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Vught

  
  - darkometer rating:  6 -
 
The site of one of the smaller former concentration camps in the Netherlands set up during Nazi Germany's occupation of the Benelux countries. Only a small part of the former camp survives as a memorial today, but it features some significant remains, and quite convincing reconstructions too, as well as a very modern museum/visitor centre. 
More background info: The camp at Vught came into being comparatively late in the period of Nazi Germany's occupation of the Netherlands during WWIIConstruction started only from mid-1942, and it opened in January 1943. Apparently it was needed because other camps' capacities were strained, or to replace an older camp (cf. Amersfoort).
   
Officially the camp had been given the name "KL Herzogenbusch", after the nearby town of s'Hertogenbosch in the province of Noord-Brabant. But it is now known by its name derived from the suburb of Vught and the "Vughtse Heide" ('Vught's heath') that the site is located in.
 
The Vught camp was directly controlled by the SS and primarily fulfilled a dual role: on the one hand that of a "Schutzhaftlager", literally 'protective custody' – a Nazi euphemism mainly for the internment of political prisoners. And on the other hand it had the role of a transit camp for Jews, of whom about 12,000 were subsequently deported to the death camps in Poland (especially Auschwitz and Sobibor) mostly routed via the Netherlands' principal transit camp at Westerbork. In the Vught camp itself, some 750 people are known to have lost their lives – mostly through executions in the nearby woodlands (see below). In total, some 30,000 victims passed through the camp at Vught.
 
In September 1944 the camp was largely "evacuated" by the SS, i.e. most inmates were transferred to concentration camps within Germany (mainly Sachsenhausen and Ravensbrück), as Allied forces advanced eastwards following the D-Day landings in Normandy.
  
After the camp with its last few inmates was finally liberated by Canadian troops, it initially continued to serve as an internment centre, but now it held suspected collaborators or war criminals, and also evacuated Germans. Later parts of the former camp were turned into housing for Moluccan immigrants/refugees (see also Westerbork!). Apparently there is still such a Moluccan housing estate at Vught. (The Moluccans are a group of islands in the former Dutch colony of Indonesia.)
 
However, most of the site's area is today used by the Dutch Army with expansive barracks and military workshops. Remarkably, right next to the memorial is also a massive modern prison! This is quite an irony and feels like a somewhat uncomfortable juxtaposition to see the high contemporary prison walls directly adjacent to the much smaller reconstructed Nazi-era camp fences and watchtowers.  
 
 
What there is to see: Of the original camp only a few parts remain, but some of these are significant and give a good impression of what the camp was like – more so than at the sites of the other two camps of Westerbork and Amersfoort.  
 
You enter the main part of the site through a modern visitor centre. At the reception desk you can purchase a guide in English (3 EUR) which is very useful indeed because the main permanent exhibition's texts, info panels and all labelling are in Dutch only. The brochure does not provide a full translation of everything in the exhibition, but gives an indispensable overview as well as summaries of the main themes.
 
The main exhibition starts even before you enter the first hall, namely with a film projection above the door showing scenes of Holland under Nazi rule. Through the door a light airy room opens out in front of you. Exhibits are dotted around with a good amount of space between them. These include typical camp inmates' striped clothing, rusty cutlery and crockery from the camp, as well as other rather more archaeological finds. The wooden clogs on display are replicas, though. There are also some screens which play audio-visual material (in Dutch).
 
The second exhibition room is of a completely different character. Here a few dozen info points a crammed together. They are all shaped identically like stelae (I found them a bit reminiscent of the Berlin Holocaust Memorial, only indoors, much smaller and more symmetrical!). These are open on one side where you can stand and look in. Some contain artefacts or documents, others contain interactive screens. The latter provide more in-depth background information as well as an overview of the original topography of the former camp.
 
Through the glass wall the outdoor parts of the memorial site are already visible from indoors. From the second room you then step outside and start your walk through the grounds. To the right there is a moat flanked by a double row of fences. On the other side there are three reconstructed watchtowers. Together the ensemble does manage to convey a more or less typical impression of such a prison camp, even if the watchtowers do look a bit fake.
 
In the centre of the first part of the grounds is a large scale model made of plain concrete that shows the complete camp, with all its barracks and ancillary buildings. In full scale there are only two buildings. One is a part reconstructed barrack, labelled "13B", with sleeping quarters inside (densely packed rows of replica bunk beds) as well as old wash rooms. There is also a lecture room for visiting school groups. In fact there were several such groups being guided around the site at the time of my visit, so I had to take a route that somewhat deviated from the order of the circuit you are normally supposed to follow. But I tried to avoid the shuffling groups and also didn't want to be in their way either (though that wasn't always easy to do).
  
