and process Jewish victims until they could be deported via Westerbork to Auschwitz or Sobibor.
Between July 1942 and November 1944 more than 104,000 Dutch and German Jews and 245 Roma and Sinti passed through these two camps. Of these, 65 train loads with 60,330 victims were sent directly to Auschwitz II, a.k.a. Birkenau. Most victims never saw the cynical sign which read ARBEIT MACHT FREI - Work Liberates. The wrought iron sign was mounted above the entrance gate to Stammlager Auschwitz - Mother Camp Auschwitz. In stead, they were routed directly to Birkenau where, immediately upon arrival, the dreaded selection and for most extermination took place.
Some able men and women were separated from the elderly and from women with children. Men and women, and certainly children not considered fit for labor went straightway to the gas chambers. The last train to reach Birkenau left Westerbork on 3 September 1944. Only 854 deportees, who left Westerbork, survived the hell of Birkenau. After the war it became only too clear what had happened to the rest. The full extent of genocide was exposed in 1945.
In total 19 train loads with in total 34,313 Jews were sent directly from Westerbork to Sobibor. The clock at the railway station near camp Sobibor was a fake. The hands of the clock never moved. That, however, was not noticed by the unfortunate victims who were hurriedly forced off the train. Immediately upon arrival they were led toward the gas chambers for extermination. Just 18 Dutch Jews escaped death from this place of horror. A timetable showing arrivals and departures was fake also. No train ever left Sobibor for another destination. The emptied trains excepted, of course. It was sent back with closed doors only to return with more victims. The 34,313 Jews who arrived here from camp Westerbork never noticed that this station was the end of the road for them. Not until it was too late!
In addition, 9 trains loads with 4,894 Jews left Westerbork for Terezin - Theresienstadt, an Internment camp and Transit camp north of Prague located in what is known today as the Czech Republic. Of these, about 2,000 survived the war. The remaining 4,413 victims were shipped to Bergen-Belsen, yet another notorious concentration camp which was located in the vicinity of Hanover, Germany.
An estimated 104,000 Jews and a 250 Sinti and Roma passed through camp Westerbork. Among them were22025 under the age of 21. After the last transport had left for Bergen-Belsen on 13 September 1944, approximately 600 Jews remained behind. Among them were Oberdienstleiter - Chief Administrator Kurt Schlesinger, dr. Spanier, the Chief medical officer and Arthur Pisk, the leader of the OD. Several other selected members of the German Jewish camp elite were also among the survivors as well. Before, their task had been to assemble and monitor the dreaded lists for the transports, now they were charged with the liquidation of the camp in anticipation of the inevitable arrival of the Allied forces. As far as the Nazis were concerned, the 'Jewish question' for the Netherlands was resolved. The SS office in Berlin, Bureau IV B4, under the authority of SS Obersturmbannführer - Lieutenant Colonel in the SS Adolf Eichmann, was more than satisfied with the efficiency by which deportation of the Dutch and German Jews to the extermination centers in Poland had been carried out and was completed.
fltr: Mr. Aad van As in '43 - Capt. Morris in '45 - Lt. Ted Sheppard in '44 - Liberation scene of Westerbork
Courtesy: fltr: photo Breslauer/Lindwer - photo C. Law - photo T. Sheppard - photo Westerbork Remembrance Center
Liberation for the 876 remaining inmates finally came on the 12th of April 1945. In addition to the 600 Jews also non-Jewish people were incarcerated in Westerbork during the last months of the war. According to Hans Colpa, in 1993 deputy director of the Westerbork Remembrance Center, it was the 8th Canadian Reconnaissance Regiment (# 7 troop), also known as the Terrier platoon under the command of Lt. Sheppard that approached the camp first. They were soon followed by the South Saskatchewan regiment of the 2nd Army Division. Aad van As, the Dutch government employee who had been in charge of the camp's Distribution Center during the war years, temporarily took over responsibilities as camp manager since the departure of Gemmeker. He called a meeting at about three o'clock in the afternoon of the 12th to discuss the immediate future. However, during this meeting, at the shout 'the Tommy's are here,' almost everyone raced outside in the direction of the camp farm to meet the liberators. Several jumped on the armored cars and rode back victoriously toward the entrance of the camp. Aad van As met with Capt. Morris, an intelligence officer attached to the Canadian Scottish Regiment. Afterwards, Capt. Morris addressed the liberated prisoners. For a complete and more detailed description of that momentous day please read pages 91 - 98, the chapter "Meneer van As, telefoon voor u! - Mr. van As, you have a phone call" from his book, "In het hol van de leeuw - In the lion's den." This book was published in Dutch in 2004, ISBN 90 72486 29 3. I was informed that the book is expected to be translated into the English language. A second book which also covers this subject, the pages 105 - 111, "De thuiskomst - the Homecoming," is called "Westerbork, het verhaal van 1939 - 1945 - Westerbork, the story from 1939 - 1945." This book, avialable in the Dutch language only, was written by Harm van der Veen and co-sponsered by Guido Abuys, Dirk Mulder and Ben Prinsen. It was published in 2003, ISBN 90 72486 23-4. A third book, also in Dutch, on pages 85 - 91, "De Tommies zijn er! - The Tommies have arrived" details the liberation of camp Westerbork quite clearly. This book, under the editorship of Dirk Mulder and Ben Prinsen was published by van Gorcum & Co. B.V. in Assen. It is available under ISBN # 90-232-3924-8. All three books may be ordered from the Remembrance Center camp Westerbork.
