Saturday, July 2, 2016

Guidebook Research IX: Westerbork

Kamp Westerbork as they saw it
So peaceful here at the southeast edge of Assen. Cloudy. Sitting by the trail to Anreep/Geelbroek/Hooghalen, I see it is moderately busy with cyclists, walkers and runners. I'm looking at a field of cut grass, a creek in front of me that splits to wrap around an isle of clay. The fragrance of many blossoms, distant birdsong.

(original date of this entry: June 13, 2015)

I continued along a meandering course through bucolic farmlands till 'De Groote Zand,' another sandy patch of heath. From kp 3 I headed east along a road and soon found signs pointing out Kamp Westerbork. Strangely the site appears on few maps, as if they want to keep it a secret. But there it was, a museum with a large parking lot and a bus filling up with passengers bound for the site of the former Nazi transit camp, 2km east. It was quite busy this Sunday. Westerbork, like Kamp Vught near Den Bosch, is a tourist attraction.

The museum was tactfully laid out, focusing on the stories of individual Jews caught up in this Nazi nightmare, people just like my mother and grandfather. If they'd been in Holland rather than Belgium they surely would have perished.

Nazi efficiency: where Westerbork residents were sent
"Of the 107,000 Jews living in the Netherlands before World War II, all but 5000 were deported by the Nazis. Almost all died in the concentration camps of Central and Eastern Europe and almost all began their fateful journey here, a rural forest about 10km south of Assen." (from the guidebook)

From my notes (much of which never made it to the guidebook due to space restrictions and the need to deal with the minutiae of a complicated new data delivery system):

House of Westerbork commandant, AK Gommeker, preserved under glass
  • After the war, some refugees from the Maluku Islands (Indonesia) were housed in the same barracks

National Monument by Ralph Prins, a railroad track, twisted at one end, leading to a stone wall at other end. The 97 rail ties represent the number of transports to the camp. Next to the monument is a hill overgrown with vegetation. This was the potato cellar where the main source of sustenance was stored.

The woods here are more a place to reflect and meditate than study history. Just remnants are visible -- barbed wire, walls of barracks -- but they are ample testament, the irony being the beauty of nature all around which the victims must have experienced.

Also here is the Westerbork 'synthesis radio telescope' built in 1969-70. 14 telescopes, each 25m in diameter, in a row running east to west. 

• In the woods, 400m from entry to the camp is a monument to 10 Dutch resisters, shot and burned here. 

• Life was 'normal' in the transit camp: people got married and children were born. Theater, school, library, synagogue services!

Dotted around are rusty posts from which voices emerge in front of blow-up photos of scenes from the camp. These photos mark the original locations of the scenes and the voices describe what went on. 

The central monument consists of 102,000 stones upon a map of the Netherlands commemorating the number of souls who passed through here on the way to their extermination (most at Auschwitz). 

Assen -> Westerbork

The trail beyond Kamp Westerbork leads to kp 58 through lush woods of the Boswachterij Hooghalen. Still, peaceful, the smell of wet leaves, cool and and absolutely deserted. Beyond the woods I cut through a vast pasture. My destination is the town of Westerbork, 7km south of the eponymous site.

My vrienden op de fiets in Westerbork, Ana and Harum (a Drentsche name) were old and kindly in a David Lynch sort of way. Ana, stout and jolly, speaking Dutch slowly and clearly enough so I would understand it (a rare behavior); Harum, white-haired and robust in a Hawaiian shirt and sandals. They're big travelers: Istanbul, Spain, Romania, Bulgaria. They're the sort of vrienden that you know would rather be left alone than obliged to deal with some wacky American middle-ager but -- because they're 'friends of the cyclist' they must come out of their comfort zone and find a way to bridge the cultural gap. So our awkward chat at breakfast was ultimately satisfying. I saw a photo on the wall, a large group shot of the abundant family (none of whom were present). The house is super orderly--I feel like Pigpen entering into it--and has a red theme, like the place where I stayed on Terschelling island. Red is it I guess for modern Dutch housekeepers.

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