Tens of thousands of Jews were herded into cattle trucks between 1940 and 1945 to be transported from Amsterdam to Westerbork transit camp near the German border. The railway took them east across the Netherlands. They were as yet ignorant of their impending death. The recently opened Westerbork Trail traces their path. Reporter Belinda van Steijn has followed the 336-kilometre trail.
The Westerbork Trail goes past safe-houses, cemeteries, and monuments and was the idea of 75-year-old Jan Dokter. Twelve of his relatives were sent to Westerbork transit camp and from there to concentration camps where they were killed.
Close to the railway
A long-distance walker, he decided to make the journey on foot from Amsterdam’s Hollandsche Schouwburg theatre to Westerbork, keeping as close to the railway as possible. “I had them constantly in my mind as I walked,” he explains.
Jews were herded together at the Amsterdam theatre before being transported to Westerbork. It has become a place of remembrance. “On the large plaque, to the left, are the names of Jewish families which were killed,” says Dokter, pointing out the name, Pakkedrager.
“This is the most important place to visit for the Jews coming here,” he says in the building’s courtyard. “This is where Jews waited to be deported. They had to walk, under armed guard, to Amsterdam’s Muiderpoort Station.”
I walk alone to Muiderpoort. The station has a monument with the text: “Between October 1942 and 26 May 1944, over 11,000 Jews were transported from this station to Westerbork transit camp.” Travellers hurry by, unaware of the past.
From Muiderpoort, I take the short train journey to Naarden-Bussum. I meet Edith Nagel-Ossendrijver at the town’s impressive station. She lived in Bussum during the war. She went into hiding after the Nazis started rounding up Jews to send to work camps in Germany.
Edith stayed indoors for three years, separated from her mother and sister. It was too dangerous to play in the open. She was only able to take a turn outside at night now and again. It was not always safe even inside – like when a police van arrived for a raid.
“The people sheltering me had made a hiding place in a big cupboard. I ran there. My foster mother put a plank with clothes on top. Then I heard men in heavy boots coming up the stairs. I thought I’d get a bayonet through me any second. I was amazed when they left again.”
Edith herself managed to escape the train journey. Over 60 of her relatives, though, and her mother and half-brother were taken to Westerbork and later were killed in Auschwitz or Sobibor. “My mother was taken to Auschwitz on the last train… bitter, very bitter,” she says.
Walter Nagel moved to Hilversum during the war. He remembers standing at the town’s level crossing waiting for a train to pass. It was pulling cattle trucks. Armed soldiers stood in cubby-holes along the sides of the trucks.
While the train was going past, some windows opened slightly and notes were thrown outside.
“When the train had gone, I picked up the notes. A Dutch Nazi (member of the National Socialist Movement) stormed up and demanded the notes in a deep voice. Only much later, after the war, did I find out that Jews kept addressed postcards with them to let them know at home that they’d been taken.”
From Hilversum, I take a bit of a jump north to Hooghalen. Up to 1942, the Westerbork train only went this far. Prisoners were forced to walk the final five kilometres to the camp.
Beate Plenter regularly writes about wartime in the village where she was born. She didn’t see the ‘special trains’ very often - except this once.
Beate Plenter’s transport train
“I saw hundreds of people getting out. In the front, there was a woman holding hands with two small children. I came to realise only later that I was a fortunate child, but that children a few kilometres away were in danger.”
At night, when she lay in bed, she saw the camp’s search lights flashing over her house. The intervals were very short. “To short to escape,” she explains.
The trains didn’t just arrive in Hooghalen. Every Tuesday, a train left bound for the death camps. Beate remembers the woman who lived next to the railway. She closed the curtains on Tuesdays, after she’d heard a little boy in the train call her name.
Woodland walk to Westerbork
I take the walk to Westerbork camp. The trees along the way bear silent witness.
The Westerbork Trails ends at what the camp’s Jewish inmates dubbed the ‘Boulevard des Misères’. Bent, rusty rails and a monument mark the end of the line. Roses with cards show that people come here every day to remember.
The Westerbork Trail tells the story of the 102,000 people who came through the camp on their way to the deaths camps of Auschwitz, Bergen-Belsen, Sobibor, Theresienstadt and Mauthausen. It’s also the story of 5,000 survivors.
On 4 May the Netherlands commemorates the people who were killed during the Second World War. This year the theme is “Passing on freedom”. On 5 May Liberation Day is celebrated.
The Westerbork Trail, which goes from Amsterdam to Westerborck camp, is to help passing on the memories. Jan Dokter’s trail is now an official long distance trail. The route of the trail is described in the book Westerborckpad (only in Dutch) and is marked with red and blue stickers with a barbed wire symbol.
After the war Westerbork camp was used as a prison for the members of the National Socialist Movement who supported the Germans during the war. Later still, the camp was used to house Dutch Moluccans. When they left, the camp was pulled down. It was not until 1979 that it was turned into a place of remembrance.