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Westerbork Transit Camp: History & Overview

The camp of Westerbork was situated about 15 km from the village of Westerbork. This camp had been opened by the Dutch authorities during the summer 1939 in order to receive the Jewish refugees coming from Germany. The first refugees arrived in Westerbork on October 9, 1939. When the German army invaded Holland, there were 750 refugees in the camp.

On July 1, 1942, the German authorities took control of the camp. Westerbork became officially a "transit camp" (Durchgangslager Westerbork). On July 14, 1942, all the Jews were examined by the SS in order to determine who was able to work or not. The first train arrived on July 15th and left the camp on July 16th with 1,135 of the first selected Jews. By the end of the month, nearly 6,000 Dutch Jews had, in fact reached Auschwitz, where the majority were gassed. The destination of this train was Auschwitz [other trains went to Bergen-Belsen, Theresienstadt, and Vittel]. In the beginning, the transfers were done at the station of Hooghalen. In November 1942, and after new rail lines had been constructed, the trains arrived directly into the camp. Nearly every Tuesday for two years, a train with hundreds of Jews left Westerbork. More than 103.000 Jews were transferred from Westerbork to Auschwitz or Sobibor, only 5,000 survived.

The camp of Westerbork was a very strange place. There was a school, a hair-dresser, an orchestra [also a complete cabaret group consisting of famous Dutch artists who tried to cheer up the inmates, and were required to present all performances in German], and even a restaurant. If a prisoner had enough money, it was possible for him to buy goods that were impossible to find elsewhere in Holland at this time. This "comfort" was designed by the SS in order to avoid any problem during the transfers to Auschwitz. A lot of prisoners thought that the condition of life would be the same in the camps of Poland. The Nazis seemed to always leave just a little hope for survival.

Members of the "OD", the Jewish Police, direct arriving Jews

The most tragic part of the story of this camp is that the SS had very little to do with the transfers: the selections were made by a Jewish security service. The Nazi commandant gave the orders; the Jewish "governing" body only carried them out, in fear of themselves being deported. Imagine the irony, Jews selecting other Jews for certain death. The transfers were often done under the control of Dutch policemen. There was a transport to the extermination camps every Tuesday. Before Tuesday, the camp was in panic. Every prisoner feared selection for the next transport. On Tuesday evenings, those who were not selected had just one more week of rest before the next selection.

The transports stopped in September 1944. When the Allies liberated Westerbork, 900 prisoners remained in the camp. The camp has been totally destroyed after the liberation. Nothing remains of the camp. However, there is a very poignant monument and a very interesting and well documented memorial center at the site. The monument consists of a piece of railroad track, which at its end is twisted and points into the sky.

The Dutch government dismantled Westerbork in the 1960s and later built large radio telescopes on the site. The only building remaining on the grounds is the former camp commander’s house preserved in a glass enclosure. About two miles away, a museum tells the story of the camp. In December 2017, the museum introduced a virtual reality simulation to help visitors envision what took place at Westerbork.

Sources: The Forgotten Camps
Matt Lebovic, “At Westerbork, virtual reality simulations ‘recreate’ the Nazi transit camp,” Times of Israel, (January 15, 2018).
USHMM Photos