After a short bicycle ride through the lively spring landscapes of Drenthe province, we had suddenly arrived at Kamp Westerbork. I had always thought of this World War II transit camp for Jewish people as a bleak place. In my imagination this was an area with old barracks on empty land, surrounded by barbed wire. To my surprise the place was tremendously alive, green, flowery. The contrast between the physical surroundings and the horrible history of this place was almost too great.
When preparing your visit to Holland, you may have thought of happy and colorful things such as tulips, windmills, polders, canals, 17th century cities and the paintings of Rembrandt and Van Gogh. But Dutch history isn’t only about roses, or tulips if you want. There are several dark pages in our history, and the Holocaust is one of them. Of the about 140.000 Jewish people that lived in the Netherlands in 1940, about 102.000 didn’t survive World War II.
You may already have visited Anne Frank’s House or the National Holocaust Memorial Hollandse Schouwburg in Amsterdam. What many people don’t know – even Dutch people – is that Anne Frank and her family were brought to Kamp Westerbork in Drenthe province after they had been betrayed. That they lived there for a while, before they were transported to the concentration camps in Eastern Europe.
Why visit Kamp Westerbork?
Despite the natural beauties of Drenthe province, a visit to Kamp Westerbork is a saddening experience. As you will understand, this is a place to commemorate and to contemplate. If you are interested in the history of World War II and of the Holocaust you should certainly go.
Due to its remoteness not too many people visit this place. The museum receives about 170.000 visitors on a yearly basis, and most of these are Dutch. To compare: Anne Frank’s House receives 1.2 million visitors on a yearly basis. So this is an off the beaten track destination too, even though it feels a bit weird to recommend such a place as a tourist destination.
What can you see in Kamp Westerbork?
Kamp Westerbork consists of 2 sections that are 3 kilometers apart: a museum and the former camp grounds. There is a shuttle bus in between the sections.
Kamp Westerbork Museum
Be aware that this museum is not well prepared for receiving foreign visitors. All the explanations are in Dutch. They have English language leaflets at the reception (ask for it, if they don’t give it to you), but I have read many complaints of English speaking visitors about the leaflet. Apparently it doesn’t tell the full story. This is truly a shame and I hope they will improve this in the future.
Still, by visiting the museum you will get a general impression of the history of the camp, the Jewish, Roma and Sinti people who stayed here and of the Netherlands during World War II in general.
The camp grounds
After the war, many people wanted to forget about what happened as soon as possible. It was only in the 1970’s that a monument was placed at the former camp grounds and not until the 1980’s that the memorial center was opened. By that time, the former camp had already been used for other purposes (see section history below) and demolished.
So what you see here are the bare camp grounds. The boundaries of the former buildings have been marked on the ground. Of the original buildings only the house of the camp commander remains, and a cellar. One of the former barracks, that had actually been sold to a chicken farmer earlier on, was replaced here after it was donated to the museum.
During the summer season (until the end of October) there are daily tours at the camp grounds at 12.00 and at 14.00. During the tour a guide will give you the necessary background information. Your experience of the place depends on the additional stories. When I was there, there were no English speaking visitors around, so I am not sure if they do the tour in English. Still, if I were you I wouldn’t be afraid to join and ask for explanations. Practically everyone in Holland speaks English.
There are several monuments situated on the camp grounds. I found the 102.000 stones that represent the Jewish, Roma and Sinti people that were deported from here particularly moving. It made me want to cry.
Practical information for your visit to Kamp Westerbork
The camp grounds are accessible free of charge. If you want to visit the museum this will cost you about 9 euro. This includes the trip in the shuttle bus to the camp grounds and back. If you have come by bike, as I did, you can cycle between the 2 locations. Note that you can’t drive your car to the camp grounds. This is due to a couple of huge radio telescopes that are situated nearby. You’ll have to leave your car at the museum.
Though there is a village called Westerbork too, that is about 12 kilometers further south. There is a cafetaria at the museum, but of course you can also bring your own lunch.