The Westerbork Monument
Photo courtesy: LeerWiki.nl
A memorial for the more than one 104.000 who perished at the hands of the Nazis was forged from the very tracks, and at the exact location, where the cursed railroad inside the camp once ended. Herdenkingscentrum Westerbork - Remembrance Center Westerbork is located at the entrance to the grounds. It keeps the memory alive of the Dutch Jews and Roma who once were part of and blended in with the general population in the Netherlands. In a gallery of pictures, paintings, and artifacts, this memorial accurately and truthfully presents the history of Durchgangslager Westerbork.
For contact with the Remembrance Centre at camp Westerbork, email here.
Recognition: The information, including some pictures, used in this document were taken from the book written by Willy Landwer, "Kamp van Hoop en Wanhoop - Camp of Hope and Despair," copyright 1990, printed and published by Haasbeek, Alphen a/d Rijn. ISBN 905018-098-1 and the book: "Westerbork: Voorportaal van Auschwitz - Porch of Auschwitz." This book is produced and distributed by Waanders Uitgevers in cooperation with NIOD. Including several other documents which are mentioned in the "Sources" listing below.
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Oberdienstleiter Kurt Schlesinger
Oberdienstleiter Kurt Schlesinger
v.l.t.r.: Oberdienstleiter Kurt Schlesinger - at his office desk
Photo courtesy: "Kamp van Hoop en Wanhoop - Camp of Hope and Dispair" by Willy Lindwer
Besides Arthur Pisk, another rather willing collaborator with commandant Gemmeker was Oberdienstleiter - Chief Administrator Kurt Schlesinger, a German refugee Jew and fellow prisoner himself. Schlesinger had been interned in camp Westerbork almost from its inception in 1939. When Gemmeker was made commandant of Westerbork he dismissed the Dutch commandant Schol but continued to make use of the internal camp government set up by Schol. Schlesinger was in charge of this type of internal self-government. In maintaining it this way, Gemmeker created a shrewd setup in which a very small group of German Jewish elite would help with and contribute to the deportation of more than 102,000 for the most part Dutch Jews but also many German Jewish refugees, men, women, and children. Reward for this undignified labor was the sought after delay from deportation for himself, for his family, and often for friends and their families as well. However, for many of them it turned out to be exactly that. Delay, not exemption. Schlesinger and Pisk were two of the very few exceptions, of course.
Kurt Schlesinger walked the tightrope of a survivor. He was the type of person who left the impression that he possessed deplorable mentality. After all, he was prepared to sacrifice the lives of over one hundred thousand fellow prisoners, sending them to certain death in the camps of Auschwitz/Birkenau and Sobibor in order to safe his own and that of some of the German alte Lagerinsassen - senior camp residents and their families. Indeed it was the dilemma of a desperate man who was determined to survive no matter the cost. In his defense it must be said that he may not have been aware of the fate of the victims. However, the always dreaded deportation trains and the circumstances under which the victims departed, locked away in cattle cars, should have been enough of a deterrent for him. Unfortunately, it was not.
After the war Schlesinger, who survived the war and Westerbork, remained in the Netherlands for several more years. Now a free man he offered sympathetic testimony at the trial of Gemmeker, his former protector and commandant. Toward the end of 1949, after the conclusion of Gemmeker's trial, he left the Netherlands and disappeared. It is possible that he got wind of the fact that he too was wanted for questioning regarding his role of collaborating with the Nazis. Years of intensive search failed to uncover his whereabouts. As in the case of Pisk, no trace of him was discovered. However, in 2004 I learned from Aad van As, who resides in Australia, that Pisk left for Australia while Schlesinger somehow had found a safe haven in America.
Arthur Pisk Head of the OD, Ordnungsdienst - Camp Police
fltr: Arthur Pisk, Head of the Ordnungsdienst - instruction time - a member of the OD - the OD Fire department in action
Photos courtesy: USHMM Photo Archives
When the Nazis took the control of camp Westerbork over from the Dutch, they changed its status from Refugee camp to Durchgangslager - Transit Camp. Over twelve hundred German Jewish refugees were incarcerated. They were referred to as the alte Lagerinsassen - Senior Camp Inmates. Some of these men became the aristocracy of Westerbork. Dutch commandant Schol had offered to a few of these German Jews, even before the outbreak of the war, the option to set up an internal government of kind, so creating a system by which a minority of the German Jews cooperated with Schol in maintaining order. Their reward, as became clear after 1942, would be the much sought after postponement of deportation. And sometimes that of family members and even friends as well. A job with the Ordnungsdienst - Camp Police, OD for short, was for many a coveted position. Arthur Pisk became Head of the OD. Not everyone was a volunteer for this service. Some were forced into serving, especially the younger teens who were made runners or messenger boys and - girls for Pisk and Schlesinger.
That many OD employees were hated by their fellow inmates, especially the Dutch, can be learned from the name that was bestowed upon some of them by their fellow inmates. They were referred to as the Jewish SS. The most mistrusted OD member was its leader, Arthur Pisk. He and his one hundred and eighty-two subordinates were feared by the rest of the prisoners. Pisk survived the war and camp Westerbork, but it is unclear what became of him following the conflict. One thing is certain, he managed to leave the Netherlands and must have settled somewhere else in the free world. Australia is mentioned. Incognito of course, because no trace was to be found of him. Until 2004 when, during a visit to Australia, I had occasion to meet with Aad van As, who now resides in Australia. From him I learned that Pisk indeed migrated to Australia where he died and was buried.
