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.

Waalsdorpervlakte – National Memorial in The Netherlands

Waalsdorpervlakte, The Hague, Netherlands

Waalsdorpervlakte, The Hague, Netherlands

The simple memorial at Waalsdorpervlakte, in southern Holland, to Resistance fighters murdered by the Fascists during the Second World War, is a place for the people to remember and celebrate the sacrifices made to liberate their country.

Second World War memorial sites have a different meaning in Europe to those that commemorate the event in the UK – they’re more immediate. In Britain direct experience of war for the civilian population was limited to whatever might rain down on them from the air whereas huge parts of Europe were totally devastated in the conflict, most especially the Soviet Union, and invasion and its consequences were an everyday matter in all those countries occupied by Fascist forces.

Most of the western European countries capitulated within days and as a result physical damage to the major cities was minimal. For example, both Paris and Amsterdam suffered less destruction than London (and many other British cities) even though France and The Netherlands lost their independence through the German occupation. Quick capitulation, pro-Fascists internally and the attitude of the Nazis that the French and the Dutch were Aryans (unless you were a Communist, Jew, Gypsy or homosexual) meant that the local population were not unduly mistreated by the invaders – as long as they played along with the occupiers.

The situation was very different in the east. Just look at pictures of German officers walking around the Eiffel Tower with French women on their arms or boat loads of German soldiers playing at tourists – doing 70 years ago what thousands of tourist do today – looking at Amsterdam’s attractions from the canals. Compare that with the Soviet Union where the only pictures of Germans with Russian women is when they are standing beside a gibbet with a line of Soviet citizens hanging from a short rope, indicating a slow strangulation rather than an ‘efficient’ hanging.

In France and Holland most accepted the occupation and kept their heads down, not wishing to court trouble; some were out-and-out collaborators – and from that number some paid the price at the end of the war whilst others went on to positions of power and influence in the post-war reconstruction; others actively fought in the Resistance at various levels, from taking up arms to hiding those being sought by the Gestapo. But the price for being in the last group could mean death.

And for 250-280 Dutch Resistance fighters their last stand of defiance would be where they would be buried.

Waalsdorpervlakte, The Hague, Netherlands

Waalsdorpervlakte, The Hague, Netherlands

The Waalsdorpervlakte is an open place in the dune area “Meijendel” not far from The Hague (the government and administrative centre of Holland). This area, close to the sea, is relatively isolated today and would have been even more so in the 1940s. Prisoners were brought here, shot and then buried in unmarked graves. Not by chance this was also the execution site of the Anton Mussert, one of the founders of the National Socialist Movement in the Netherlands (NSB) and its formal leader. On the defeat of the Nazis he was arrested, convicted of high treason and sentenced to death. Exactly a year after he was arrested he faced a similar firing squad to the Resistance fighters but was buried in a public cemetery, there being no desire to pollute the most recent of Holland’s memorial sites.

After the war May 4th was declared the day for the ‘Remembrance of the Dead’ and almost spontaneously, and without any official government input, survivors of the Resistance and relatives of those murdered there decided to congregate and commemorate their lives.

Although this has now turned into a ritual it still retains its common approach. There are no VIPs (except any remaining survivors and relatives of those assumed to be buried there), no speeches and it’s for anyone who wishes to turn up to take part.

Waalsdorpervlakte, The Hague, Netherlands

Waalsdorpervlakte, The Hague, Netherlands

On a slight rise overlooking the simple memorial there’s a huge Bourbon bell. From the time that the procession arrives from the entrance to the park, at about 19.40, groups of people slowly toll the bell by pulling on ropes attached to the four corners of the bell support. At 20.00 the bell is silenced, the ‘Last Post’ is sounded and this is followed by a two minutes silence. The national anthem signals the end of the two minutes and then the assembled people place their tributes. Whilst they are doing this the big bell sounds out its deep, bass tone and tradition holds that the bell will continue to toll as long as there are people still waiting to place their wreaths or flowers. The ceremony normally finishes between 22.00 and 23.00.

This is not a mass event the way that some of the national memorial services tend to be, with their so-called ‘dignitaries’ in attendance, but there were just a few short of 4,000 people at the event in 2013.

Although May 4th is a special event the site is accessible all year round.

Click here for a short video of the ‘Remembrance of the Dead’ day in 2013.

Practicalities

Public transport

From Station The Hague Central Station take bus 22 going in the direction of Duinzigt. Get off at stop ‘Waalsdorperweg’ (13 minutes) and then on foot (about 10 minutes), heading in a generally north-easterly direction. There are 4 buses an hour.

GPS coordinates:

International coordinate system WGS84
Monument: Lat N 52.11577 ° Long E 04.33624 °

 

Exposure by Antony Gormley

Exposure - Antony Gormley, Lelystad, Holland

Exposure – Antony Gormley, Lelystad, Holland

Even if they haven’t seen it most people know of The Angel of the North sculpture by the road outside Gateshead. Exposure, close to the Dutch city of Lelystad is even bigger.

But it took a long time to come to fruition.

It was in 2001 that the municipality of Lelystad decided to have a competition for a major work of art to be placed between the city and the sea. Antony Gormley won and in 2005 he was awarded the commission.

Having to deal with the technical issues involved with such a huge piece of art meant that the cost started to rise and it wasn’t until 2007 that this financial problem was resolved when a major sponsor came in to foot the bill.

The company Had Fab, based in Scotland and more used to putting up electricity pylons, had been involved with the project from the start and they then took 3 years to produce all the bits of this huge mecanno-like structure. It was first put together at their works in East Lothian and then it took about a month to erect it on the prepared site, on a dam beside the Markermeer, a couple of kilometres from the centre of Lelystad.

Map showing location of Exposure in Lelystad, The Netherlands

Gormley is known for basing his sculptures upon the human body, normally his own, and Exposure is no different. One of his other well-known works in the UK is the collection of a hundred life-sized cast iron figures called Another Place which is spaced out along a 3.5 kilometre stretch of Crosby beach, at the mouth of the River Mersey, close to Liverpool.

Another Place, Antony Gormley, Crosby beach, Liverpool

Another Place, Crosby beach, Liverpool

Exposure is a human figure, 25 metres high (5 metres taller than The Angel of the North) and weighing 60 tonnes, crouching and looking out to sea. There are more than 5,000 individual pieces, each of different length and size, and it’s all kept together with 14,000 or so bolts. It was officially inaugurated on the 17th September 2010.

One of the things that makes this sculpture interesting is its location. It is situated on a narrow strip of land and has water the side it is looking as well as at its back. The land is part of the system of dams and dykes which prevent The Netherlands from being under water so there is no other structure close by. In that way it’s easy to imagine someone just quietly looking out to sea, thinking. The only difference is that this figure is more than 80 feet high.

Not as easy to get to as some of the sites in Holland but not impossible and well worth the effort.

Practicalities

Public Transport

A train from Amsterdam Centraal takes under 40 minutes and there are 3 or 4 an hour during the day. On leaving Lelystad railway station head towards the bus station, the other side of the tracks, about a minute away. There catch the Stadbus No. 3, to Batavia Stad, a shopping complex. From there walk towards the coast and it crouches on the dam lying parallel to the shoreline. You can’t miss it, it’s big enough.