Amersfoort concentration camp (Dutch: Kamp Amersfoort, German: Durchgangslager Amersfoort) was a Nazi concentration camp in Amersfoort in the Netherlands. The official name was "Polizeiliches Durchgangslager Amersfoort", P.D.A. or Police Transitcamp Amersfoort. During the years of 1941 to 1945, over 35,000 prisoners were kept here. The camp was situated in the southern part of Amersfoort, on the city limit between Amersfoort and Leusden in central Netherlands.
Kamp Amersfoort in 1939 still was a complex of barracks that supported army artillery exercises on the nearby Leusderheide. From 1941 onwards, it didn't merely function as a transit camp, as the name suggests. The terms "penal camp" or "work camp" would also be fitting. During the existence of the camp many prisoners were put to work in kommandos. In total around 37,000 prisoners were registered at Amersfoort.
To get to the camp, prisoners had to walk from the railyard through the city and through residential neighborhoods:
Visible in the windows, above and below, of most residences and behind closed lace curtains, were numerous silhouettes, especially those of children. Usually the silhouettes did not move. Sometimes, feebly and furtively, they waved. Children who waved were very quickly pulled back. It was a farewell from the inhabited world -- now a realm of shades.
The history of the camp can be separated into two periods. The first period started on August 18, 1941 and ended in March 1943. In March 1943 all but eight of the first prisoners in Amersfoort were transferred to Kamp Vught. The prisoner transfer to Vught allowed for the completion of an expansion of Kamp Amersfoort. Maintaining the camp, despite Kamp Vught coming 'online' in January 1943, still appeared necessary to the Nazis.
Amersfoort was a transit camp, where prisoners were sent to places like Buchenwald, Mauthausen and Neuengamme. It was on July 15, 1942 that the Germans began deporting Dutch Jews from Amersfoort, Vught and Westerbork to concentration camps and death camps such as Auschwitz, Sobibor and Theresienstadt.
The remaining watchtower, as can be seen on the commemorative place, was built around April/May 1943, when the expansion of Kamp Amersfoort was completed and prisoners could be placed there again. In a lot of ways Kamp Amersfoort had changed relative to the first period. The most important changes were the much larger 'housing capacity', and the faster 'turnover'. What stayed the same, were the anarchy, the lack of hygiene, the lack of food, lack of medical attention and the cruelty of the guards. A point of light for the prisoners was the presence of the Dutch Red Cross. The second period ended on April 19, 1945, when control of the camp was transferred to Loes van Overeem of the Red Cross. On May 7, the Allies arrived and the camp was officially liberated.
The fluctuating prisoner population showed an eclectic group of people from all over Holland: Jews,Jehovah's Witnesses, POW's from the Soviet Union, members of the resistance, clergy, black marketeers, clandestine butchers and smugglers. From 1941-1943, 8,800 people were imprisoned in the camp, of which 2,200 were deported to Germany. During the period 1943-1945, 26,500 people were imprisoned, of which 18,000 were sent east to places like Buchenwald and Natzweiler concentration camps.
After the re-opening in 1943, 70 Jews from Kamp Vught and 600 Jews from camp Westerbork of British, American and Hungarian nationality were briefly sent to Kamp Amersfoort. They were joined by contract breakers of the German Arbeitseinsatz (forced labour program), AWOL Waffen SS soldiers, deserted German truck drivers of the Nationalsozialistische Kraftfahr-Korps, and lawbreaking members of the NSB (the Dutch National Socialist Movement).
This medley of prisoners was not the only feature that determined the character of Kamp Amersfoort. The extreme cruelty of the camp command made life miserable for thousands of prisoners. Despite their relatively short stay, many prisoners died from deprivations and violence at a camp where "rumour has it that one can hear the screams of people being beaten up there for miles over the heath. It is more than a rumour." Jewish prisoners in particular were treated horribly, not only from guards, but fellow prisoners.
Edith and Rosa Stein, two Hebrew Catholics arrested by the SS, described what it was like arriving at Amersfoort at 3:00 in the morning on August 3, 1942:
When the vans reached the camp, they emptied their passengers who were taken over by the S.S. guards. These began to drive them, cursing and swearing, beating them on their backs with their truncheons, into a hut where they were to pass the night without having had a meal.
The hut was divided into two sections, one for men, one for women. It was separated from the main lager by a barbed-wire fence. Altogether, the lager held at that moment, about three hundred men, women and children. The beds were iron frames arranged in a double tier, without mattresses of any kind.
