Monday, July 8, 2013

Vught Concentration Camp

Like most Americans, I was horrified as a student to learn about the atrocities of WW2. As a high school student, the second world war that happened far away, mostly to people I didn't know. My grandfather fought in the war, like most men of his generation, but he didn't talk to me much about it.

When I married my Dutch Niels, the war became personal. The Netherlands was occupied by Germany during the war, and his grandparents survived the Hunger Winter. Only one Oma is still alive. The generation who lived through those terrible days are coming to the end of their days, and my generation is quickly losing the opportunity to hear their stories. Niels' Oma has never spoken to him about the war, and has made it clear that she never will. While disappointed for the loss in our family history, I certainly respect her wishes. (I was able to find answers to many of my questions and learn a lot about life in occupied Holland through Diet Eman's excellent memoir, Things We Couldn't Say. I can't recommend the book highly enough as it is one of only a handful of books that changed me).

This is my fourth trip to the Netherlands. Each trip, I have wanted to visit a concentration camp to pay my respects to all the lives that were lost during that senseless time. But, each time we returned home and somehow, we never managed to fit it in our schedule. I was starting to fear it was going to drop off the list this time, too, until we learned that it was open on Sunday and our son had just fallen asleep at Oma and Opa's house.

I know that there was one camp in the Netherlands, Vught, which is about an hour away from my in-law's home. Most of the former camp is gone. A small portion remains as a national monument, the former officer barracks are now being used as part of a Dutch army base. Much of the rest was leveled and a prison for those who have committed actual crimes has been built in its place.

A little bit of history. Vught was the only concentration camp in the Netherlands. When it was first put into use in 1942, the prisoners themselves bore the burden of completing its construction. Another distinction is that Vught was truly a concentration camp, or holding camp. For the most part, prisoners were placed at Vught on their way somewhere else. That's not to say that prisoners were not maltreated, starved, and even killed, but most people who were housed there died elsewhere. The two most well-known residents of the camp were Corrie and Betsie Ten Boom, who were there in 1944, before heading to Ravensbrück.

I was glad to have Niels with me because everything was in Dutch and he was a willing, if somber, translator. 

Camp Vught. If they would not have been here, they would have been somewhere else as there is lots of room under heaven. But they were here. And still are.

In the first exhibition hall. Along the far wall is a large number of letters, papers, photos, and other documents. In the center of the room were mementos from prisoners, both those who survived and those who did not.

Sobering fact. A little over 100,000 of the 140,000 Jews living in pre-war Netherlands were murdered, the highest percentage of Jewish population of any country. The writing on the klompen (wooden shoes) translates, If you have something of value, even if its a functional spoon, a pair of clogs or even a pencil, always carry it on you and especially bring it to bed with you."

These wire names were among mementos donated by a survivor who was in the Dutch Resistance. It really hit home for me because this is a hobby of my dad's. When I was in second grade, my dad my wire name pins for all the kids in my class. Twentyish years later, when I joined Facebook and connected with friends from school, many for the first time since graduation, more than a few said they still had their pins. Seeing these wire names reminded me how easily, in a different time and place, at the hands of a different monster, my dad's name could be on a memorial wall.

This chart shows how prisoners were categorized in the camp. (Click once to see a larger version of the photo). Note that "untermensch" translates into "less than human."

Depending on how a prisoner was categorized, they were given a specific patch to wear on their uniform. This way, guards could immediately tell why that person was being held.

Niels and I talked a bit about how the camps are viewed by the Dutch, and what would be an appropriate use of the land, especially in a country that is so cramped and where every square inch of ground is zoned. A memorial is definitely necessary, but we understand that the time and money necessary to preserve such a shameful place doesn't seem quite right either. As we were driving to the camp, not more than a mile from the memorial, was a lake and recreational area. It seems so out of place, but then, it's a beautiful area and one can understand the desire to want to re-claim it again. The area needs to bask in joy again. As we pondered what would be both respectful and appropriate, we came upon the former office barracks and administration buildings, which are now being used as an army base for the Dutch army. When we parked the car, we saw the prison. Respectful and appropriate.

To the left is the new prison. To the right is a replica of one of the barracks.

Each barrack houses 240 prisoners. This was the "living area" for all 240 prisoners.

Each bed was fitted with a burlap mattress thinly stuffed with straw, with a matching burlap pillow. Prisoners were given one sheet, which was not ever washed.

Crematorium. Because this was not a extermination camp, each body was autopsied and cremated individually. In the eighteen months that the camp was in operation, of the more than 30,000 people who were imprisoned here, only 749 people died in this location. (Many, if not most, were killed elsewhere). Of those who died at Vught, most were in the Resistance. When the camp was liberated, on October 26-27, 1944, there was a pile of 500 bodies, executed that morning.

Niels stands in reconstructed cell 115, where 74 women were forced to stand for over 14 hours as punishment for revolting against one woman's punishment in what was called the Bunker Tragedy. Ten women died overnight and many others suffered ill effects from the lack of oxygen.

The 74 woman had a  little more than the space of one of these tiles to stand on for 14 hours.

We found this little Canadian flag on the grounds. Fitting as it was the 4th Canadian Armor Division, and the 96 Th Battery of the 5th Anti -Tank Division who liberated the camp.

The children's memorial honors the memory of the 1,200 children sent to their deaths from Vucht.

Both Niels and I placed stones at the memorial.

This large slabs were originally a wall listing the names of those who were killed at Vught. In the 1990s, neo-Nazis desecrated the wall with tar, which seeps into the stone and cannot be removed. The wall was taken down and the slabs moved into this room where they are safe. 

The last room we were able to visit was this very high-ceiling room where visitors penned their thoughts.

I had no words.

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  1. We just got back from the National Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C. which is always so powerful for me. I can't imagine seeing an actual camp. My husband and I have talked about going to Germany and Poland to visit one!

    Thanks for sharing your experiences!
    A Tossed Salad Life

    1. I haven't been there yet, but will visit someday. When I was in Israel, I visited their Holocaust museum and was so engrossed that I nearly missed my tour bus!

  2. …although I visited a few concentration camps already in my life, it's always the same: I don't know what to say.
    It's just unbelievable what had happened here. And sometimes so close to my family. Close to were my parents grew up and my family ever lived have been the moorland Emsland camps (also close to the Dutch border) and then, in the town I grew up have been Dutch forced laborer from 1944 on.

    Now that I'm remembered about all the things, I will visit the camp which was here in Hamburg. Never been there since I'm living here. I should definitely go there.
    And always hold up the memory, so that it never happens again.

    1. I wish we could have met in person. I think of the horrible way so many whites treated Africans in the early years of our country. Clearly we still have a long way to go with race relations all these years later, but there has been some healing with the passing of time. When my husband and I honeymooned in Curacao, we visited the slave museum on the island, as much to assuage our guilt for his country's heritage (slave trader) as well as with mine as an American (slave owners). WW2 is still raw for my husband's family who lived through the war. I am very curious about how Germans feel about WW2 as the last of those who lived during that time are dying.


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