Wednesday, May 7, 2014

Camp Unpleasant History

One usually goes on a vacation to get away from the daily grind of life, and to escape the seemingly constant cries from our computer inbox or the incessant chirps and pings of our ever-present cell phones.  Escape, indeed?  Often it takes great concentration to ignore the beckonings of our work world.  To free one's mind from those beckonings is it's own reward, and that we did...for the most part.

However, I also enjoy learning new things and experiencing places not typically on a tour agenda.  During our stay with my cousins near Groningen, in the northern part of the Netherlands, we had the opportunity to visit Camp Westerbork Memorial Site.  While the name doesn't have the same notoriety as Nazi camps further east such as Auschwitz and Sobibor, Westerbork served a crucial role in the history of Jews during World War II and is well known to Dutch citizens.  It was not a labor or extermination camp such as the more notorious, but served as a transfer point for 107,000 Jews, Gypsies, Resistance Fighters and others from the Netherlands to camps and ultimately the fate of 102,000 of them.  Of those who passed through this camp, only 5,000 survived to the end of the war.  Among the notable "guests" of Westerbork were Anne Frank and her family.

It was a cloudy and somewhat foggy day when we arrived, which gave a surreal atmosphere to the camp. Birds were singing and the trees had sprouted their iridescent spring leaves, which seemed in contrast to the eerie silence.  Though much of the camp structure has been removed, mounds delineate where the barracks and other buildings were formerly located.  One can also see rail ties for the trains that brought people in...and then took them on to their final destinations.

What structures are present have been faithfully reconstructed using photographs.  The barbed wire fence, the guard tower, are stark reminders of life in this camp between 1940 and 1945.  I found the symbolism of the rails ripped from the ties especially poignant.

Perhaps the most moving part of the memorial (and the main purpose of this place is now to never forget what happened) are the stones laid out in patterns on the for each of the 107,000 that didn't return.  Most have the Star of David representing their religious belief, but others had symbols for Gypsies and those who resisted their captors.

It is easy to view this impersonally, given the sheer numbers of those who perished.  Even the 102,000 seem like a drop in a bucket when one considers the more than 6 million total that died in the Holocaust.  Yet the photograph speaks of the individuals...the families...the fathers, mothers, sons, daughters...neighbors...coworkers.  

On the road into the memorial is a marker of the numbers who went on to those more notorious camps, such as Auschwitz, Buchenwald, Sobibor, Bergen-Belsen...the list seems endless.

"In Auschwitz-Birkenau were more than 56,500 Jews out of the Netherlands, and more than 200 Sinti and Roma (Gypsies) out of the Netherlands murdered"  

Murdered.  So reads the block.  So visceral are the feelings that words are not minced.  There are other blocks for the other camps where they were murdered.  You can read the numbers on the top of each block. 

General history aside, one of the reasons for my visit was to connect with a piece of my family's past. Though it all happened before I was born (barely!), the events of WWII had such a profound effect on my parents' generation that their values and impressions couldn't help but be passed on to me.  I am not certain, but it is very possible my uncle, who was arrested, tried and sentenced to the camps early in the war for his resistance activities, may have passed through this camp.  More on that later.

As is often the case when one turns over the rocks of one's past, one will often find some surprises. Westerbork also served as a prison or holding place for Dutch citizens who collaborated with the enemy.  It seems that some family members spent time here for those reasons.  That realization was somewhat unsettling at first, but as one ponders, it becomes very difficult to cast judgement as none of us know what we would do given similar circumstances.  More on that later as well.

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