German Jews, because they were the first to arrive as refugees, made up the bulk of the OD. They were held responsible for maintaining order and security in the penal barrack. They were also responsible for providing strict and orderly escort for the people who had been selected for the weekly transports nach dem Osten - to the East. The OD loaded the trains and sealed the doors. Dressed in green coveralls they were noticeable throughout the camp. Some carried out their task with great zeal and efficiency, much to the satisfaction of Gemmeker, Pisk, and Schlesinger, and of course Adolf Eichmann in Berlin. Attempts to escape were few and far in between because of the threat that family members would be deported instead. Yet some were successful. However, collaborating Dutch constabulary, all were members of the Marechaussee, and OD members kept them at a minimum.
fltr: The train awaiting its next 'cargo' - cordoning off the deportees - the last job for the OD was locking the doors
Photo recognition: USHMM Photo Archives
Fred Kuraner, who was assigned to do work in the radio workshop, was one of the very few lucky ones who managed to escape from Westerbork. After his mother, Regina Kuraner-Simke who came from Kottbus in Germany, had been deported to Sobibor on 21 August 1943, Fred crawled underneath the barbed wire fence to freedom. This happened one Monday night after the names of the deportees who were to be deported the next day had been called off. He drove away on a bicycle which was placed for him against the wall of the crematorium, a small building located just outside the camp fence. After the war Fred left for the United States where he married, raised a family and made a life for himself. Fred passed away in 1991. This information was passed on to me by his daughter, who contacted me by email.
Albert Konrad Gemmeker and his lover Elisabeth Helena Hassel-Mullender
SS-Obersturmführer Albert Konrad Gemmeker - Elisabeth Helena Hassel
Photo courtesy: RIOD, Rijksinstituut voor Oorlogsdocumentatie
The third and last commandant of Westerbork, SS-Obersturmführer - 1st Lieutenant in the SS Gemmeker, was responsible for the composition of the list of names for the weekly transport. The exact number to be included for each transport was passed on to him by a sub-division of the Sicherheitspolizei - Security Police in the Hague. Gemmeker next called a meeting of the Jewish camp prominent instructing them to compose the list of names and finalize the transport which two days later, mostly on a Tuesday, would leave for Eastern Europe. After the names of the people were selected, the transport list was made up. The day before the dreaded departure rumors would fly in the barracks. Fear intensified, and usually panic followed. The night before departure the barrack elders would call off the names of the unfortunate ones in alphabetical order.
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."
And another eyewitness had this to contribute: "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."
Through the middle of the camp, adjacent to the Boulevard des Misères ran the newly constructed railroad. Deportation trains made up of up to twenty freight, or rather cattle cars would arrive there, in anticipation of its human cargo. The Ordnungsdienst - Order Service or OD, a squad of Jewish police, themselves prisoners, was held responsible to ensure that each person whose name had been called off the night before would indeed board the train the next day. Those who for the time being were spared the ordeal had to remain locked inside their barracks. TheOD would cordon off the dirt roads leading to the train preventing possible escape and guaranteeing quick embarkation. If necessary using physical force if normal coaxing did not work. The trains carrying them to the killing centers of either Birkenau or Sobibor usually left Westerbork the next morning, Tuesdays, at approximately 11 AM.
The notorious deportation transports took place between 15 July 1942 and 13 September 1944. Commandant Albert Konrad Gemmeker was the commander in chief of Durchgangslager Westerbork. His adjutant, friend, and colleague was SS Untersturmführer - 2nd Lieutenant in the SS Hassel who, like Gemmeker, hailed from Düsseldorf. Ironically, Gemmeker's lover was Mrs. Hassel, the estranged wife of his friend. Frau Hassel is pictured above with Gemmeker. After the war Frau Hassel was confined in the Netherlands in order to give testimony at the trial of Gemmeker, her lover. For the war crimes he committed, Gemmeker received the ridiculously light sentence of ten years imprisonment less time served. Frau Hassel, who by some was looked upon as Gemmeker's evil genius or his angry side, returned home to Düsseldorf a free person following her testimony at Gemmeker's trial. She would remain unpunished for her part played in the misery of Westerbork.
When in 1951 Gemmeker had completed his short prison term, he too returned to Düsseldorf. He also was a free man now. But the romance was over. Both married someone else and apparently never saw each other again. Yet, that could well have been the case because, ironically, both made use of the same general practitioner, the Jewish Dr. Spanier. You see, Dr. Spanier, who survived the war, returned to Düsseldorf also. The German Jewish camp doctor, who had been an inmate himself, functioned as the head of the Medical Dienstzweig - Service Branch in Camp Westerbork. He had been the physician for both Gemmeker and Frau Hassel before and during the war. Now, once again, he became their physician after the war.
Gemmeker's special war tribunal was held in Assen 15 miles north of the place where he served the Nazi cause so well. Even so, while he was in charge of Westerbork, he managed to gain the confidence and even respect from some of his hapless victims. A legend in kind existed regarding his so-called good-natured disposition. Some referred to him as:
1) the gentleman/crook. After all, all the dirty work was carried out by his accomplices Pisk and Schlesinger.
Others thought he was:
2) nice, because he always carried out his evil task with a faint smile on his face.
A number of victims considered him to be:
3) a righteous man, because he allowed some of them temporary reprieve from deportation.
Then there were those who referred to him as:
4) a type of messiah. Albeit, that could have been said in irony.
Gemmeker, who was born in 1907, died in the 70s in his beloved Fatherland to which he gave the best years of his life.
22025 Dutch Jewish children under the age of 21 All were victims of the Holocaust
Graphic shows the number of Dutch children and young people under the age of 21. All were victims murdered by the Nazis.