Our prisoners threw themselves on the bare springs trying to snatch a few minutes sleep; but few slept that night, if only because the guards kept switching the lights off and on, from time to time, as a precaution against attempts to escape, which was next to impossible in any case. Their cold harsh voices filled the prisoners with anxiety about the future and, in these circumstances, it is anxiety which can turn a prison into a hell on earth.
Violence from the guards was not the only thing that prisoners had to worry about. Weakened physical conditions from overwork, very little food and poor hygiene in camp made illness and disease another frightening and lonely way to die. Yehudit Harris, a young boy in Amersfoort remembers screaming from the pain as his mother washed him with snow in the winter to rid them of lice and to protect against illness. Even the mattresses that prisoners slept on were often infested with lice, diphtheria, dysentery or T.B.
Amersfoort was a brutal place to be a prisoner and is summed up by Elie Cohen, was said that "transfer from Amersfoort to Westerbork was like going from hell to heaven.
Highest responsible authority went to the Lagerkommandant (camp commander). Below him was the Lagerführer (camp leader), who actually ran the camp. His assistants were the Blockführer (barrack leaders).
Virtually all prisoners were divided into workgroups or Kommandos. These kommandos were led by an Arbeitsführer. The lowest leadership level were the Altesten (Elders), also called "prominents" or "foremen". These were prisoners, who in exchange for taking care of minor issues, usually theft among prisoners, received special privileges.
Wachbataillon Nord-West (6 companies, around 1200 men total) was commanded by SS-Hauptsturmführer Paul Anton Helle.
The first of these six companies was in charge of Kamp Amersfoort, under the command of SS-Obersturmführer Walter Heinrich. This company was split into Kamp-SS (20 men selected by Heinrich) and Guard-SS (100 men).
The first camp leader was SS-Schutzhaftlagerführer I Hans Cornelis Stöver. From January 1, 1943, the camp leader was SS-Schutzhaftlagerführer II Karl Peter Berg. Berg was a very cruel man, who was described as a "predator who derived great pleasure from the agony of others. During roll call he loved to sneak about unnoticed behind the rows of men and catch someone in some violation, such as talking or not following orders properly. With a big grin, he would torment his victim."
Another camp leader was SS-UnterSchutzhaftlagerführer Josef Johann Kotälla, a notorious sadist who often replaced Stöver during his absence. This former sales representative and repeat psychiatric patient was one of the most infamous SS guards in Amersfoort. B.W. Stomps, a Resistance fighter sent to Amersfoort recalled Kotälla's actions in the Christmas season of 1944:
On 23 December, Kotälla announced a ban on parcels for three weeks, which meant no Red Cross presents for Christmas or New Year. He further cancelled breakfast, lunch and dinner on Christmas Day itself, using the discovery of a smuggled letter as a pretext. And as an extra punishment on Christmas morning he kept the men standing on the parade ground, which was covered with thick snow, from their roll-call at seven till half past midday. A few days before, the geese for the guards' Christmas dinner had been on show, hanging on the barbed wire.
Also notorious were Blockführer Franzka, SS-Arbeitsdienstführer Max Ritter, SS-er Hugo Hermann Wolf, among many others.
In 1948 the camp commandant and guards of Amersfoort were tried and convicted for their crimes. Karl Peter Berg was sentenced to death and was executed in 1949. Josef Johann Kotälla was also sentenced to death but it was later commuted to life in prison. Along with three other prisoners he become involved in what was known as the "Breda Four," a group of prisoners whose possible release stirred up very strong feelings amongst Dutchmen. Kotalla was never released and died in prison.
The Netherlands Institute for War Documentation (NIOD), has many resources to the guards of Amersfoort and their trials. The NIOD has dossiers on the following Amersfoort guards and personnel: Berg, Brahm, Dohmen, Fernau, Helle, Kotalla, May, van der Neut, Oberle, Stover, Voight, Westerveld and Wolf. Newspaper clippings are available for Berg, Fernau, Stover and Helle.
Court records for the trial of these guards are also available, the following being a sampling of what is available:
1.) Indictment and verbal reports made by the period of the trial against EE Alscher, K.P. Berg, E. Brahm, J.J. Kotälla, e.g. May, J. Oberle and H.H. Wolf, November 16–14 December 1948.
2.) Graphic shorthand reports made by the period of the trial against EE Alscher, K.P. Berg, E. Brahm, J.J. Kotälla, e.g. May, J. Oberle and H.H. Wolf, 16–23 November 1948.