Transit Camps

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The Nazis set up transit camps in occupied lands. Examples of transit camps include Drancy in France, Mechelen in Belgium and Westerbork in the Netherlands. Jews were imprisoned in transit camps before being sent on to a concentration camp or deported to one of the six Nazi extermination camps in Poland.

Westerbork was one such transit camp located in the north east of the Netherlands. The camp had originally been set up in October 1939 by the Dutch government. It was a place to hold German Jews who had entered the Netherlands illegally. These people were fleeing Germany because of Nazi persecution.

The German army had invaded the Netherlands in May 1940, and very quickly had imposed their antisemitic policies. In late 1941 they decided that Westerbork was an ideal place in which to assemble the Jews of Holland before their deportation. The first Jews arrived at the camp on 14 July, and the first deportation to Auschwitz left the following day.

Selections for transit were a regular feature at Westerbork. Each Monday evening a train of about 20 cattle wagons would arrive at the camp. A list of one thousand people would be compiled by the Jewish council, which was made up of leaders of the community appointed by the Nazis and forced to carry out the Nazis’ orders. Early on the Tuesday morning those selected would assemble for deportation. After a roll call, they would enter the trains, at least 50 to each wagon, a bucket of water at one end and an empty one for use as a toilet at the other. The doors would close before the train departed for the long journey to the intended destination.

Between July 1942 and September 1944 almost 100,000 Jews would pass through Westerbork camp. They would leave on one of the 103 trains going to the Nazi concentration camp Bergen-Belsen, the Theresienstadt ghetto or the extermination camps of Auschwitz-Birkenau and Sobibor. Fewer than 5,000 of them survived.

Like many of the camps, Westerbork also had a permanent population of workers. They would be doing metalwork or manual labour, or set to work serving the various areas of the camp.

  • One group of prisoners were sent to Westerbork as they were valuable to the Germans.

    These people had a blue stamp in their registration cards, meaning that they were exempt from deportation. They were Jews who had British or American citizenship. The Nazis saw these Jews as ‘exchange Jews’, and they would attempt to exchange each one of them for five to 10 Germans; especially military prisoners of war. In fact, no exchanges ever occurred. 

    One exchange Jew was Eve, daughter of Hans and Rita Oppenheimer. The family was German–Jewish. Eve’s father had moved to Holland from Germany to escape Nazi persecution. Eve was born in June 1936 during a visit to England by her mother and brothers, Paul and Rudi; she therefore had British nationality. The mother, brothers and sister then joined the father in Holland. 

    However, by the late spring of 1940, they found themselves under the Nazi regime once more. After being interned in the Amsterdam ghetto, they were deported to Westerbork in June 1943, and then on to the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp in Germany on 1 February 1944.

    Westerbork was liberated by the Allies in April 1945. At that time just 876 prisoners remained, of whom 569 were Dutch citizens.