Loop Visions of a hell where unspeakable cruelties are inflicted upon the damned by fearsome devils who take the utmost pleasure in their satanic work. I emerged from the 16th century nightmares of Hieronymus Bosch on display in the unparalleled 500th anniversary exhibition at Noordbrabants Museum in ‘s-Hertogenbosch into the bright sunlight of a spring afternoon. An hour later, after a ten minute bus ride out of town, I came face to face with the barbarity of a 20th century hell.
Vught was the only official SS concentration camp in occupied northwest Europe, established in occupied Holland. Political prisoners began its construction in May 1942. The first inmates arrived at the camp before it was finished at the end of 1942, the already famished and abused prisoners marched from the railway station in the village of Vught along country lanes to the camp. Socialists, communists and trade unionists, resistance fighters, Jehovah’s Witnesses, homosexuals and Roma – and, above all, Jews. There were families: married couples with their children, grandparents, uncles and aunts.
Today the camp is a national memorial, reached after a short bus ride across the watery polder lands that surround ‘s-Hertogenbosch, through peaceful villages of thatched cottages. It’s always the same question: how could organised murder and barbarity be perpetrated so close to places where ordinary life carried on as if nothing was happening?
Camp Vught was a forced labour camp and a transit camp for Jews, but not an extermination camp. There were no gas chambers at Vught. Camp Vught was the only SS concentration camp outside Nazi Germany in western Europe. Unlike other Dutch camps, Camp Vught was modelled on the camps in Germany and was under the direct command of SS-headquarters in Berlin.
The arrival of Jews at the station in Vught in one of the first transports
At first, Vught was an internment camp; it gradually became a work camp and finally a transit camp from which Jews were deported to Westerbork in the north of the Netherlands before being sent to Sobibor or Auschwitz. More than 30,000 people passed through the gates of the camp in the 18 months before the Allied forces arrived and the camp was liberated in October 1944.
After liberation, Vught remained an internment camp for five years, holding Dutch collaborators and German prisoners of war. Since then, sections of the camp have been used by the Dutch army, and as a prison preparing inmates for their return to civilian life.
In 1990, Camp Vught National Memorial was opened. The museum houses a permanent and temporary exhibitions, a memorial room and a wall of reflection. The texts accompanying the permanent exhibition are in Dutch, though it is possible to buy a small guide booklet in English.
At first, Camp Vught was divided into two sections: the first designed to hold Jewish prisoners before their transit to Germany. The transfers were done in two stages: first the transports from Vught to Westerbork, then from Westerbork to the extermination camps. The second section of Camp Vught was designed as a concentration camp for Dutch and Belgian political prisoners, both men and women. The guards were exclusively members of the SS (both Dutch and German).
Initially, conditions in Camp Vught were deplorable. Hundreds of prisoners died during the first few months as a result of maltreatment, shortage of clothing, lack of food, polluted water, and various infectious diseases that were rampant in the overcrowded barracks. Later, conditions improved simply because nearly all the Jews had been deported and so the camp had more space.
The food was virtually non-existent: invariably the prisoners were given cabbage soup – or more precisely, hot water with a few cabbage leaves. In the museum a table is laid with bowls containing representations of the few spoonfuls of soup that were served. Each one features a pertinent quotation. One of them is from If This is a Man: the passage where Primo Levi, describing the soup as a watery broth, with maybe a few small chunks of potato, cabbage or turnip, records how prisoners come to know precisely where to stand in line, so that they are more likely to get a portion of soup drawn from the bottom of the vat where the vegetables sink.
Food is the subject of this still life, painted by an inmate at Vught. The painter Johan van Sweden, who was a member of the Groningen artists’ collective De Ploeg (The Plough Team), ended up in Vught Concentration Camp because of his Resistance activities. He made commissioned portraits of some of the camp guards and the SS officers and because of this gained some special privileges. He was provided with his own studio and provided with painting materials.
Still Life with Bread was painted by Johan van Zweden while he was in the camp. Hungry but inventive, he suggested painting a still life for the commandant, who was an art-lover. Choosing as his subject the commandant’s breakfast, Johan was provided with an example of the food the commandant ate at breakfast. He got it and shared it with fellow prisoners to supplement their limited rations. Every couple of days he would ask for fresh food, saying the bread had gone mouldy. Eventually the commandant became suspicious, but by then the painting was finished.