The other of the two buildings is authentic and easily the grimmest part of the whole complex: this is the original crematorium. Inside there are still three ovens, one cast iron, the others of the more familiar brick design. Together with what looks like a corpse cart they exude a pretty sinister atmosphere. Also inside this building can be seen a room with a dissection table. A side room functions as a special remembrance room with plaques of names of victims of a particularly tragic event when in January 1944, in retaliation for protests against the camp commander, 74 women were squashed into a tiny cell without ventilation for 14 hours during which ten of the women died. This is referred to as the "bunker tragedy".
 
Outside the crematorium towards the northern fence stands the children's monument. In the centre of this are metal columns with names and ages of the young victims given and Stars of David at the top. At the bottom are bronze sculptures of dolls and teddy bears. As is customary at Jewish sites of remembrance, visitors can place little stones and pebbles on the memorial. This memorial is dedicated to the children's transports of 1943 when well over a thousand Jewish children were sent to the gas chambers of Sobibor in Poland.
 
Heading back towards the visitor centre you can't help but notice to the west of the memorial grounds the high walls with electric wires and CCTV cameras on top. This menacing sight belongs to the high-security prison right next door. The close proximity of this to the memorial feels very odd.
  
A recent addition to the site is a new exhibition in the old original barrack 1B. This was opened in November 2013, so wasn't there yet when I visited, hence I cannot report any first-hand impressions. But I have been informed that this additional exhibition about the camp's history not only displays many original artefacts but is also bilingual throughout (i.e. English translations accompany the original Dutch texts, and the films are subtitled). So this should be a valuable extra for foreign visitors.  
    
Back inside the visitor centre are a few more symbolic rooms of remembrance, including a wall plastered with notes left by visitors (mostly school group members, presumably). One side room is designated a silent room for contemplation and features plaques of names of victims on the walls and above a circular settee there is a strange inverse funnel-like object through which daylight gets (literally) funnelled in. This design was apparently inspired by surviving prisoners' stories about how looking up at the sky was giving them the only indication of freedom during their time in the camp. 
  
Then there is a large hall for temporary exhibitions. At the time of my visit in early April 2013 the exhibition was about the Dutch underground resistance, and more particularly about a banker called Walraven van Hall, who apparently was instrumental in covertly funding the resistance. The representation of all this in the form of a comic also formed a crucial aspect of this exhibition. Unlike in the permanent exhibition, some of the explanatory texts were also accompanied by English translations.
 
Finally there was a long room with a mock cafe and film excerpts projected onto the opposite wall. This section, so I have meanwhile been informed, has now gone and is being replaced by a new design, based on panels about selected prisoners. 
  
Outside the exhibition space as such there are also posters of past temporary exhibitions as well as panels about current issues of detention such as in the USA's controversial prison camp in Guantanamo Bay in Cuba.
 
In the foyer there's a small stall of books and other info material, but hardly anything in languages other than Dutch.
 
Hidden away some distance off site deep in the wooded heathlands of the "Vughtse Heide" east of the main memorial site is another, older memorial. This is the spot where executions of inmates of the Vught camp took place. The spot is marked by a large stone memorial. In barrack 13B there's a scale model of this site. As I was a bit pressed for time I made do with that impression and spared myself the 30 minutes' walk there and back.
 
Overall I must say that I was quite impressed with the Vught memorial site – more so than with Westerbork. It may not be a big site, but the way it is developed is quite convincing. If only the labels and information material in the main exhibition weren't monolingual Dutch. Even with the English brochure you still feel that if you don't know Dutch at all you are missing out on quite a proportion of what is offered in the exhibition. (Knowing German helps a little, as I found out, but still not enough to really get the full gist of what's written – and the audio material remains almost totally incomprehensible to non-Dutch ears). Even so, a visit to the Vught memorial site can be highly recommended. Moreover, the memorial's management is working on further improvements, including more provision of English translations. So by the time you read this and/or go there, you may get more out of it already.
    
   
Location: just a few miles south of 's-Hertogenbosch right in the centre of the southern half of the Netherlands, a good 50 miles (85 km) south of Amsterdam.
 
Google maps locators: 

Memorial entrance and visitor centre: [51.6655,5.2591]
 
Execution site monument: [51.66173,5.26351]
 
 
Access and costs: easy by car, also restricted public transport services – free except for a moderately priced English-language guide brochure.
 
Details: It's easiest to get to the site by car. The memorial is signposted from the N65 road that connects to the A2 motorway south-east of 's-Hertogenbosch. From the N65 (Helvoirtseweg) turn into Boslaan towards the north-west. Just behind the lake turn right into Lunettenlaan and keep going past all the military barracks complexes until you get to the visitor centre and car park. Part of the car park is restricted and closed off by barriers, but those parts allocated to the memorial are freely available and for no charge.  
 
The memorial's official address is: Nationaal Monument Kamp Vught, Lunettenlaan 600; NL-5263 NT Vught.
 
