Memories of Westerbork often differ from actual wartime experiences

9 September 2013

How did prisoners experience WWII transit and detention camp Westerbork? How did they report on these experiences in letters, diaries and eyewitness accounts? How did they look back on their time in the camp after the war had ended? As a part of her doctoral research, Eva Moraal studied the personal experiences and memories of prisoners held in the Westerbork transit and detention camp.

Westerbork

Moraal compared fifty collections of letters, eight diaries and eleven eyewitness accounts written during internment at Westerbork with 122 memoires published after the war. This is the first comprehensive study of this scale to analyse the letters, diaries and memoirs of prisoners held at the Westerbork transit and detention camp. Moraal's doctoral thesis presents a diverse range of experiences, personal accounts and memories, forcing us to re-evaluate the somewhat narrow views on Westerbork that gradually took hold in our collective memory since the war.

Moraal: ‘In the process of the post-war public debate, Westerbork has been increasingly canonised into a select number of iconic, dominant images, such as the prisoner transports, the revue and the sense of living from Tuesday to Tuesday (the day on which the transport train usually departed), with only a few main characters such as commander Albert Konrad Gemmeker and well-known diarists such as Etty Hillesum and Philip Mechanicus. However, this rather narrow image of Westerbork fails to do justice to the broad spectrum of experiences.

Prisoners lived in constant fear and uncertainty about their future. Although certain aspects of the camp environment offered some semblance of normality, the system under which they lived also perverted every traditional behaviour pattern and moral order. The prisoners may have had some sense of what awaited them, but letters and diaries tend to reflect a sense of hope about the future. Most memoirs present the definitive realisation that things had ended terribly as a crucial turning point;  subsequent memories of the camp often directly contradict the prisoners’ written wartime accounts.’

Child survivors look back

The doctoral candidate analysed former prisoners' experiences and memories of Westerbork from four different perspectives: the differences and similarities between the experiences of men and women, the wartime experiences of children and subsequent memories of child survivors, victims’ written accounts of perpetrators and bystanders, and the way in which German and Dutch Jews wrote about one another and their time in the camp.

‘For example, the letters and diaries of child prisoners show that in a way they had more freedom to experience their childhood in the camp than they subsequently remembered after the war. Many of these children went to school, maintained friendships and played.  However, child survivors tend to emphasise the disruption of their childhood, the differences between their experiences and those of children who did not go through the same experiences and the differences between their experiences and those of adult prisoners.  Naturally, their childhood was disrupted, and they experienced things no child should ever have to go through.  Still, children will always be children even if they are imprisoned in a camp, and tend to behave as such.  Many child survivors emphasise the sense of having been robbed of their childhood, stating that they did not get the childhood everyone deserves.  Child survivors placed additional emphasis on this aspect because no attention was devoted to their specific experiences for many years after the war,’ Moraal explains.

As a part of her doctoral research, Moraal analysed letters, diaries and memoirs from various sources, including the archives maintained by Camp Westerbork, the Jewish Historical Museum and the NIOD Institute for War, Holocaust and Genocide studies. She also interviewed various survivors of the camp.

Details

Ms E.M. Moraal, ’Als ik morgen niet op transport ga, ga ik ’s avonds naar de revue.’ Kamp Westerbork in brieven, dagboeken en memoires (1942-2010). Supervisors: Professor  J.TH.M. Houwink ten Cate and Professor  M.J. Schwegman (UU).

Time and location

The graduation ceremony will take place on Friday, 20 September at 10:00.
Location: Agnietenkapel, Oudezijds Voorburgwal 231, Amsterdam.

Published by  UvA Persvoorlichting