From Vught, Van Zweden was transported to Dachau Concentration Camp. He survived and was liberated there in April 1945.
Outside is a model of the camp, made of stone, which shows the extensive size of the concentration camp and the many buildings it included. The watchtowers, which were built a hundred meters apart, have been reconstructed.
Barrack 1B is a reconstruction of half of an original barracks, containing a wash room, a dining room and a dormitory. Each barrack was designed to hold 240 people, though most of the time there were even more inmates. The beds are the same size as the originals: they’re barely five feet long and very narrow. Each bed was shared by two prisoners. The beds were originally made of iron, not wood, and the mattresses were filled with a mixture of straw and pressed paper.
The wash room still has the original washbasins. Altogether there are 36 taps, which means that at least seven people at each tap struggling for a thin stream of cold water.
Vught may not have been an extermination camp, but it was still a shock, after passing into another section of the building, to be met with the sight of several large ovens. The camp crematorium came into operation after Himmler had ordered that all prisoners who were executed, or who had died of whatever cause, had to be cremated. Following every death, a post-mortem had to be performed, and a report produced on each one. Nearby is the cutting room with a stone dissecting table.
There were many deaths with which the crematorium had to deal. A combination of hard labour, hunger, cold, poor hygiene and inadequate medical care meant that conditions in the camp were harrowing. Hunger oedema and diarrhoea were prevalent, and the spread of infectious diseases resulted in countless victims among children and the elderly.
The camp doctor was not interested in the health of the prisoners, and to begin with there were no medical facilities. To begin with, the bodies of the dead were piled up in the wash-house. Later, the situation improved with hospital facilities staffed by doctors recruited from among the prisoners.
The most sought after employment in the camp was in the factory operated by the Dutch company Philips. There 1,200 prisoners were employed making self-generating pocket flashlights for the Wermacht. The relationship between Philips and the Nazi war machine seems nauseating at first, but the company insisted that its Jewish workers should enjoy decent conditions, including a cooked meal every day (prepared in the Philips factory in Eindhoven), and be spared from deportation.
Unlike in the rest of the camp, the supervisors at Philips were civilians, making it possible to smuggle written or verbal messages in and out of the camp. Some of the women involved in the production of the flashlights engaged in regular sabotage: they knew that if they made a dent in the body before fixing the iron case, the flashlight would only work once when being checked, but never again. Yet the production work at Philips did serve the German war effort.
For most of the time the camp was open, for the Jewish prisoners at Vught a job at Philips meant postponement of their deportation. However, on 2 June 1944 the Jews working in the Philips factory were deported to Auschwitz anyway.
At the heart of the camp there was a prison, surrounded by a high wall and containing 150 cells. It held mostly political prisoners, men and women of the
resistance. They had distributed anti-Nazi material, committed various acts of sabotage such as demolishing bridges, and killed members of the occupying German forces. Here they awaited their trial, which usually resulted in the death penalty.
A replica of one of the prison cells – Cell 115 – has been created. This was the site of a notorious incident which took place on the evening of 15 January 1944. Women in barracks 23B found out there was a traitor amongst them. They singled her out and cut off her hair. One woman, identified as the one who had wielded the scissors, was placed in solitary confinement in the prison. In solidarity the other women protested by writing a letter to the camp commandant, and signed it with their prisoner numbers.
In reprisal, the commandant and several henchmen drove 74 women into cell 115, a space with a surface area of 9 square metres. The women were confined for fourteen hours, many losing consciousness as the oxygen was exhausted. Body moisture and the unbearable heat in the cell caused the freshly-finished brickwork to form nitric acid which caused corrosive burns. When the cell was finally opened, dead and unconscious women lay in a heap. The names of the twenty dead are recorded in a plaque on the wall.
As if all of these scenes were not desperate enough, the most moving sight at Vught, and one which has left a lasting impression, is that of the Children’s Memorial.
There came a point when the SS decided that the camp held too many Jewish children. As their numbers had grown, overcrowding grew. They were sleeping in the same beds as their parents. There were no cots, no prams, no nappies, no medical treatment, no soap nor enough water for washing. Soon there were outbreaks of infectious diseases. Many children were dying; the camp could not cope.
A proclamation from the SS on 5 June 1943 announced to the Jewish parents that they were moving their children to a new children’s camp elsewhere in Holland. In accordance with the terms of the proclamation, all children up to the age of three were to be accompanied by their mothers and those aged between three and sixteen by one of their parents.