Address: Oosthalen 8, Hooghalen
Website Kamp Westerbork
(for opening hours and background info)
A tiny bit of history of Kamp Westerbork
The building of Kamp Westerbork
Contrary to what you may think Kamp Westerbork was not built by the nazi’s. It was originally built just before World War II, (ironically) as a refugee camp for Jewish people on the run for the nazi’s in Germany. The Dutch government wasn’t very eager to receive these refugees, and the camp was paid for mostly by private donations from the Jewish community in the Netherlands.
Kamp Westerbork during the war
When the nazi’s occupied the Netherlands, they soon started using the camp as a ghetto and as a point of departure for trains to Auschwitz, Sobibor, Theresienstadt and Bergen-Belsen. 102.000 people were deported from the Netherlands via Kamp Westerbork. This is the period that the museum of Kamp Westerbork is about. The camp was liberated by Canadian soldiers in April, 1945. Only 876 people were still left there at that time.
Kamp Westerbork after the war
I find the history of Kamp Westerbork after the war interesting too, but there seems to be not much room for this in the museum. Kamp Westerbork has been home to many traumatized people. A short summary:
- Immediately after the war, Kamp Westerbork served as an internment camp for collaborators with the nazi’s. Ironically (again), there were still Jewish people living in the camp at that time. They had nowhere else to go and were supposed to be guards to the prisoners.
- After that the camp served as a military training camp for Dutch soldiers who were sent to re-occupy the Dutch East Indies.
- In 1949 it became a camp for Dutch civilians coming back from Indonesia after independence. Many of these people had spent the war in Japanese internment camps.
- In the 1950’s the camp became home to thousands of people from the Moluccas. They had served in the Dutch colonial army, and fought against the independence fighters of Indonesia. Staying in Indonesia was not safe for them, so they came to the Netherlands, thinking this was a temporary move. It wasn’t. They stayed in Kamp Westerbork until halfway the 1960’s, after which they were housed elsewhere. There is still a large Moluccan community in Drenthe.
- After their departure from the camp, it was demolished. Barracks were sold to local farmers, who housed animals in them.
How to get to Kamp Westerbork by public transport
Kamp Westerbork is not an easy place to visit, especially if you are staying in one of the cities in the west of the country such as Amsterdam or Rotterdam. You will need to catch a train to the town of Assen. From Rotterdam this is 2,5 hours, from Amsterdam (go to railway station Amsterdam Zuid!) 1 hour and 45 minutes.
Once in Assen you’ll need to catch a bus and then walk for about 35 minutes to get to the museum. If you can cycle I would advice you to rent a bike at Assen railway station. It is 30 minutes by bike to Kamp Westerbork, so not even that much faster, but this will give you the opportunity to see a bit more of the surroundings on your way there or back. Also you’ll have more flexibility at the camp, moving around between the 2 sections when you want to.
Hiking to Westerbork
If you are into hiking, and interested in the holocaust, you might consider hiking the Westerborkpad, a long distance trail from Amsterdam to Kamp Westerbork. This 342 kilometer trail passes by many points of interest that have a connection to the holocaust. Of course you could also hike parts of it. You can find the trail, maps and the GPS-track at the Wandelnet website.
Where to go after your visit to Kamp Westerbork?
Visit Kamp Westerbork as a day trip
It is possible to visit Kamp Westerbork as a day trip from one of the cities in the west. It will be a long day trip though!
Combine your visit to Kamp Westerbork with other points of interest in the area
You could also consider staying in Drenthe province for a bit longer. You may for example want to visit Veenhuizen, to learn about another dark page in Dutch history. It seems that everything that needed to be hidden was brought to Drenthe! But honestly, this is is a very beautiful province, sparsely populated, with lots of nature to enjoy. And Hunebedden, Dutch dolmens, or megalithic tombs, older than Stonehenge!
Move on towards Groningen or Leeuwarden
If you long for a city after a day in nature, why not move on to one of the two northern cities: Groningen or Leeuwarden? Groningen is a lively university town with an amazing museum. And Leeuwarden is the capital of Friesland, the only bilingual province of the Netherlands. People speak Frisian here!