This weekend, we visited former transit camp Westerbork in Hooghalen (NL). It might sound strange, but this visit has been on our list of places to see for quite some time. It just never happened, due to distance. This weekend we suddenly found ourselves within biking distance of the camp – thanks to a family trip we were a mere 17 kilometers away – and being the (educationally) responsible parents we are, we decided to take our children and elderly along for a fun outing (well, not ‘fun’, but you get our drift).
After a short visit to the memorial center, we stepped onto a shuttle bus and got off again 2.5 kilometers later at the open boom barrier of what was once camp Westerbork. An area surrounded by trees, serving as a last stop on the road to camps of complete and utter destruction of human life.
A camp nurtured by the ultimate illusion of safety: hope. Hope for survival, hope for a future, hope for the return of those who had been put on the trains, hope of missing the next train out. Where hope kept you alive, life was ruled by constant fear: fear to be on the list, fear to end up on the train, fear of having to leave your husband, wife and children behind, fear of not knowing where you were going. A camp where children, babies, the sick and the elderly were considered dispensable, useless, nothing but bodies on the train. If you couldn’t work, you found yourself on transport to an extermination camp within a week – the final solution to the Jewish Problem.
Little remains of the camp itself. An area of 500 by 500 meters where a handful of elevated areas indicate where wooden barracks once stood. After the war people were eager to forget and move on with their lives. Camp Westerbork would later accommodate another tragedy: The Moluccan Problem.
By order of the government this arid, barren moor was afforested and during the 1960’s the Westerbork Synthesis Radio Telescope started using the camp terrain. Only when remembrance became increasingly important were steps taken to preserve the few remaining barracks, which had been used as barns.
Our guide took us through the history of the camp and told us the stories of three people who had lived in the camp before being deported. He told us about postcards pushed through the spaces between the wooden floor beams of moving trains; the last piece of evidence that they had ever existed. He spoke of the children that were deported, of the 93 deportations that took place, of the almost 100.000 people pushed into wagons as if they were cattle, 70 people cramped in a wagon, to spend three days without food and with one barrel of drinking water and one barrel to defecate in, only to arrive at the gas chambers where they were stripped of the little humanity they had left. He talked about the Frank family, placed in the punishment barracks of Westerbork after they were discovered living in hiding. With tears in his eyes, he described the way the body of Anne Frank’s mother was found, holding a piece of bread in each hand: one for Anne and one for her sister Margot. He told us about his grandmother who left the camp as wagon stuffing on the final children’s transport, and how her postcard was found along the train tracks and finally put in the mail.
The camp may have disappeared, memories of the cruelty and hatred are all the more tangible.
Even as we’re trying to imagine the long-gone buildings in our minds, to process the stories we’ve been told, the news of a shooting in Orlando, Florida reaches us.
In a bar mainly frequented by members of the LGTBQ community, several dozens have supposedly been injured after someone opened fire on the crowd. The first few reports leave us with a heavy heart and don’t bode well. Thoughts of Paris run through my head. Please. Not again.
During the car ride home, our worst fears are confirmed: 49 dead and the murderer taken out by police. There is no doubt that more lives would have been lost without their intervention.
Once again, feelings of disbelief and powerlessness. With tears in my eyes, I try to focus on the road ahead.
49 lives. 49 families, parents, brothers, sisters, children are left forever with a gaping hole in their lives. A meaningless end while you were having fun on the dance floor, imagining yourself in a safe place where nobody would judge you for who you are, where you can be yourself for a while and forget your worries, where people stare at you not because you’re different but because you’re not afraid to say “Here I am”.
A false sense of safety is brutally disrupted by one individual who is disgusted by your ‘lifestyle’, your ‘values’. They have no place in his world. Suddenly you’re running for your life, you’re taking cover behind the bar, you’re hiding in the bathroom, you’re watching your lover die at the hands of blind hatred.
In a country where you can get a firearm with your haircut, where any unstable individual can buy an automatic rifle (the kind our military personnel would envy) with very little difficulty and where the local sheriff looks like he just walked off the set of Robocop, there’s no illusion of safety for anyone who is even a little bit different.
The LGTBQ community has been fighting for the right of human dignity for years: rights are taken from them left and right because they don’t fit the norm of man and wife, suburban bliss. Why? Because other people think they don’t deserve these rights, because other people think they know what’s best for you and me.
Who the fuck are you to tell me who I’m allowed to love? If you can walk down the street hand in hand with your husband or wife, why shouldn’t I be allowed to do the same with mine? You don’t get to tell me what love is. And if you can’t comprehend that, then you don’t know what love is. If you feel prompted to call me names in front of your own children because I’m carrying a rainbow umbrella, maybe this is the time to look at your own set of values.
The hatred never faded. 71 years later it is still just as visible – whether you’re Jewish, Islamic, Christian, black, Chinese, gay, lesbian, queer, transgender or bisexual. Any form of hatred demonstrates a lack of love. The despair of hatred tears apart life – yet I would rather live by the law of love than the fire of hatred.
words: Alexander Roessen
translation: Yfke van Vuurden