“Our many Jewish friends and acquaintances are being taken away in droves… transporting them in cattle cars to Westerbork, the big camp in Drenthe to which they’re sending all the Jews. Miep told us about someone who’d managed to escape from there. It must be terrible in Westerbork.”
The Diary of Anne Frank
All around Europe we can find solemn places that remind us of what no longer is, but was: landscapes and monuments that feel almost guilty. The whispers of lost voices echo in an empty square and silent screams still roam the corridors that are now deserted.
These sites loom across the dark shadows of time. How we want to get rid of them, to destroy them or make them disappear, to take them down brick by brick. All over the world painful sites are disappearing at an alarming rate. Remnants of communist repression, dictatorial regimes or recent ethnic conflicts are actively being levelled to erase uncomfortable pasts.
But where can we go when the site is gone?
How can we show our children and our children’s children what happened and should not happen again?
Memories need a real and tangible place that enable us to retrace footsteps or share pain, they need a place that in time may turn into a place of reconciliation or even redemption.
A good example of this complicated and long winding road to recognition and acceptance is Kamp Westerbork in the north of the Netherlands. More than a 100,000 Jews, Anne Frank among them, and also 200 Sinti and Roma, stayed in this camp during World War II on their way to the concentration camps of Auswitz and Bergen-Belsen.
Immediately after the war, the camp was used to incarcerate prisoners of war and traitors. In a quick reversal of fortune, some former prisoners worked as guards. Soon thereafter in 1948 the camp was used as temporary housing for Dutch soldiers returning from Indonesia. Throughout the 1950s and the 1960s the camp was used to house Moluccans from Indonesia. Nearly 3,000 people were living here, using the buildings that still carried signs like ´Nur für Männer´ (‘Only for men’ in German ed.) When politicians came to the conclusion that the Moluccans should no longer be kept isolated but should instead be integrated into Dutch society, it was decided that the camp should be closed.
“In 1971 the last buildings on this site were dismantled or sold,” explains Dirk Mulder, a friendly man with long and wild curly hair and round spectacles. He has been managing the Kamp Westerbork organisation with passion and dedication for the last 25 years. “There had been discussion about doing something with the site before, but for a long time most of the survivors felt it was too soon. These things need time. But in 1971 a monument was unveiled to commemorate what happened here during World War II. It hadn’t occurred to the organisers to invite survivors to the official ceremony. . . Later they held their own ceremony. The mayor of Westerbork at the time – who considered that the renewed interest in the camp might be a threat for the development of Westerbork as a touristic destination – hoped that within a few years nobody would care about this. He was very wrong. At the moment the ceremony took place, bulldozers were still busy tearing down the last remaining structures.”
At the time, few apparently realised the historical and emotional value of the buildings of Kamp Westerbork. The area was hardly recognisable as an historical landmark. But the times were changing. Maybe the generation that had suffered through the war did not want to remember, but their children and their children’s children wanted to know what had happened. Westerbork could help them to make that history tangible. It would still take a long time before something happened for real, but the idea started to get momentum. When the museum & commemoration centre officially opened in 1983, 10,000 people visited; soon it rose to 50,000 people and now 140,000 people per year visit the camp and the on-site museum.