Westerbork - With an uncomfortable chill racing up and down her spine, and a daughter in tow, Aparna Karthikeyan visits this transit camp and returns with a lump in her throat
The sun was blazing down from a cornflower blue sky, yet there I was, feeling distinctly chilly and the chill racing uncomfortably up and down my spine, wondering what on earth prompted me to come here, to bring my little girl here… — we were at Camp Westerbork, the transit camp where Anne Frank and her family (along with hundreds and thousands of Jews) were held, before they were carted off to the concentration camps in Poland. Whole families, friends, young children with grand dreams, old people waiting to hold their first grand-child — all of them were indiscriminately herded into trains from this very spot and taken to Auschwitz, Sobibor, Bergen-Belsen and Theresienstadt. The great majority of them perished; only 5,000 (out of a whopping 1,07,000) lived to tell the tale…
Almost 70 years later, we were standing on the very same place that Anne's barracks once stood… She and her family — because they were arrested and had not voluntarily surrendered to the Germans — were made to work in the ‘punishment barracks', where they were made to manually separate the various components of the batteries. Not much remains of those barracks, but you do realise that the ghost of an enclosure, fenced in with barbed wire can often be as powerful a reminder of confinement and cruelty as claw-marks on plaster… The rippling, grassy fields evoke such a sense of poignancy, that you don't need explanatory notes in several languages to understand the physical pain and great sadness the inmates would have felt, separated from loved ones, policed by heartless men sporting swastikas. And, that's not to mention the sheer hopelessness that must've engulfed them, the day their names were read out, when they would've had to pack their belongings for one last time (photographs, clothes, books, memories and treasures — everything that possibly mattered) and board the goods train — 93 in all departed from Westerbork — that would've taken them to one of the most brutal concentration camps in the world…
Few structures remain from the 1940s, though — soon after the liberation of the last Jewish prisoners (by the Canadian Army, in April 1945), Westerbork was a penalty camp for Nazi collaborators, and later, a refugee camp (for Indonesians and later, Moluccans). After having served its purpose, the barracks were swiftly demolished, and it was only in 1983 that a memorial centre was established here. To make the campsite more identifiable, barbed-wire fences and banks of earth were used to indicate where the barracks formerly stood. We walked around, on leaden-legs, parents holding the children close (there were, surprisingly, a good many of them around). Lumps rose in our throats, frequently, as we thought how helpless those parents must've felt, and how unfairly they were punished, by one mind that wanted every Jew put away.
We, like many of the visitors at the camp, certainly did not regret taking our children along, because a visit teaches them to be grateful to live in a time when your choice — however ridiculous — is respected; and it will hopefully inspire them to stand up for those who may not have much of it at all.
A year after our visit, I find it hard to forget the camp, especially its twisted rail-tracks, the very tracks that transported humans in inhumane conditions to almost-certain death, and the old roll-call square now covered with 1,02,000 big and little stones, one for each human being that was denied the right to live.
Waves of sorrow whacked me then — as they do now — when I just think of all those people, many surely far younger than you and me, who might have been musicians and teachers, scientists and bankers, but now their dreams and aspirations live on as one small stone in a memorial square in North Eastern Netherlands...
Camp Westerbork is located in Hooghalen, in N.E. Netherlands. The memorial centre houses a museum, with a permanent exhibition about the history of the transit camp, and regular bus services ply visitors between the museum and the camp area (three km apart)
Anne Frank and her family were here at Westerbork from August 8 to September 2, 1944, after which they were all transported to Auschwitz, then Bergen-Belsen, where Anne died.
For details, visit www.kampwesterbork.nl