The following day, all children up to four years old were rounded up and taken to the railway station where cattle wagons were waiting. The first train contained 1,750 Jewish children and mothers. On 7 June 1943 the train arrived at the main transit camp for Dutch Jews – Westerbork. A second transport arrived a day later, carrying another 1,300 people.
At Westerbork, parents and their children were transferred to the cattle wagons which would transport them to the gas chambers of Sobibor death camp in Poland. Soon after their arrival at Sobibor, 1260 children were murdered as well as the 1800 parents who had been allowed to accompany their children. The youngest victim was six days old.
The Children’s Memorial lists the names and ages of the 1,269 Jewish children who were deported in June 1943. In some cases you can see that whole families were wiped out.
One of the children murdered in the Sobibor gas ovens was Lothar Gold. He died alongside his mother.
The Gold family had lived in the village of Jutphaas near Utrecht until, in April 1943, Lothar and his father and mother were taken from their home and transported to Vught. The family had always been close friends with their neighbours across the street, the Steenaarts.
Lothar ‘s father, Julius was a shoemaker and before leaving he promised that when he returned he would make baby Willy Steenaart a pair of shoes. Along with this promise Julius gave the Steenaarts his shoemaker’s box, filled with tools, for safekeeping. The farewell words to the Gold family were those of a neighbourhood kid shouting ‘Where are you going, Lothar?’ to his friend, as the family was driven away in a lorry.
The Steenaarts heard no more from Julius Gold and his family. Later, Willy Steenaart took good care of the box, and not a single tool was ever used.
Lothar was murdered in the Sobibor Extermination Camp on 11 June 1943 along with his mother Gerda. Julius died on 21 March 1945 in Melk, a slave labour sub-camp of Mauthausen Concentration Camp in Austria.
More horror was to come. As the Allied forces advanced towards Holland after the D-day landings on 6 June 1944, the SS administration at Vught began to panic. Before they retreated they were determined to empty the camp and destroy evidence. Some prisoners were sent to camps in Germany and Poland. This left those incarcerated in the camp prison. All had been sentenced to death, most of them resistance fighters.
They were murdered in the woods nearby by a firing squad consisting of Dutch SS soldiers. More than 330 people were murdered in a few weeks.
The Execution Area is located in the woods, a fifteen minute walk from the museum. There, a memorial to the murdered prisoners was erected displaying the names of the 329 prisoners known to have been executed by firing squad at this site. It was unveiled by Princess Juliana in 1947.
I walked out along the waymarked path in brilliant sunshine through a bucolic landscape of woodland and placid lakes.
It was a peaceful walk. I encountered one man jogging and a woman walking her dog. The only sound was bird song. Finally, coming to a large cleared area, I saw the memorial in the distance.
The memorial takes the form of a long stone wall that seems to prevent any further progress to what lies beyond. It is surmounted by a large cross of rough wood.
Coming closer, I saw that engraved on the wall are the names of those of the 329 prisoners that are known to have been killed by firing squad at this spot in the months of July, August and September 1944. Many of them were political prisoners, men and women of the resistance.
The memorial wall stands in front of the sand hill used by the Germans as a safety-barrier for bullets. Each name inscribed on the wall is accompanied by that person’s date of birth, their home town, and the date on which they were shot.
Back at the museum I had been puzzled by the sight of a number of stones stored in wooden crates. Each was inscribed with many names, and appeared to be smeared with some kind of black substance. I discovered that in 1995, during celebrations of the the fiftieth anniversary of the Dutch liberation, the stones were desecrated with tar.
Today the stones have been replaced, but large gates have been erected which are locked at night. Written on the wall is a poem, one person’s protest against the outrage:
Could you paint tar
across stone, names, the past?
Pitiable fool, such names
can never be erased.
They are ingrained in countless
human souls, untouchable
by your foul hatred.
They are written in fire
in the skies, and their light
is insupportable to you.
You have accomplished nothing
Above all you have only smudged
your own name.
They are smiling at your anger
bathing in light,
gently rocking on God’s breath.
And singing very softly and still
for those who want to hear
Back at the museum, the walls of the Memorial Room are covered with the names of all the victims of this camp: those who died of natural as well as unnatural causes. There are 750 of them. Each name represents a person with a story. Many of those stories are now lost, but two diaries kept by inmates at Vught have survived.
