It had the primary function in the Holocaust
of a "Durchgangslager" or 'transit camp'. It was through Westerbork that the majority of the Dutch Jews (especially large numbers from Amsterdam
) were deported onwards to the death camps
in the east, in particular to Auschwitz
, from about mid-1942. Over 100,000 Jews are thought to have passed through the camp, including one of today's internationally most well-known victims: Anne Frank
(together with her family). Only about 5000 of those deported from Westerbork survived.
Ironically, the camp had originally been set up in 1939 by the Dutch as a reception camp for Jews fleeing Germany
– it is quite cynical that the Nazis
later used this very camp for the exact reversal of that function, i.e. for dispatching the Jews to death not safety.
The site's post-war history isn't free of ironic aspects either: after a period of re-use as a political prisoner camp (esp. for Nazi collaborators), before briefly being taken over by the Army, it later housed repatriated Dutch nationals from the colonies seeking refuge in the homeland. For the longest period of the camp's history, however, namely for 20 years from 1951 it served as housing for immigrants from the former colonial Molucca Islands in Indonesia
, especially from Ambon. From 1971 what remained of the camp was finally demolished – partly because the buildings were apparently riddled with asbestos
There are plans to enhance the present state of the former camp. The old commandant's house is to be restored to form the centrepiece of a new development. Relocated/reconstructed camp barracks are also part of these plans. It remains to be seen what will come of all this. UPDATE: some of this has meanwhile indeed been done, e.g. the old commandant's house is now enclosed in a perspex/glass superstructure. Furthermore there's a partially (literally!) reconstructed barrack and a short section of railway tracks with two cattle cars representing a deportation train.
What there is to see: The site is really two separate sites: the actual former grounds of the camp (where nothing much of the original structures remains) and a purpose-built memorial museum some two miles (3 km) to the west of the camp's location.
The museum isn't especially big, but is quite modern in its design and features a somewhat surprising number of artefacts – mostly personal belongings donated by families of victims. There are various suitcases and items such as shoes, books, jewellery, pens, and such like. Obviously the fact that Anne Frank
went through Westerbork is emphasized, but the point is not excessively overstressed. A particularly poignant exhibit at the start of the exhibition is the railway carriage sign reading "Westerbork – Auschwitz
; Auschwitz –Westerbork" (and of course we know that that wasn't a commute but very one-directional only!).
There are part-reconstructions of watchtowers and living quarter bunk beds, but most objets are on the small side. There are also loads of photos and documents on display, mostly in Dutch, and some, naturally, also in German.
The design approach to the exhibition tends towards a particular aspect of the "didactic": you have to open drawers and doors to get to deeper levels of textual descriptions. This probably goes under the heading of "interactive", but personally I always feel just a little patronized if in order to be able to read something I have to pull out a poxy drawer first. But maybe that's just me …
In any case, most of the texts are in Dutch only. There are merely a few drawers with German and English summary texts – again in the form of pull-out drawers. Unfortunately the coverage of the foreign-language texts is rather limited and in some parts you would have wished for more information, in particular in the sections about the post-war uses of the camp.
In theory you can borrow an English-language folder from the reception desk that offers more translations/explanations to accompany the exhibition, but when I was there it wasn't available: I was told that it was already in use by someone else (do they only have one single copy?!?). Admittedly, they were very apologetic about this – and when I reappeared at the counter after having seen the exhibition, the folder had been returned so they happily and eagerly put in my hands to peruse, if only in hindsight as it were, just before I left. I sat down and scanned through the folder and can say that quality of the English translations was fine. I'd say if you really want to get the most out of the exhibition, then it may be worth waiting for the folder to become available rather than doing without it as I did.
In addition to the exhibition proper there is also a large memorial room with only a wall of photos, as well as a film theatre. Here an English version of the introductory film is also screened at intervals. The film is ca. 20 minutes long and dubbed into a very over-Americanized kind of foreigner English. But it serves the purpose.
There's also a rather large cafe as well as a book-and-souvenir shop; for the most part the material available there is in Dutch only, but there's one shelf with English-language works too.
The modern memorial museum is quite a long way from the authentic location of the former camp as such. To get to this you either have to walk or cycle the ca. 2 miles (3 km) of paths through the forest, or make use of the shuttle bus service provided (for an additional fee).
Unfortunately when I was there I was rather pressed for time and couldn't make it there on foot (and I missed the bus), so I left without seeing the remainder of the site. About this I can thus not report from first-hand experience and have to rely on others' descriptions. In short:
There are only very few outside relics, most things are reconstructions, such as a watchtower. Parts of the latrines are said to be visible as well as part of the original rail tracks, on which the deportation trains rolled out towards Auschwitz
. One part of these tracks has been turned into a poignant memorial, with the cut-off rail tracks bent upwards (heaven-wards?).
Potentially quite impressive is also the monument made of red bricks, one for each victim, and each with a Star of David on them. This sea of bricks arranged in groups on the former roll-call square (and together forming the shape of the map of the Netherlands) quite graphically illustrates the vast scale of the crime … But to get the full impression of this one would need to have an aerial view really. I'm not sure it can fully work from ground level.
Right next to the former camp grounds (in fact on parts of it) a row of radio dishes serving a radio astronomy research station provides a kind of eerily bizarre contrast … it's not without its very own strange dark appeal, in a kind of science-fiction-like way.
UPDATE: I've added a number of photos I was sent by a friend who recently visited the Westerbork site, including the various open-air parts, in nicely atmospheric foggy weather too – see the gallery below
All in all
, significant as the site was for the history of the Holocaust
and of the Netherlands
under Nazi German rule, it is somewhat scant on authenticity with regard to the grounds and original relics. Vught
offers much more in this respect. Westerbork is certainly a must-see for all those who have to see everything that's connected with the story of Anne Frank
. Otherwise it is not a place particularly suited for foreign visitors beyond those with such special interests.