22025 Dutch Jewish children under the age of 21 were murdered by the Nazis. Of these, 8161 were infants and young children under the age of 10. All these children were Nazi Holocaust victims. The crime for which they were killed can be spelled out in just a few words. They were Jewish children
The Dr. Edward (Ted) J. Sheppard Story
fltr: Lt. Ted Sheppard in 1944 - The libertation of Westerbork - a Daimler Armored Car
photos supplied fltr: Ted Sheppard - Remembrance Center Westerbork - Ted Sheppard
On the first of March 2004, I received an email from Dr. Edward (Ted) J. Sheppard of Victoria, B.C. informing me that he was the Troop commander in charge of the Reconnaissance Regiment that was present on the day of the liberation of camp Westerbork. He wrote: "I was the Lieutenant and Troop Commander of the 8th Canadian Recce Regiment (# 7 troop). We were the first troops to approach the camp.
It was in the morning of 12 April 1945 that we crossed het Oranjekanaal - the Orange canal near Westerbork. Our five Daimler Armored Cars plus seven Brengun carriers continued along a narrow-gauge rail toward a gate that led into camp of Westerbork toward the roll-call area. Approaching the camp I noticed little movement.
There was no obvious guard activity at the gate entrance. I recall how quiet and eerily desolate the camp appeared to be, even minutes after we arrived. Then, suddenly it looked as if hundreds of people poured out of the buildings toward us. One aged man climbed onto my lead Daimler Armored Car and gave me his yellow "Jood" - Jew star, which I still affectionately keep with my other war trophies.
The inmates were eager to share the few candies, which they themselves had taken from the camp store after the departure of the German guards the previous day. I advised Lt. Colonel Alway at Squadron Division Headquarters of our position and discovery. An hour or so later my commander Major Wood instructed me and my Recce Regiment (# 7 Troop) to move further north to the village of Amen where we camped for the night."
Whereas the official version of the liberation of camp Westerbork is recorded in a number books, I would be amiss if I failed to make mention of Dr. Sheppard's version of the liberation as he remembers it and as it is recorded in his personal diary. In part his experience is also mentioned in Capt. Cecil Law's book, "Kamp Westerbork, Transit Camp to Eternity: The Liberation Story." Most of the records Law and Sheppard share of the events surrounding the liberation of camp Westerbork are in agreement with the official version mentioned earlier.
I am aware of at least six other people who were in the vicinity of Westerbork at the time of liberation. Some of their stories do not really effect the actual rendition but should be told as well. Situations and events often connect, but in comparison to the official version there are deviations, sometimes serious ones.
Among these other are the stories of the highly decorated Dutch paratrooper Capt. Arie (Harry) Bestebreurtje, Capt. Carel J.L. Ruijsch van Duchteren, Special Agent Sgt. Willem van der Veer of No 2 Dutch Troop, the interpretation of Samuel Schrijver, a Dutch Jew who escaped from Westerbork a few days before the camp was liberated, Abraham Mol, a former inmate and male nurse in camp Westerbork who questions Schrijver's story, and last but not least the Hans Colpa story which supports the Ted Sheppard rendition.
I also received part of the war diary of Capt. Ruijsch van Dugteren, the teammate of Capt. Bestebreurtje in Team Dicing. His diary, as does a diary written by Gildas Calvez, will shed additional light on what happened to Team Dicing and other members of the sticks that were dropped around Westerbork.
The story of Arie Bestebreurtje
fltr: Arie Bestebreurtje, Paratrooper down, Radio Operator in action
Photo courtesy: fltr: John Beach, 2 photos on the right, Souvenir SAS
Wilhelmina, queen of the Netherlands, had requested of the Allied forces command that they should make an effort to spare the dykes and drainage systems. Thus Calvert, commander of the SAS, proposed that French paratroopers be used to precede the advancing Canadians troops to Groningen. Operation Amherst began with the drop of 702 Special Air Service paratroopers of the 3rd and 4th French SAS (Special Air Services) during the night from 7 to 8 April, 1945.
The teams were meant to spread out and capture and protect key facilities from the Germans. In this they succeeded in part. Advancing Canadian troops quickly relieved the isolated French SAS. 8 Stirlings of the No. 570 Squadron brought the paratroopers to the provinces of Drente and eastern Friesland.
Included in this operation were a number of Dutch and British paratroopers, Major Harcourt, captain Arie Bestebreurtje, captain C. Ruysch van Dugteren and Radio Operator sergeant Somers. They were dropped under the code name Team Dicing in the the province of Drente and landed in the vicinity of camp Westerbork. Their objective was to offer support to the Dutch underground and assist them in their covert operations.
Operation Amherst was considered to be of the utmost importance to the liberation of the northern provinces. Its goal was to capture several bridges and other strategic objects from the Germans. All this in support of the approaching tanks and carriers of the 2nd Canadian Division so that the rest of the Canadian and Polish army units could continue and push through to deep into the province of Groningen. To the east of the province of Groningen were the all-important German harbor cities which could than be used for the Allied supply ships. The liberation of camp Westerbork certainly was an important part of that plan.
As mentioned earlier, Bestebreurtje was dropped together with Harcourt, Ruysch van Dugteren and Sommers in the vicinity of camp Westerbork in the night of 7 to 8 April. The drop was not very successful. Awkward coordination, poor weather conditions and inexperience of the dispatcher made the landing rather unsuccessful.