One is the diary of David Koker, now published as At the Edge of the Abyss. A Jewish student, David Koker (who was born 1921), lived with his family in Amsterdam until he was captured on the night of 11 February 1943 and transported to Vught camp. During his internment he wrote a diary, which was smuggled out of the camp in parts, now assembled in the published book. It records events from 11 February 1943 until 8 February 1944. David wrote poems in his diary and taught Jewish children in the camp.
On 2 June 1944 he and his family were transported by train to Auschwitz-Birkenau. David got the chance to throw this letter from the train:
Dear friends, we are now close to the border. It is disappointing, but we were prepared and full of faith. I think a lot about you. … I have all my dearest possessions with me: my letters and photos. When will we see each other again? That will take a long time. But we shall survive. … Lots of love everyone, thanks for everything. Goodbye.
David’s mother and brother Max survived the war, but David died during a transport of sick people to Dachau in 1945.
Koker began his diary on 12 February 1943, the day after he was arrested along with his parents and his younger brother. A published poet and budding intellectual at the time of his capture, he managed to keep the diary for nearly a year. In February 1944, one of the civilians working at the Phillips factory smuggled Koker’s diary out of the camp. It eventually ended up with David’s younger brother Max, who survived Auschwitz and returned to Amsterdam after the war.
Reviewing the English translation of David Koker’s diary in 2012 for Tablet, the magazine of Jewish news and culture, Jordan Michael Smith wrote:
Three things mark At the Edge of the Abyss as an utterly distinctive and unique work of Holocaust literature that must be read now that an English-language translation exists. First, the insider account of a camp; second, Koker’s literary and analytic abilities; and third, the only first-person report of an encounter between a Jew and Heinrich Himmler, head Nazi and overseer of all the camps. On Feb. 4, 1944, Koker records that on the previous day he had looked directly at the man responsible for the Final Solution. The haunting entry reads as follows:
A slight, insignificant-looking little man, with a rather good-humoured face. High peaked cap, moustache, and small spectacles. I think: If you wanted to trace back all the misery and horror to just one person, it would have to be him. Around him a lot of fellows with weary faces. Very big, heavily dressed men, they swerve along whichever way he turns, like a swarm of flies, changing places among themselves (they don’t stand still for a moment) and moving like a single whole. It makes a fatally alarming impression. They look everywhere without finding anything to focus on.
Helga Deen was another inmate at Vught who managed to keep a diary. Born in Germany on 6 April 1925 in Stettin, her father was Dutch. At first her father had lived with his German wife in Germany where she worked as a family doctor, the family but moved back to the Netherlands as persecution of the Jews increased.
Helga was 18 when she, her brother and her parents were rounded up and transported from Amsterdam to Vught. For a while her mother worked for a time as a doctor in the camp at Vught, while Helga also assisted with medical duties.
In her diary, Helga tells of the chilling and mundane facts of life at Vught, and her utter despair at watching children being transported to their deaths.
Even though everybody is very nice to me, I feel so lonely. Every day we see freedom from behind barbed wire.
Her diary tells of delousing, the kale soup served at the camp, and of children being deported to their deaths.
We are homeless, countryless and have to adjust ourselves to that way of life. What we have seen in these last months is indescribable, and for someone who hasn’t been there, unimaginable.
The diary reveals how desperation slowly set in. In an excerpt dated 6 June 1943, just after 1,300 children had been deported to Auschwitz and Sobibor death camps in Poland, she wrote:
Transport. It is too much. I am broken and tomorrow it will happen again. But I want to (persevere), I want to because if my happiness and willpower die, I too will die.
Then, one day in early July 1943, the family were informed that they would be deported on the next transport. The SS told her mother that, as a German national, she could stay, but she chose her family and certain death. Prisoners knew that those transported from Vught were taken to Auschwitz or Sobibor to be slaughtered.
Helga’s last diary entry reads:
Packing, and this morning a child dying which upset me completely. Another transport and this time we will be on it.
The family were deported to Sobibór extermination camp and were murdered there on 16 July 1943.
In the museum there is a display of photographs of survivors of the camp at Vught, accompanied by their stories. Unfortunately their words are not in English.
- Camp Vught National Memorial: website in English
- The Second World War in 100 Objects: an online exhibition in English produced by 25 Dutch war and Resistance museums.
- Etty Hillesum: An Interrupted Life
- Anne Frank’s Diary on TV
- Miep Gies
- Comedy in a Minor Key