Westerbork Internment Camp – Northern Holland

Westerbork Rail Memorial

Westerbork Rail Memorial

Established in the north-east corner of the Netherlands, Westerbork reverted from being a place of refuge to a transit area towards the death camps during the Nazi Occupation during the Second World War.

Westerbork was opened in October 1939 to accommodate refugees that had been coming from Germany since Hitler’s success in the 1933 elections. In subsequent years more and more refugees arrived, perhaps with the same hope as the Dutch seemed to hold as the war clouds grew over Europe, that the Netherlands would remain neutral. However, instead of being welcomed by the Dutch indigenous Jewish community these refugees from Germany were considered as ‘parasites’, making the future plans of persecution and extermination a much easier task for the Fascists.

(As an aside here it’s worth making reference to the words written by a German Protestant Pastor Martin Niemöller. He was an anti-Communist who, at first, supported Hitler’s rise to power in 1933 but began to see that he might had made a somewhat serious error of judgement.

The official version from the Martin Niemöller Foundation reads:

Then they came for the communists,
and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a communist.

Then they came for the socialists,
and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a socialist.

Then they came for the trade unionists,
and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a trade unionist.

Then they came for me,
and there was no one left to speak for me.

Other versions insert a line for the others, Jews, Sinti (Roma gypsies), homosexuals, who were to suffer under Nazism – and has often been used in more modern contexts to try to break down apathy in the face of attacks upon the general population. In Britain today we could add verses about those on Welfare Benefits and Immigrants but whether the rest of the population would see the parallel is another matter.)

Westerbork Rail Memorial and Sentry Tower

Westerbork Rail Memorial and Sentry Tower

The physical location of Westerbork (one of 26 such camps at one time) indicates the segregation that the Dutch sought to impose on the German immigrants – it’s in an isolated area now and would have been even more so in the 1940s.

All this background made it easy for the Fascist invaders to carry out their plans against ‘undesirables’ once the camps were taken from Dutch control in July 1942. For almost three years there had been a strange atmosphere in Westerbork. Religious ceremonies took place there, including weddings, and there were cultural and sporting activities and there was even a system of Jews policing themselves. As it subsequently became a stopping place to the death camps it’s a bit disconcerting to see photos of smiling inmates in the Westerbork museum.

The small museum contains an interesting collection of photographs, signs that would have been used in the administration of the camp which provided a sense of normality as well as a reconstruction of part of the living accommodation.

Westerbork Camp Museum

Westerbork Camp Museum

In the first months of SS control those being deported had to walk to the nearest railway station, about 3 kms away, but by the end of 1942 a spur had been built so that the cattle trucks could be driven directly into the camp – the end of this line is now one of the memorials in the camp area. Tuesday was the set day for deportation and the anticipation became a source of fear. Eventually more than 102,000 Jews and 250 Sinti were deported, the majority to Auschwitz and Sobibor in Poland, never to return. On what used to be the parade ground are 102,000 upended bricks to commemorate these individuals.

Westerbork Camp Memorial - 102,000 Bricks

Westerbork Camp Memorial – 102,000 Bricks

An issue which throws up a number of questions is that it was the Jewish ‘governing’ body that administered the deportation process and selected those who were to be deported. Many of the photos that have survived show the active participation of the Jewish police in this process, even carrying an old woman on a stretcher to the cattle trucks. The argument that they did this to avoid deportation themselves is no excuse. It stands as a fallacy side by side the argument of those German soldiers who were at the other end of the railway line, at the extermination camps, that they were ‘just obeying orders’.

A total of 93 transports left the camp, the last on September 13, 1944. This last train carried 279 prisoners including Anne Frank and her family. On 12 April 1945 the camp was liberated by the Canadians and at that time there were still 876 prisoners in the camp. Previous to liberation the SS and Dutch collaborators had fled to the north.

Westerbork Extermination Camp Memorial

Westerbork Extermination Camp Memorial

Practicalities

Herinneringscentrum Kamp Westerbork

Oosthalen 8

9414 TG Hooghalen
T (0031)593 – 592600
F (0031)593 – 592546
info@kampwesterbork.nl

Official website of the Westerbork Monument and Museum.