Major Harcourt was captured by the Germans on the 9th of April, one day after the landing. Captain Ruysch van Dugteren and Sgt. Sommers failed to make contact with either Harcourt or Bestebreurtje and independently linked up with the Dutch underground. Besides Harcourt several paratroopers of other teams were captured as well, while a few were sheltered by Aad van As within camp Westerbork until the camp was liberated.
Bestebreurtje made an unfortunate landing and either broke or badly sprained his right ankle. The result was that he could not walk any more. It is nothing but the miraculous that he was not discovered by the Germans since he landed close to the camp perimeters. Because of the injuries he sustained in the landing he could not go on any further. Regardless the pain he managed to stay in hiding during the day while at night he crawled bit by bit in the direction of the village of Hooghalen. On the forth day he was found by farmer Jan Schutten and his son and was brought by horse and cart to the farmhouse where he was hidden until after liberation. Bestebreurtje had suffered five long days of hunger and thirst while his leg was throbbing with pain. Perseverance and training had helped him to get through the long days.
The goal for Bestebreurtje and the other three men of team Dicing had been to play an active role in assisting the Dutch underground in the final stages of the war in the Netherlands. Because of regrettable circumstances this goal unfortunately was not achieved, with the exception of Capt. Carel Ruijs van Dugteren. Still, the story of this highly decorated Dutch war hero, who had played such a masterful role around Arnhem in operation Market Garden in the fall of 1944, needed to be told.
Sam Schrijver's Story
Left: Wartime ID card for Samuel Schrijver - Right: Samuel Schrijver in 2010 in North York
U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum Photo Archive and photo right Hans Vanderwerff
This is the story of Sam Schrijver, a former inmate of camp Westerbork, as told to Olga Rains. Mrs. Rains, a Dutch war bride, reported her findings to Nicolas van Praet, reporter for the Montreal Gazette, who printed his story on 5 May 2000. The following is his report:
"Among the victims of the evil face of that precision (Ed.: Nazis) were the parents of Montrealer Sam Schrijver, a Dutch-born Jew who survived the Holocaust and saved 900 others from certain death. Schrijver, now 77 (Ed.: in 2000) was nearly 18 when the Germans invaded Holland.
When it became clear that the Nazis aimed to exterminate the Jews, he survived by thinking fast and daring to fight back. His get-them-or-they-get-you attitude has not faded. Speaking to Schryver in his home this week was like meeting a kid eager to show and tell - but uncomfortable with what he was telling. He squeezed and pushed his boneless nose inward to show what happened when a Gestapo officer slammed his face into a wall. 'I am not scared of anything anymore,' he said. 'Why should I be?'
After the Nazis invaded (Ed.: the Netherlands), they forced most Jewish men into work camps, many far from their homes. Schrijver's father spent his days at a camp outside Amsterdam and was allowed to return home at night. Schrijver remembers waiting at the second-floor window for his father to come back one day. He never did.
He watched the Nazis drag Jewish hospital patients from their beds and onto trucks. He sneaked food to Jewish families in the night, and forged ID cards for them. He escaped several captures by the Sicherheitsdienst - secret police.
When he was finally caught for good, he spent three full days without food or water in a railway boxcar with 82 other Jews. The compartment was so crowded that the people on the edges could not reach the toilet barrel in the middle. 'I have never found the words, and I don't think there are any words that exist, for the anguish, the anxiety, the fear that we felt,' he said, the syllables creeping from his mouth.
Schrijver was taken to the Westerbork camp, the anteroom where Jews were shipped before facing death at other camps. By the time he arrived at Westerbork, the war was ending. Jews were no longer being taken to the death camps because Hitler needed the trains to bring back his troops. Schrijver and the 900 others at Westerbork could hear the booming artillery coming closer to the camp. He knew the Allies were near.
Letter written by General Jean Victor Allard (Ret.)
Dated: August 15, 1990
Schrijver feared the Germans might open fire on the prisoners as a last act of desperation. And he did not want to wait to be killed.Under cover of night, he sneaked out of the prison (Ed.: Westerbork camp is meant) on his belly and continued worming his way across the fields toward the gunfire. He swam across a canal (Ed.: meaning the Orange canal - het Oranjekanaal). When he got to the other side, he felt a rifle barrel stabbing at his neck. But the man behind the gun spoke English. A Canadian! Schrijver was brought to Brig. Gen. Jean Victor Allard, commander of the 6th Brigade, 2nd Division, of the Canadian Army. When he told the General that 900 Jews were in Westerbork, the commander did not believe it. Allied intelligence had pegged it as a German military barracks. They were preparing to send bombers to destroy it. Six patrolmen were sent to the camp with Schrijver to verify his story. In two letters, dated August 15 and 29 October 1990, Allard, then chief of Canadian defense staff, wrote: 'Due to the intervention and action of Mr. Schrijver the total annihilation of camp Westerbork and its approximate 1,000 inmates was prevented.' Schrijver saved the Jews at the 11th hour."
A similar story was written on May 14, 1993 in the Dutch Newspaper, De Telegraaf. One day later, reporter Hens Schonewille wrote in that same paper, "The news that Canadian soldiers were preparing to bombard concentration camp Westerbork on 12 April 1945 with shell-fire has baffled and shocked a number former camp inmates. One of them is the former inmate and male nurse of camp Westerbork Abraham Mol. Also Hans Colpa, who was the Acting Director of the Westerbork Remembrance Center in 1993 questions the validity of Schrijver's story. Click on their names for their story and rebuttal. Schrijver simply did not want to get killed at the very last moment. He risked fleeing the camp to meet the Allied forces a day before liberation.