That said, though, it is clearly a popular place for the Dutch: when I was there, on Easter Sunday, it was packed. I had trouble finding a space in the huge car park even. The museum was full of people too, so the throng had to move through the exhibition quite slowly. Outside, I saw hundreds of people heading off on the forest paths towards the former camp's grounds, but I can't say whether the latter's large area would have alleviated the feeling of overcrowding. I can only assume that it wouldn't be as busy on a normal weekday, but I was surprised even for a public holiday that the place attracted so many visitors. And it wasn't even that the weather was fine, inviting a stroll through the forest. It was in fact quite bitterly cold that Easter of 2013, when winter took to mid-April to finally loosen its grip.
in a remote and lonely spot (by Dutch standards, that is!) in the north-east of the Netherlands
. The village of Westerbork itself is quite a bit south of the site of the former camp (6.5 miles/10 km). The closest larger town is actually Assen, some 5 miles (8 km) to the north, which itself is ca. 16 miles (25 km) south of Groningen.
Google maps locators:
Access and costs: a bit remote (for Holland), but not too difficult to get to by car – grounds free, the museum charges an admission fee.
Details: To get to the site you really need a car. The nearest points served by public transport are several miles away. The alternative to driving is doing it Dutch style and taking a bicycle to a nearby train station (Assen or Beilen) and cycling from there. Having a bike would also make exploring the extensive grounds easier!
To get to the only official parking lot, directly by the memorial museum, take exit 31 from the nearest motorway A28 in the direction of Beilen onto the N381 and from there take the next exit on the right, turn right and proceed north until you get to the village of Hooghalen, where you turn right into Oosthalen street. This takes you straight to the site, which is on the right-hand side after about a mile (1.5 km).
The exact official address of the memorial site is: Herinneringscentrum Kamp Westerbork, Oosthalen 8, NL-9414 TG Hooghalen.
Note than when approaching from the east or north and using a GPS satellite navigation system this may send you through some really small rural villages on very slow roads. If you'd rather avoid this you would probably do better to ignore your system's instructions until you've reached the A28 motorway south of Assen.
At the site itself you have to park your car in the huge car park by the memorial museum. This is still a long way from the actual location of the former camp, some 2 miles (3 km) further east. But since a radio astronomy station is directly adjacent to the site you are not allowed to drive near it or use electronic equipment that could interfere with the station's own systems. If you disobey this ruling you may get fined!
If you don't want to walk all the way to the former camp and don't have a bicycle, you could make use of the memorial's own shuttle bus to take you (near) there. This departs from outside the museum approximately every 20 minutes; single tickets are 1.50 EUR, return 2 EUR.
Opening times: weekdays 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., afternoons only on weekends between September and March. Closed on certain holidays and part of January.
Admission to the memorial museum: 6.50 EUR (8-18 year-olds 3 EUR). This is a bit hefty for what little the museum has to offer visitors (especially foreign ones), so you may want to skip this. The open-air grounds of the former camp can be explored for free.
Time required: depends. If you don't know Dutch the museum will only take 20 minutes to half an hour max, more if you borrow and read the English-language folder or if you can read Dutch. More time will be taken up for walking to and around the former camp's grounds in the open air. The distances are considerable.
Combinations with other dark destinations:
nothing in the immediate vicinity, but if you're driving you're never outside the reach of any other site within the Netherlands
, so you could for instance get to Amersfoort
within an hour and a half and to Vught
in a good two hours. Amsterdam
is in similarly easy reach.
Combinations with non-dark destinations:
The former camp is located within what is now a kind of nature reserve. Bird watchers and such like will probably get something out of this fact, but otherwise the region can hardly be described as particularly scenic. The nearest larger town is Groningen, which has some architectural merits of its own. Alternatively you could head straight to the country's main marvel: Amsterdam
. The coast is never far in Holland
- Westerbork 01 - map of the area
- Westerbork 02 - another information panel
- Westerbork 03 - long distances
- Westerbork 04 - a shuttle bus helps
- Westerbork 05 - main memorial building
- Westerbork 06 - in the exhibition
- Westerbork 07 - artefacts and a picture of the former camp
- Westerbork 08 - artefacts and screen - photo courtesy of Wim Lodewijckx
- Westerbork 09 - cart - photo courtesy of Wim Lodewijckx
- Westerbork 10 - uniform - photo courtesy of Wim Lodewijckx
- Westerbork 11 - relics from a dark past - photo courtesy of Wim Lodewijckx
- Westerbork 12 - mock-up of a barrack interior - photo courtesy of Wim Lodewijckx
- Westerbork 13 - model of the camp - photo courtesy of Wim Lodewijckx
- Westerbork 14a - use of the camp until the 70s
- Westerbork 14b - a long-lasting burden
- Westerbork 15 - partially reconstructed barrack - photo courtesy of Wim Lodewijckx
- Westerbork 16 - grounds of the former camp - photo courtesy of Wim Lodewijckx
- Westerbork 17 - deportation train carriages - photo courtesy of Wim Lodewijckx
- Westerbork 18 - deportation memorial - photo courtesy of Wim Lodewijckx
- Westerbork 19 - house of the camp commandant under glass - photo courtesy of Wim Lodewijckx
- Westerbork 20 - into the underground - photo courtesy of Wim Lodewijckx
- Westerbork 21 - radio telescope dishes in the fog - photo courtesy of Wim Lodewijckx
- Westerbork 22 - whispering bowls - photo courtesy of Wim Lodewijckx