On April 12, 2015, the Westerbork Transit Camp looked like a sunny, windblown field where spring was coming, not the waystation for more than 100,000 people who were later murdered. The vast majority were Jewish, plus 245 Roma and Sinti people, and about 100 non-Jewish resistance workers. While the camp is near the German border, almost all were from Amsterdam, either because they’d always lived there, or because the Nazis herded there from all over the country.
On April 12, 1945 – exactly seventy years before – a group of Canadian soldiers stumbled on the camp, which they didn’t know existed. The guards had already fled, so the soldiers entered easily, and found almost 900 prisoners ready to welcome them. Westerbork was full of contradictions: a holding tank for the concentration camps which also had one of the best cabarets in Europe. A place where prisoners worked and exercised and were cared for in a hospital if they were ill. Once people were registered, they lived in filthy conditions, three bunks high and even more across. The wind on the Drenthe prairie is ferocious (even in April), and the conditions in winter with no heat are unthinkable. The main road down the center of the barracks was called the Boulevard des Miseres, muddy in many seasons. At least once a week, a train loaded with people was sent east to the concentration camps.
It’s a long trip from Amsterdam even today (2 hours by fast train, then a bus). It would have been longer and infinitely harder for people who had been yanked out of their houses, transported to the Schouwberg Theatre and separated from any children they had, then transported again to Centraal or Muiderpoort Stations, and then to the remote province of Drenthe. Most had probably never been there, and to city dwellers it would have looked absolutely desolate, miles and miles of open fields dotted by the occasional thatched farmhouse.
For the 70th anniversary of liberation, hundreds of people gathered facing a stage in front of a newly acquired railway car similar to those used for the deportations.
The track crosses the open fields where the former buildings (all gone now except the Commander’s house) are traced out on the earth. Much more moving are the huge photographs which are mounted throughout the area, making the experience much easier to imagine. Similarly, a monument with one star for each murdered person makes the numbers real, especially since it is in the shape of the Netherlands.
The program was simple: people gathered, those with flowers at the front, and marched from the entrance to the site to the stage, then sat on the platform. With the help of two large screens, we saw and heard testimonies and music to bring back those days and the reflections of those who were left behind. Although I only caught scattered words, the feelings of every person who spoke or sang reached me – a woman who had been a ten year old in the camp with her proud voice, a boy with dark hair in a suit who spoke like a grownup, a rabbi who gave the kaddish and said that his own mother (metaphorically) was the one who started the singing on the train.
A woman began reading the names and ages of the people who were murdered, one by one. Lutie and Max Degen, a handsome older couple, stepped forward to lay the first flowers by the train track with their two teenaged granddaughters, Eva and Mila. Then hundreds of us lined up to follow them.
Afterward, at the reception at the excellent memory center nearby, I started chatting with a woman accompanied by two girls, who proved to be Lutie Degen. (I had only seen her in the distance before so I didn’t recognize her immediately.) “You’re so lucky to have young people to come here with you,” I said.
“Yes,” she replied, “These are my granddaughters. My husband lost everyone at Sobibor. Now we have a family again.”
The memorial at the far end of the field, created by Ralph Prins, is unforgettably simple: train tracks twisted toward the sky like arms raised not just in anguish but in protest.