Trip Start Jul 01, 2008
13Trip End Jul 31, 2008
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Yes, it was rather tricky to get to Bergen-Belson. The guidebook said that we would have to be very determined and, I knew, Elaine at least was extremely determined to get there. Bergen Belson is the place where Anne Frank's life ends.
But one thing at a time. We had, the day before, gone to the place Anne and her family were first sent once they had been captured: Westerbork Transit Camp.
The Westerbork Camp is a bit northeast of the tiny town of Westerbork itself. We've been really lucky about getting to these places, because they're off the beaten path. It took three trains and a bus to get to Westerbork. Once we checked into our hotel, we rented bikes to get to the camp itself. It was about an 18 kilometer ride one way (you do the math if you would like miles, sorry). We ended up doing about 25 kilometers there because we missed several turns and didn't go far enough at one point. I'm getting winded just thinking about it. The bike paths are incredibly beautiful and there are few cars as the trip unfolds along corn and grain fields, hundreds of horses, cows, pigs, and sheep.
Westerbork Camp is out in the middle of nowhere. It is no wonder that the Jews were taken there. They were completely isolated. The museum is seperate from the compound itself. There are ripped up train tracks set up as a memorial, several partial walls left from the blockhouses where prisoners were kept, and a few ominous watchtowers still in place in the shady corners of the complex where the machineguns were kept.
The museum is several kilometers past the compound and concentrates on daily life as a Jewish prisoner. The Nazis wanted the Jews to fall into a complacency, a false sense of calm that, to us today, seems absolutely sinister. There were schools for the kids with Jewish instructors, sports activities, movies, clinics and hospitals run by Jewish doctors and nurses. At the beginning, in 1940, the camp featured relatively clean and comfortable barracks with beds for all.
A prisoner here could not possibly have known what was about to transpire in several weeks time: when they would be sent to one of the many extermination camps. In fact, 102,000 people transferred out of the Westerbork Transit Camp were murdered. I know, I saw some of the records left for descendents who are encouraged to check.
The memorial at Westerbork is very understated to the casual eye. It is composed of square, wooden blocks of various sizes, upon each a brass star of David. They seem set up in random groupings of thousands, laid out upon a huge blacktop in the middle of a field. It wasn't until I got to the museum that it was explained to me that the groupings formed into the shape of the Netherlands (from a bird's eye view)and that the different sizes stood for the different ages of the over 100,000 Jews that were removed from Dutch soil during the Second World War. The stars also catch the heat of the sun. That is to remind a visitor that these symbols represent people, real warm-blooded, people, not just numbers.
Yesterday, we traveled to Bergen-Belson. This place is not for the faint of heart. Bergen was not an extermination camp, like Dachau, or Aushwitz. It was a "concentration camp". That means people were collected there, for a variety of reasons: they were prisoners of war, like the thousands of Polish or Russian soldiers who were there; they might have been political prisoners from within Germany or from the many occupied countries that Germany destroyed; or they may have been Jews.
In a way, it was worse than an extermination camp because these people died very, very slowly...
People were just left there, imprisoned without water, food, or shelter. The SS who were assigned there would walk around them and, for kicks (I kid you not), would shoot someone in the head, another through the heart, another through the leg just to watch them bleed to death. Both the men and women members of the SS would routinely beat to death with clubs and fists a number of prisoners each day. And then, they would leave them alone. Some parts of the camp had no facilities of any kind. In fact, the tent Anne and Margot Frank were sheltered under blew away in a storm soon after they got there from Aushwitz. There was never a replacement. Margot caught Typhus and died a couple of months later, lying like hundreds of others, in her own filth. Anne is reported to have passed a couple of weeks after that, five weeks before the liberation by the British army.
When the British arrived they had already been able to smell Bergen-Belson from six miles away. During the several weeks before they had made it to the camp, it has been estimated that close to, or over (no one seems to have been able to count) 40,000 people just dropped dead on the ground and were never buried.
That is the most powerful image at Belson: the mass graves with the stone monuments on the front of each. 1000 total bodies buried here. 2,500 bodies buried here. And there aren't just a few of these. There were twenty to twenty-five mass grave-sites that I walked around along the lengthy path set within the memorial site. At first, the captured SS guards were made to bury the dead, one by one throwing them with bare hands in the massive trenches dug for the ordeal. That got old after a couple days and the British brought out the bulldozers.
We saw many memorial sites at this camp. Certainly one of the most powerful was Anne and Margot Frank's memorial. No one knows where they were buried; but it meant a lot to put a friend's face on the mass extermination that occured there.