GPS of entrance: N 52 ° 55 – E 006 ° 34

Opening Times:

Monday to Friday 10.00 – 17.00
Saturdays and Sunday 13.00 – 17.00
Weekends April to September 11.00 – 17.00
Closed on December 25 and 31, January 1 and January 3 to January 27

Adult entrance to museum: €6.50

Public Transport:

By train it’s not easy and would entail at least one (possibly two) changes to get to Beilen from Amsterdam. From Beilen the bus to Assen (number 23 – one an hour) would take you to Hooghalen Centrum, from where it’s a couple of kilometres to the entrance of the complex and the museum. The Memorial site is another couple of miles from the car park by the museum, but there’s a mini bus service to take you there every 20 minutes – whilst the museum is open – single € 1.5, return € 2.00.

A Thousand Murdered Girls

Greek Partisan Women

Greek Partisan Women

If there’s any lesson to be learnt from the new play A Thousand Murdered Girls, about the way that Greek women partisans were treated after the Second World War, it’s don’t trust the British.

Partisan movements, very often led by strong Communist parties, were fundamental in liberating many of the countries in the Balkan region. And it was in those Communist led resistance armies that you would have found a considerable number of women, not just in support roles to the army, but actually taking up arms and fighting side by side with the men for the liberation of their countries from Fascism. In fact, it was only in those countries where the Communists were organised that women played such a militant role: Albania, Greece, Yugoslavia and the Soviet Union.

The British supplied arms (after all for much of the war the British weren’t actually doing much fighting in Europe) and constantly tried to influence those Partisan movements by sending in Special Operations Executive (SOE) officers, the forerunner of MI6. At the same time that the Soviet Red Army was inflicting crushing blows on the German Nazi forces on the Eastern Front both German and Italian forces were being pushed out of those countries in southern Europe that they had taken with such ease a few years before.

Royalist and very often pro-fascist armies of the old state had put up little resistance and it was only when the Communist Partisans became properly organised that the tide began to turn against Fascism. By the autumn of 1944, when the defeat of the Nazis was only a matter of time, the British, and especially Churchill, started to denigrate and sideline these fighters, who had sacrificed so much, in favour of political forces that would be more willing to follow the instructions of the both the UK and the USA. Churchill might have been anti-Nazi but he was never anti-Fascist!

So as soon as the war was ‘won’ in Greece the Greek people had to face the attempts of the local Monarchists and Fascists to reap the rewards of all their suffering and sacrifice. Mistakes made by the Greek Communist Party (the KKE) led to a drawn out Civil War which they eventually lost.

If one major mistake was to trust the British the other was to give up their arms. No revolutionary, in any country, in any circumstance, should ever, ever give up their arms just on the promises made by government and international forces that have spent their existence perfecting the art of lying to the people. Unfortunately the Greek Partisans didn’t seem to be aware of events in Germany in the 1920s or any understanding of the extent to which imperialism would go in their attempts to destroy the young Soviet Union. If the Greeks made a fatal mistake (for some) in the 1940s it’s even more depressing to look at what has happened in the last few years in Nepal.

Why the KKE made such a mistake I can’t say although the evidence of the nefarious actions of the British were evident in the region – witness the Corfu Channel Incident engineered by the British (which even meant the deaths of their own seamen) in an attempt to intimidate Albania. The Communist Party in Albania was strong enough, and probably had a better ideological understanding of what was happening in the immediate post-war world, to stand up to such bullying.

The play makes a point, quite early, about what Churchill was up to and that’s all well and good. What it does not mention is that it was not a party political issue in the UK. If Churchill started the process of interference in the internal affairs of the Balkan countries it was the Labour Government of Attlee (with Bevin as the anti-Communist Foreign Secretary) who continued with the policy, even moving British involvement up a notch.

One of the problems in Britain, and this comes up in many so-called progressive artistic performances as well, is that there is a seeming reluctance of many of those on the ‘left’ of any criticism of the Labour Party and its foreign policy. Labour was thrown out (and Churchill returned) before the action in the play is completed but there is a seamless development of foreign policy. This was to be repeated the next time the Labour Party were to find themselves in power in Britain, and for that millions of Indonesian working people and peasants were to suffer.

Through representing this shameful period in Greek history (which led directly to the fascistisation of the Greek police and military and ultimately to the Generals Coup in 1967) through the words that the women wrote whilst in concentration camps on the small and, at that time, isolated island of Trikeri it misses the most important point.

Yes it displays their strength, unity and steadfastness in face of extreme suffering, hardship and provocation. But in the end it doesn’t try to present us with any useful thoughts for the future.

The play A Thousand Murdered Girls was written by Darren Guy, directed by Mikyla Jane Durkan and performed at the Unity Theatre, Liverpool, from the 4th-6th July, 2013.