Abraham Mol Finds Schrijver's Story Upsetting
fltr: D Coy troops near the Oranje canal north bank - Maj. Geo Stiles, D Coy SSR
Pictures taken by Lt. Dan Guravuch, by courtesy of Sgt. Peter Maulé, Victoria, B.C., Canada
fltr: # 49860 (PA137469) (9) Archives Canada; # 49854-DG (PA198136) (2) Archives Canada
Click here for the English translation.
The Dutch Newspaper the Telegraaf, dated 14 September 1993, printed the story shown above: "Escaped prisoner saved Westerbork from a bombardment." It would appear that on 12 April 1945 the last 900 remaining Jewish prisoners, which still were held in concentration camp Westerbork, escaped certain death in the very nick of time."
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.
The Dutch Newspaper the Telegraaf, dated 15 September 1993, featured the following story written by reporter Hens Schonewille in response to reactions received from, among others, Abraham Mol. The article in question, which appeared a day earlier, is shown to the left.
"That Canadian troops were prepared to shell concentration camp Westerbork with artillery fire has perplexed and shocked a number of former camp inmates. According to some of them the Canadians were ignorant of the fact that the camp even existed.
As was reported yesterday in this Newspaper, the artillery bombardment was to have preceded the camp's occupation rather than its liberation. It would have led to a bloodbath, resulting in the loss of life for many inmates. According to newly released or discovered documents, the Canadians believed the camp to be a German military base. They did not know that the Germans had fled the camp on the 10th of April and apparently had no idea that some 900 inmates still were inside.
The intervention of the Amsterdam born Samuel Schrijver supposedly prevented that shelling. The Jewish resistance fighter had escaped the camp during the night of April the 11th. He encountered the Canadians after swimming across the Oranjekanaal - Orange canal. Schrijver managed to reach the Canadian Brigadier General Allard. It cost him some effort to convince the general that only civilians were housed in the camp. He even stated that a Canadian reconnaissance patrol was dispatched, taken him along, to verify his story."
A different story
Schrijver's statement, which by the way is fully corroborated by General Allard, has among others, upset the then camp inmate Abraham Mol from Scheveningen. The former civil servant of the Ministry of Transport and Public Works and former male nurse of camp Westerbork tells 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.
Commandant Gemmeker, together with his SS guard unit, absconded on the 11th of April, 1945, when the Allied forces moved in northern direction. Mol: "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."
According to Mol, in this uncertain time period Schrijver as well as other former camp inmates feared the retreating Germans the most. "We were afraid that the Germans would level the camp with the ground. Others suspected it had to be an ambush, a reason for the Nazis to shoot anyone who dared to leave the camp," Mol remembered.
To his relief Mol heard on the 12th of April that the Canadians had advanced to the Oranjekanaal which was approximately 3 KM south of the camp. Mol: "Together with a few other inmates I went to meet them. What caught our attention was the apparent fact that the soldiers we met were unaware of the existence of the camp. We had to show them the way." As far as Mol was concerned, Schrijver's story raised too many questions.
Hans Colpa's Interpretation of the Events of 12 April 1945
vltr: Last deportation train leaves the camp - Action near the Oranjekanaal - Aerial view of camp Westerbork
Photo left: Herinneringscentrum Kamp Westerbork, Photo's right provided by Sgt. Peter Maulé, Victoria, B.C.
Hens Schonewille, correspondent for De Telegraaf wrote in the paper on Wednesday, 15 September 1993, the following:
"Acting Director of the Westerbork Remembrance Center Hans Colpa was not taken by surprise by the seemingly contradictory statements. 'More than likely the soldiers whom Mol and the others encountered were indeed unaware of the existence of the camp.' According to Colpa 'the commanding officers were better informed, of course.'
He (Ed.: Colpa) categorizes the sequence of events as follows: 'The last prisoner transport leaving Westerbork for the east was in September 1944. When in March 1945 the Royal Air Force made aerial reconnaissance photographs of the camp, only the barracks and the German guards could be identified. I take it that the Canadian Higher Command just did not want to take any risks and thus ordered the bombardment. In Allard's explanation therefore 'shell and destroy' is spoken of.
The confusion at the frontline was intensified on the 11th of April when Canadian reconnaissance troops as well as the infantry that followed encountered German resistance near the Oranjekanaal - Orange canal. The 8th Reconnaissance Troop and the 2nd Infantry division of which Allard's 6th brigade was a part, could have gotten mixed up, according to Colpa. 'That was the reason that some people in the province of Drente were liberated by the scouts while other were liberated by the infantry.'
According to official historical documents were the carrier scouts of Lt. Sheppard, a.k.a the Terrier-platoon, the first to approach the camp. They were immediately followed by the South Saskatchewan regiment of the 2nd Division (Ed.: to which the intelligence officer Capt. Morris was attached). Colpa: 'The Canadian artillery did not bombard the camp that day. In stead, they directed their fire in the direction of Hooghalen where German troops had dug in. That exchange of fire was clearly heard in the camp. We are going to investigate this matter more thoroughly, but it would appear that in the nick of time a disaster was averted.'"
For the first 5 years of her life, Anne lived with her parents and older sister, Margot, in an apartment on the outskirts of Frankfurt. After the Nazi seizure of power in 1933, Otto Frank fled to Amsterdam in the Netherlands, where he had business connections. The rest of the Frank family followed Otto, with Anne being the last of the family to arrive in February 1934 after staying with her grandparents in Aachen.
