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April 21, 2010

Westerbork camp is being rebuilt

Filed under: Holocaust, World War II — Tags: , , , , , , , — furtherglory @ 10:20 am

Westerbork was a transit camp for Jews in the Netherlands; this is the camp where Anne Frank and her family were sent in August 1944 after someone betrayed them to the Gestapo. Over 400,000 people visit the site of the former camp every year, although there is virtually nothing there.  According to recent news reports, the camp is being rebuilt for the benefit of tourists.

The memorial site at Westerbork

These words in a news article caught my attention:

“Between July 1942 and September 1944, 93 prisoner trains left the camp for Auschwitz and Sobibor in Poland, Bergen-Belsen in Germany, and Theresienstadt in what is now the Czech Republic.”

Auschwitz II (Birkenau) was a death camp for Jews and other prisoners; upon arrival, the Jews were “selected” for labor or the gas chamber. Sobibor was a death camp for Jews, and all except a few, who were chosen to work in the camp, were killed immediately in gas chambers.

Anne Frank was buried in a mass grave at Bergen-Belsen

Bergen-Belsen was a completely different kind of camp; it was a holding camp for Jews who wanted to go to Palestine; they were made available as exchange prisoners for German citizens being held in British and American prisons. Theresienstadt was originally set up as a camp for “prominent Jews” and for the Jews in Czechoslovakia where the camp was located.  The Czech Jews were sent later to Auschwitz-Birkenau where men, women and children lived together for awhile in a “Family Camp.”

There were no gas chambers at Bergen-Belsen, nor at Theresienstadt.  This means that there must have been an initial selection at Westerbork; some of the Dutch and German Jews at Westerbork were sent to the Birkenau and Sobibor death camps while others were selected for Bergen-Belsen and Theresienstadt. This seems to go against the Nazi policy of genocide of the Jews, which was called “The Final Solution.”

How were these selections made at Westerbork?  Apparently, the Jews who were selected to live were either the rich and famous, who were called “prominent Jews,” or Jews who were Zionists who wanted to settle in Palestine.  The prominent Jews included Jews who had served honorably in the German Army in World War I.  The Czech Jews were allowed to live for awhile in Theresienstadt and later in the Family Camp at Birkenau, but they were eventually put through another selection process and those who were not capable of work were gassed and burned at Birkenau.

There was a typhus epidemic at Bergen-Belsen; 35,000 prisoners died of typhus in only two months, including Anne Frank and her sister.

Women peeling potatoes at Bergen-Belsen, April 28, 1945

Here is a quote from the news article:

Eighty-nine year old Jules Schelvis was 22 when he was sent to Westerbork with his 20-year-old wife Rachel.

“We didn’t think we would stay very long,” he told AFP. “Many people tried to be admitted to hospital to delay their deportation. We pretended to have stomach pains or headache.”

But six days after their arrival, the couple’s names were read out from a list and he and his wife were ordered to board a train for the Sobibor death camp in Poland, where Rachel Schelvis was killed in a gas chamber.

Jules Schelvis survived because he was apparently chosen to work inside the Sobibor camp.  Perhaps he was one of the 600 prisoners who escaped during an uprising.

Westerbork was originally built by the Dutch in 1939 as a prison for  Jews who had fled Nazi Germany and entered the Netherlands illegally.  Otto Frank was one of the  Jews who had to escape from Germany because he had been indicted for bank fraud. However, he was never caught by the Dutch police and was able to set up a business in Amsterdam under someone else’s name.

The Westerbork camp was taken over by the Nazis in 1942 and it then became a transit camp where Jews were held until they could be transported elsewhere.

Here is a quote from this source:

Between 1942 and 1944, 93 trains deported more than a 100,000 Dutch Jews and Romany. Sixty-eight of those trains went to Auschwitz. The others went to Sobibor, Bergen-Belsen and Theresienstadt, AFP reported.

There were 140,000 Jews in Holland before the war, of which 102,000 were murdered by the Nazis. Aside from Anne Frank, a second Jewish girl who kept a diary of her earlier imprisonment passed through Westerbork on the way to her death.

In the late 1930s, the government in The Hague was worried about the influence thousands of Jewish refugees who had fled to Holland would have in the cities and towns. Many German Jews caught by the authorities had been sent back to Germany, but still more came.

The government decided therefore to house Jewish refugees who entered the country illegally in a new compound built on marsh land at a ‘safe’ distance from the local town of Westerbork in Drenthe in 1939.

Hundreds of refugees were living in the camp by the time the German Army invaded on 10 May 1940. The inmates had limited freedom until 1942 when the facility officially became a transit camp.

On July 1, 1942, the German Sicherheitspolizei (Security Police) took over control. The new commander, Erich Deppner, caused a riot when organising the first transport. He included children without their parents and women who happened to be standing in line for admittance to make up his quota of 1,000 deportees.

In October, Obersturmfuhrer Albert Konrad Gemmeker took command of the camp and oversaw the systematic deportation of 100,000 Jews, 55,000 of whom went to Auschwitz, according to the Encyclopedia of the Holocaust.

On the 60th anniversary it is important to bear in mind that much of the dirty work was not done directly by the Germans.

Gemmeker, who was jailed for 10 years after the war, left the day-to-day running of the camp in the hands of some of the inmates. A subdivision of the Jewish police (Judischer Ordnungsdienst) arranged the transports and maintained order. Many Jews, like Anne Frank, ended up in the camp because they were betrayed by Dutch people.

There were 20,000 Jews in the Netherlands who managed to hide from the Nazis throughout the war, according to the Museum at the Anne Frank House in Amsterdam.  As the war progressed, food became scarce all over Europe.  Food was rationed, even in America.  The Jews in hiding had fake ration cards which the people who helped them used to buy food for them.  By 1944, when all of Europe was starving, the Dutch people began to resent the Jews in hiding.

One of the saddest things that I read in The Diary of Anne Frank was that the Dutch people were saying in 1944 that they didn’t want the Jews back after the war.  They were angry that the Jews were living on food bought with illegal ration cards.

1 Comment

  1. […] It is my understanding that the “Westerbork detention camp” was originally set up for Jews who were in Holland illegally; it was later turned into a transit camp for Jews who were sent to concentration camps. I previously blogged about Westerbork here. […]

    Pingback by Maryland students hear a talk by a survivor of the Bergen-Belsen exchange camp « Scrapbookpages Blog — November 1, 2012 @ 1:00 pm

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