What was life like in Westerbork?

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Rudi describes his arrival and life in Westerbork transit camp in the Netherlands.

Rudi and his family were deported to Westerbork in June 1943. Watch and listen as he tells us how he was deported and what happened on arrival.

Dutch government

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

German invasion

The German army invaded the Netherlands in May 1940, and very quickly 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-Birkenau left the following day.

Deportations

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 passed through Westerbork camp. They left on one of the 103 trains going to Bergen-Belsen, Theresienstadt ghetto or the extermination camps of Auschwitz-Birkenau and Sobibor. Fewer than 5,000 of them survived. The Allies liberated Westerbork in April 1945. At that time just 876 prisoners remained, of whom 569 were Dutch citizens.

Exchange Jews

Like many of the camps, Westerbork had a permanent population of workers. They were involved in metalwork, manual labour, or serving the various areas of the camp. 

Many of these Jews were exempt from deportation, as they had British or American citizenship. The Nazis saw them as ‘exchange Jews’. They intended to exchange each one of them for five to ten Germans, especially military prisoners of war.

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. 

By 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.