Last year around March I did a road trip in the province of Drenthe in the north eastern part of the Netherlands. It was the last province in the country that I have not visited. The Dutchman was on a business trip, so it was the perfect time for me to take a long weekend jaunt for myself. This kind of local and cultural trips are his nightmare, so I am grabbing the chance.
I stayed at the Abdij de Westerburcht Hotel, a former abbey of the Stefanos Church in Westerbork. The building looked very low profile compared to the other abbeys I have seen, but in the hallways and rooms, I could see some of the old world charm in the interior architecture and the stained glass art on the ceiling.
One of the places I wanted to see in this long weekend trip was the Westerbork ex-Nazi Concentration Camp located in Hooghalen, not too far away from Westerbork. The place functioned as a transit camp during the World War II, bringing many Dutch Jews to concentration and extermination camps in Germany, Czech Republic and Poland. It is now a monument and a museum called Herriningscentrum Kamp Westerbork (Westerbork Memorial Camp).
When I visited, I also learned about the post-war history of the camp, which was something I did not know about previously.
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During my visit I met 2 guys who were having a little morning run around the area. I was taking pictures of the former living quarters in the camp when one of them offered to take a picture of me. I politely declined the offer, saying that I prefer my picture not to be taken in a place like this. He understood, I guess he was just trying to be friendly and helpful. He then asked if I knew someone who stayed in the camp. I immediately thought that his question was strange. How can I possibly know someone during the 1940s who went through the ordeal here and survived? I found it really odd.
He must have seen the confusion on my face, and quickly realised his mistake. He mistook me for a local who knew about the history of Westerbork, post World War II. Well, I would have known as well, had I visited the museum, but I thought I will check the camp grounds first.
Sensing the need to explain, the more talkative guy jumped in and told me that after the war the camp was inhabited by Indonesians (from the Maluku Islands) and that he personally knew an old lady who lived here before. They are neighbours in nearby Beilen where he lives.
Alright, I think I am now understanding the whole thing but just not quite yet.
Perhaps the guys were just trying to place me in the whole picture of things – This Asian-looking girl, who could easily be mistaken as Indonesian, but if she is not, then what the heck is she doing in Westerbork? I later told them that I am a curious mutt =)
They further versed me about the history of the camp after the war, using the highlights version of course. The whole conversation was very enriching and I really learned a lot.
So when I went back to the museum and visitor centre, I pored over the history timeline of the camp. Wow, Westerbork Camp has definitely written history. Not only from an ex-Nazi concentration camp persective, but also from the Dutch East Indies (now present-day Indonesia) and the Netherlands colonial past history. Both events though were tragic accounting to the loss of many lives. I guess I also understand if some people prefer not to visit places like this.
This is also the 3rd ex-Nazi concentration camp I have visited. The first one was Auschwitz-Birkenau in Poland which I visited in 2010, and the second one was Vugt in the south of the Netherlands a year later.
I have created below a quick look timeline of the history of the camp. But for the complete information and details, please visit the official website: Herinneringscentrum Kamp Westerbork
How to get here:
The camp is located about half an hour far from the nearest train stations, Assen and Beilen. Having said that, for convenience, I highly suggest visitors to come here by car.
From the museum and visitor centre a bus service leaves every 20 minutes going to the former concentration camp grounds. Another option is to walk which will take approximately 20-30 minutes.
Important things to know:
- Entry to the former camp grounds is free of charge.
- The buses from the museum/visitor centre are not free of charge.
- The Memorial Museum has an entrance fee. There is a restaurant cafe inside as well.
- Car parking is free of charge.
Location of the camp on Google Maps:
Pre Nazi Invasion of the Netherlands – 1939
During this time the Third Reich aka Nazi Germany has gained ground, were able to annex Austria and had invaded Poland. The first refugees arrived in Westerbork in 1939.
World War II – 1942 to 1945
During the war, the camp became a detention and transit camp. They call it in Dutch, ‘Kamp Westerbork’ and in German, ‘Durchgangslager Westerbork’.
Many Dutch Jews and German Jews were detained here before being transported to concentration and extermination camps in Poland, Czech Republic and Germany namely, Auschwitz-Birkenau (PL), Sobibor (PL), Bergen-Belsen (DE), Theresienstadt (CZ).
Anna Frank from the Anne Frank House in Amsterdam transited here before being sent to Auschwitz-Birkenau where she later died. In total, there were 102,000 Dutch Jews and 5,000 German Jews who passed through this camp. A stone monument now stands in the former camp grounds and each stone has a Star of David on it, representing a single person that had stayed here in Westerbork and died in a Nazi concentration camp.
In addition, the camp also detained and deported Sinti and Roma gypsies. They were called the forgotten victims of the Nazis which many don’t know about... even until now.
The camp was liberated on 12 april 1945 by the Canadian 2nd infantry division. The Netherlands are ever grateful to Canada for liberating the country from Nazi Germany. By the way, the Dutch Royal family have called Ottawa, Canada home (and London, England as well) when the war broke out.
Post World War II – 1945 to 1947
After the war, the camp became a detention camp. The accused and guilty Nazi collaborators were detained here in Westerbork.
The NSB’ers (Nationaal Socialistische Beweging/National Socialist Movement) for example were the notorious Nazi collaborators in the Netherlands. Many of them were paraded and humiliated on the streets after the war.
Military Camp – 1948
You may not know this but Indonesia (previously Dutch East Indies) was a colony of the Netherlands. The Netherlands were one of the first seafaring nations that led discovery and trade expeditions across the world during the medieval period. They have many trading posts all over the world, from the Americas to the Far East and beyond, which was quite a feat for a very small country. But they also controlled a few areas in the world such as the Caribbean and the Dutch East Indies. The latter for 350 years.
During the outbreak of the second world war, the Dutch East Indies (Indonesia) fell into the hands of the Japanese. When Japan lost the war, Indonesia declared independence. Things got into hot water when the Dutch tried to re-establish its colony, sending army troops from the Netherlands to the islands. These soldiers were trained here at the Westerbork military camp.
As we all know now, the Netherlands did not succeed and have formally recognised Indonesian sovereignty in 1949.
Repatriation Camp – 1950 to 1970
After the Netherlands lost its recolonisation attempt of the Dutch East Indies, many Dutch nationals fled back to Europe. Westerbork camp was then used as a repatriation camp for these people.
It was also renamed later to Kamp Schattenberg when refugees from the Maluku Islands of Indonesia arrived. These refugees were part of the movement who wanted to declare Maluku as a separate republic from Indonesia. They attempted to secede but were defeated by the Indonesian army.
Monument and Museum – 1971 and now
The camp was demolished and rebuilt as a monument for all the fallen Jews, Nearby the camp a Memorial Museum was built as well.
Travel Period: March 2016
Destination: Westerbork, Midden-Drenthe (Drenthe), The Netherlands
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Happy Travels! Enjoy Life =)
All pictures were taken by a point and shoot pocket camera or a smartphone.