The Germans occupied Amsterdam in May 1940. In July 1942, German authorities and their Dutch collaborators began to concentrate Jews from throughout the Netherlands at Westerbork, a transit camp near the Dutch town of Assen, not far from the German border. From Westerbork, German officials deported the Jews to Auschwitz-Birkenau and Sobibor killing centers in German-occupied Poland.
During the first half of July, Anne and her family went into hiding in an apartment which would eventually hide four Dutch Jews as well -- Hermann, Auguste, and Peter van Pels, and Fritz Pfeffer. For two years, they lived in a secret attic apartment behind the office of the family-owned business at 263 Prinsengracht Street, which Anne referred to in her diary as the Secret Annex. Otto Frank's friends and colleagues, Johannes Kleiman, Victor Kugler, Jan Gies, and Miep Gies, had previously helped to prepare the hiding place and smuggled food and clothing to the Franks at great risk to their own lives. On August 4, 1944, the Gestapo (German Secret State Police) discovered the hiding place after being tipped off by an anonymous Dutch caller.
That same day, Gestapo official SS Sergeant Karl Silberbauer and two Dutch police collaborators arrested the Franks; the Gestapo sent them to Westerbork on August 8. One month later, in September 1944, SS and police authorities placed the Franks, and the four others hiding with the Franks, on a train transport from Westerbork to Auschwitz, a concentration camp complex in German-occupied Poland. Selected for labor due to their youth, Anne and her sister, Margot were transferred to theBergen-Belsen concentration camp near Celle, in northern Germany in late October 1944.
Both sisters died of typhus in March 1945, just a few weeks before British troops liberated Bergen-Belsen on April 15, 1945. SS officials also selected Anne's parents for labor. Anne's mother, Edith died in Auschwitz in early January 1945. Only Anne's father, Otto, survived the war. Soviet forces liberated Otto at Auschwitz on January 27, 1945.
While in hiding, Anne kept a diary in which she recorded her fears, hopes, and experiences. Found in the secret apartment after the family was arrested, the diary was kept for Anne by Miep Gies, one of the people who had helped hide the Franks. It was published after the war in many languages and is used in thousands of middle school and high school curricula in Europe and the Americas. Anne Frank has become a symbol for the lost promise of the children who died in the Holocaust.
- June 12, 1929~March 1945
Map of Westerbork Transit Camp
Identity card of Sam Schryver, issued on February 5, 1945, in Westerbork
Westerbork Prisoners Board Deportation Train (1942- 1945)
Westerbork Transit Camp
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.
Commandant and Mrs. Schol in Westerbork (1942)
Reserve kapitein - Captain in the Reserves Jacques Schol of the demobilized Dutch Army Reserves and former commandant of yet another refugee facility near Hoek van Holland, was appointed commandant of refugee camp Westerbork on 16 July 1940. He replaced mr. Syswarda who had held that position since the camp's inception. Schol was the first commandant in war time.
Captain Schol introduced new regulations for the German Jewish refugees. Security measures in the camp were tightened. Instead of local police officers, 15 members of the Royal Constabulary guarded the perimeters of the camp and accompenied the refugees from trips to the local hospital or to and from work outside the camp. Roll call was introduced twice a day, cycling was forbidden in the camp, incoming and outgoing letters were censored and refugees had to obtain a travel permit, every time they wished to leave camp for whatever reason.
Since the internees for the most part spoke German, new camp rules were written and introduced in the German language. Schol incorporated all refugees over the age of fourteen into work groups. Several of these work groups together were called a Dienstzweig - Service Branch.
He appointed over each Dienstzweig a Dienstleiter - Branch Head. The Heads of Service were responsible for the proper and effective operation of the Service Branches. Since Schol was unaware of the intent of the Nazis to not only exterminate the Dutch Jews but also the German Jewish refugees, the measures he took unfortunately set the stage for a most regrettable situation later on. Namely, he appointed the Heads of Service for these work tasks from among the German Jews already interned at Westerbork.
Schol, who was anti-German, understood that a strict organisation of the camp was the best way to keep the Germans from taking over the camp. Although strict and organised, Schol was never cruel or violent towards the refugees. Several reports about his behaviour towards the Jewish population of refugee camp Westerbork were written. In August, 1941 a report was delivered to Seyss Inquarts Representative in the province of Drenthe stating, that Schol was too lenient and because of this attitude, the Jews felt too comfortable in the camp and advising him to replace Schol.
German influence increased in the beginning of 1942 and on July 1, 1942 the SS officially took over the camp. The refugee camp Westerbork officially became Transit camp Westerbork. Captain Schol remained in office until early January 1943, having served under two German SS commandants. The third commandant, Gemmeker, made sure he was removed from office. During the first two years of Nazi occupation, the German internees lived in a status quo. The camp as yet lacked barbed wire and refugees were not treated as prisoners, but that was soon to change.
Two of the 77 'Russians' killed in camp Amersfoort
As of 1 July 1942, Transit camp Westerbork officially fell under the jurisdiction of the Befehlshaber der Sicherheitspolizei - Sipo - und Sicherheitdienst - SD - Commander in Chief of the Security Police and Security Service. The first German camp commandant was SS-Sturmbannführer - SS Major, dr. Erich Deppner.
Deppner was born in Neuhaldensleben on August 8th, 1910 and died in Anzing on December 13th, 2005. Shortly after the Dutch capitulation Deppner was transferred to the Einsatzgruppe of the SiPo/SD in the Netherlands. He was promoted to SS-Sturmbannführer (Januari 30th, 1941) and became head ot the section Gegnerbekämpfung, responsible for the destruction of the resistance.