You can also get to Vught by public transport from 's-Hertogenbosch, either by so-called "treintaxi" (shared shuttle taxis to/from the train station), or by regular bus line 213, which departs from the main strain station too. Services are only once an hour and no services run at all on Sundays and public holidays, so it's a bit restricted.
 
The main memorial site is quite small and wheelchair-accessible. The execution site memorial monument, however, is located some distance off-site in the adjacent "Vughtse Heide" nature reserve a ca. 15 minute walk along woodland paths (signposted).
 
Opening times: Tuesdays to Fridays from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., weekends from noon to 5 p.m.; between April and September also open on Mondays. Closed Christmas and New Year as well as from 10 to 31 January.
 
Admission is nominally free, but a donation is welcome. Those not speaking any Dutch should invest in the small printed guide brochure in English, which costs 3 EUR (you have to purchase the guide, simply borrowing a copy is not an option). Parking is free.
 
Guided tours (also in English) can be organized upon request and by prior arrangement (email: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.).
 
 
Time required: between one and two hours, depending quite a bit on whether or not you can read Dutch. Add extra time if you want to see the execution site memorial monument.  
 
 
Combinations with other dark destinations: Almost directly adjacent to the memorial, just a few hundred yards back down the road towards the main N65 trunk road, the military barracks also feature a museum: the "Geniemuseum", meaning simply 'Engineering Museum', as this is home to a Dutch Royal Engineers Regiment. Most of the museum is about that regiment and thus military hardware is the main focus here, although the fact that the buildings also formed part of the notorious Vught camp is covered too. The museum has its own parking lot (free), admission to the museum is 3 EUR. Opening times: 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tuesday to Friday only, in July and August also on Sunday from 12 noon.
 
Not too far away from 's-Hertogenbosch and Vught, some 45 miles (75 km) to the north is another small former camp memorial site, namely Amersfoort. It's less than an hour's drive away from Vught.
 
A bit further away is the historically most significant of all the camps in the Netherlands: Westerbork, some 130 miles (200 km) or two hours' drive to the north-east towards Groningen and Assen.
 
Also within a good hour's drive is the country's magnificent capital Amsterdam with the Anne Frank House and the Dutch Resistance Museum as special dark attractions.
 
 
Combinations with non-dark destinations: nothing much in the immediate environs, except for those who really love heath and woodlands. But some of the finest cities in the Netherlands are within easy reach, especially of course Amsterdam, but also The Hague or Rotterdam.
 
Cheese lovers may not be able to resist a side-trip to the town of Gouda, which is also in the vicinity, some 15 miles (25 km) from Rotterdam. In summer an open-air cheese market is held every Thursday and there's even a cheese museum (called De Waag, 4 EUR, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.).   
 
 
 
  • Vught 01 - the campVught 01 - the camp
  • Vught 02 - main memorial buildingVught 02 - main memorial building
  • Vught 03 - first exhibition roomVught 03 - first exhibition room
  • Vught 04 - exhibition ensembleVught 04 - exhibition ensemble
  • Vught 05 - relicsVught 05 - relics
  • Vught 06 - second room with info boxesVught 06 - second room with info boxes
  • Vught 07 - interactive stationVught 07 - interactive station
  • Vught 08 - artefactVught 08 - artefact
  • Vught 09 - uncomfortable encounter behind a peek holeVught 09 - uncomfortable encounter behind a peek hole
  • Vught 10 - model of the grounds of the former campVught 10 - model of the grounds of the former camp
  • Vught 11 - fence, moat, watchtowersVught 11 - fence, moat, watchtowers
  • Vught 12 - one retained barrackVught 12 - one retained barrack
  • Vught 13 - reconstructed sleeping quartersVught 13 - reconstructed sleeping quarters
  • Vught 14 - wash roomVught 14 - wash room
  • Vught 15 - memorial roomVught 15 - memorial room
  • Vught 16 - model of the execution site memorialVught 16 - model of the execution site memorial
  • Vught 17 - disection roomVught 17 - disection room
  • Vught 18 - crematoriumVught 18 - crematorium
  • Vught 19 - ovenVught 19 - oven
  • Vught 20 - children memorialVught 20 - children memorial
  • Vught 21 - complete with a bronze dollVught 21 - complete with a bronze doll
  • Vught 22 - right next door an active prison and army barracksVught 22 - right next door an active prison and army barracks
  • Vught 23 - notes on a wallVught 23 - notes on a wall
  • Vught 24 - projectionVught 24 - projection
  • Vught 25 - reflection roomVught 25 - reflection room
  • Vught 26 - silent reflectionVught 26 - silent reflection
  • Vught 27 - contemporary issuesVught 27 - contemporary issues
  • Vught 28 - book stallVught 28 - book stall
  • Vught 29 - map of the areaVught 29 - map of the area
  • Vught 30 - path into the heathlandVught 30 - path into the heathland
 
  
  
  
  
  
  
  

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