He ansewered directly to the Befehlshaber der Sicherheitspolizei. In april 1942 he was responsible for the execution of the Russian prisoners in Camp Amersfoort. The day after he received this assignment he assembled a firing squad. 77 of the Russian prisoners were executed, the rest had already died because of abuse and malnurishment, Deppner personally made sure they were all dead, by inspecting the victims and in some cases killing the wounded victims.
He was in charge of Transit camp Westerbork from 1 July 1942 to 1 September 1942. Deppner was a cruel individual totally lacking compassion. It was Deppner who handled the first transport from Westerbork to Auschwitz/Birkenau causing a near riot when, in order to fill the required quota of 1,000 deportees, he added children to the transport without taking their parents. He also added several women who happened to be standing at the gate waiting to be admitted into the camp.
Deppner and his secretary
Because of this incident, Deppner was replaced by SS-Sturmbannführer - SS Major, Josef Hugo Dischner (no picture available) on 1 September 1942. Dischner was an alcoholic who regularly beat inmates with his whip causing great panic among the detainees. Dischner lasted just six short weeks.
In order to dupe the unsuspecting Jews passing through Westerbork into believing that the future really was not too bad, the Nazis quickly replaced him with the gentleman/criminal SS-Obersturmführer - 1st Lieutenant in de SS, Albert Konrad Gemmeker on 12 October 1942. Although Deppner was replaced, he was personally complimented for his good work, by Heinrich Himmler.
At the end of July or beginning of August 1944, Deppner was transferred to camp Vught, where he was responsible for the implementation of Hitlers Niedermachungsbefehl of July 30 1944. This order meant that resistancefighters and saboteurs had to be shot, if necessary this had to be done immediately. Deppner had ample knowledge about the Dutch resistance and made the execution lists himself. From the end of August untill the begining of September 450 persons were executed. These execution are known as "Deppner executions".
In 1945 he was called back to Berlin and was captured by the Russian Army. In 1950 he was released from captivity and returned to Germany. He was employed in Operation Gehlen, an intelligence organisation. His employers were well aware of his past. Requests by the Dutch government to extradite Deppner were denied several times. In 1964 he was tried for the murder of the Russian POW's in camp Amersfoort but was acquitted. He was able to enjoy a life in freedom and escaped justice untill he died in 2005.
The OD Fire department in action
When the Nazis took the control of camp Westerbork over from the Dutch, they changed its status from Refugee camp to Durchgangslager - Transit Camp. Over twelve hundred German Jewish refugees were incarcerated. They were referred to as the alte Lagerinsassen - Senior Camp Inmates. Some of these men became the aristocracy of Westerbork. Dutch commandant Schol had offered to a few of these German Jews, even before the outbreak of the war, the option to set up an internal government of kind, so creating a system by which a minority of the German Jews cooperated with Schol in maintaining order.
Their reward, as became clear after 1942, would be the much sought after postponement of deportation. And sometimes that of family members and even friends as well. A job with the Ordnungsdienst - Camp Police, OD for short, was for many a coveted position.
Arthur Pisk became Head of the OD. Not everyone was a volunteer for this service. Some were forced into serving, especially the younger teens who were made runners or messenger boys and - girls for Pisk and Schlesinger.
Arthur Pisk, Head of the Ordnungsdienst
That many OD employees were hated by their fellow inmates, especially the Dutch, can be learned from the name that was bestowed upon some of them by their fellow inmates. They were referred to as the Jewish SS. The most mistrusted OD member was its leader, Arthur Pisk. He and his one hundred and eighty-two subordinates were feared by the rest of the prisoners. Pisk survived the war and camp Westerbork, but it is unclear what became of him following the conflict.
One thing is certain, he managed to leave the Netherlands and must have settled somewhere else in the free world. Australia is mentioned. Incognito of course, because no trace was to be found of him. Until 2004 when, during a visit to Australia, I had occasion to meet with Aad van As, who now resides in Australia. From him I learned that Pisk indeed migrated to Australia where he died and was buried.
The train awaiting its next 'cargo'
Cordoning off the deportees
Last job for the OD was locking the doors
German Jews, because they were the first to arrive as refugees, made up the bulk of the OD. They were held responsible for maintaining order and security in the penal barrack. They were also responsible for providing strict and orderly escort for the people who had been selected for the weekly transports nach dem Osten - to the East. The OD loaded the trains and sealed the doors.
Dressed in green coveralls they were noticeable throughout the camp. Some carried out their task with great zeal and efficiency, much to the satisfaction of Gemmeker, Pisk, and Schlesinger, and of course Adolf Eichmann in Berlin. Attempts to escape were few and far in between because of the threat that family members would be deported instead. Yet some were successful. However, collaborating Dutch constabulary, members of the Marechaussee,and OD members kept them at a minimum.
Fred Kuraner, who was assigned to do work in the radio workshop, was one of the very few lucky ones who managed to escape from Westerbork. After his mother, Regina Kuraner-Simke who came from Kottbus in Germany, had been deported to Sobibor on 21 August 1943, Fred crawled underneath the barbed wire fence to freedom. This happened one Monday night after the names of the deportees who were to be deported the next day had been called off.
He drove away on a bicycle which was placed for him against the wall of the crematorium, a small building located just outside the camp fence. After the war Fred left for the United States where he married, raised a family and made a life for himself. Fred passed away in 1991. This information was passed on to me by his daughter, who contacted me by emailhttp://www.holocaust-lestweforget.com/arthur-pisk.html