Westerbork Transit Camp and the "Secret Annex"

All too Similar

The Diary of a Young Girl, by Anne Frank, tells the tale of a young girl struggling for survival in a country occupied by a government that considers people of her race and religion pests which are to be collected and exterminated. In their struggle to avoid the clutches of the Nazi government, Anne and her family take refuge in their "secret annex." This annex became their final chance at freedom, but it also became their own prison. The rules of the annex were often very similar to those of Westerbork, the Nazi transit camp located in the Netherlands. In the same way, the final result of the annex residents and that of the prisoners of Westerbork were quite similar. The annex and camp Westerbork relate greatly in the restrictions placed on their residents, the living conditions they dealt with, and the final fates of those residents. These similarities in structure and restrictions allow for an intriguing comparison between life in a Nazi controlled camp, and life in hiding. Due to the striking similarities between Anne Frank’s "secret annex" and the Nazi transit camp Westerbork, Frank’s diary serves as representation of the Jewish suffering as a whole during the Holocaust.

In 1939 a refugee camp named "Central Camp for Refugees, Westerbork" was constructed in an eastern district of Holland (Boas, 4). In its first years Westerbork was a place where German Jews congregated at for support after fleeing their homeland in fear of the Nazi government in power there. On July 1, 1942 however, the Germans, who had recently invaded and taken control of Holland, renamed the camp "Police Camp Westerbork" and began its use as a transit camp for Dutch Jews (5). In comparison to most other Nazi concentration camps Westerbork was relatively humane. There were no gas chambers or mass graves. People lived in Westerbork with relatively little fear of harassment or death. The majority camp’s population consisted of Jewish German refugees when it was taken over by the Nazi government. Due to the close links in language and culture between these refugees and the new camp controllers the German Jews began to be entrusted with positions of leadership within the camp. Many such prisoners were even exempted from immediate deportation, a rare and usually expensive occurrence. After a short while Jews had been given control over every aspect of daily life within the camp. This does not mean, however, that Westerbork was completely harmless.

Another thing the Jews were given control over was the transport list. Every week a train entered Westerbork empty and left full; it was the Jewish official’s task to decide which of their comrades were to be on it. The people of Westerbork lived in constant fear of being among the next chosen to take that deadly trip east, toward Auschwitz. One resident of the camp, Etty Hillesum, captured this image well in a letter sent from Westerbork: "Ten thousand have passed through this place, the clothed and the naked, the old and the young, the sick and the healthy" (200). Nearly three quarters of the Dutch Jews passed through Westerbork during the Nazi occupation of the country.

While the prisoners did have to live with the constant threat of the train their lives in Westerbork were relatively humane. Within the camp the prisoners were given fairly free reign over themselves. In her letters Hillesum speaks of walking along the fence-line at dusk, or wandering into the kitchen in the afternoon for a quiet place to write. On the other hand though, the living prisoners’ living conditions were cramped and unsanitary at times. People lived in "big huts like so many rats in a sewer" (Hillesum, 197). Prisoners slept on iron bunk beds. They were organized by the hundreds in large warehouse-like barracks.

Much like the living conditions of Westerbork, the living conditions in the "secret annex" were quite confining to its residents. By the time they were discovered eight people inhabited the annex. This made living as difficult, or maybe even more difficult than living in Westerbork. There was only one bathroom for all the residents to use, but it was only available at certain times. Anne slept in a small room with Mr. Dussel, a man she did not meet until after she had gone into hiding. She slept on a bed so small that she had to use chairs to extend it to a near normal length (Frank, 80).

While the living conditions in the annex were quite similar to those of Westerbork the residents did have some things those of the camp lacked. Like Westerbork, People were bunked together in any way possible. Unlike Westerbork however, the residents of the annex were not allowed to leave their living space at any time. The prisoners in Westerbork were allowed to walk outside on camp grounds but those living in the annex could not for fear of discovery. Anne, however, did not see such a comparison evident between her home and the transit camp. In her diary she wrote:

It must be terrible in Westerbork. The people get almost nothing to eat, much less to drink, as water is only available one hour a day, and there is only one toilet and sink for several thousand people. (53)

To Anne, Westerbork seemed to be a much more horrible place than the makeshift prison she was living in at the time. Much of her information is exaggerated though. In reality some of the things she speaks of as unbearable are the things she is dealing with every day. As in Westerbork, Anne and her family get very little to eat some times. Since they could not obtain German ration books legally, the annex residents had to resort to buying them on the black market. For this reason they could only afford to buy half as many books as would be normal for all of them to eat regularly (79). Anne also said there were a lack of lavatory facilities in the camp. While her information is a bit exaggerated she is, in fact correct; there were relatively few bathrooms available to prisoners in Westerbork. In the annex however they often had no bathrooms available at all. Anne would sometimes have to revert to urinating in a tin can during the night because they were worried about the neighbors hearing the toilet flushing and getting suspicious (121). Living in the annex was often just as rough as living in the Nazi controlled transit camp. They had to have a strict rule system and had to be flexible about nearly all issues of private living. The people in the annex did have one thing that the prisoners of Westerbork lacked though. They could live with the hope that they would survive the war without the German’s discovering their whereabouts.

Though with or without this hope there was one more similarity between Westerbork and the annex, the eventual outcome of the lives of their residents. Of all the 104,000 Jews who passed through Westerbork only 909 remained at the camps liberation (Boas, 3). All of the others were transported in cattle cars to concentration camps to the east in Poland and Germany with the eventual intention of extermination. While at Westerbork the prisoners could live relatively easily, considering their situation. The purpose of the camp was not to kill, but to organize and transport Jews to their deaths. For this reason very few of the Jews who entered Westerbork survived the war.

In the same way, the final ending of the annex residents was all too horrible. On August 4, 1944 Nazi soldiers stormed the annex, and took its residents prisoners. They were then sent to Westerbork in preparation for their immediate transit east. While at Westerbork, however, they did not live like the majority of the prisoners. Since they had been found in hiding the annex residents were seen as hardened criminals and were confined to the prison block of the camp. They departed September 3 on the last train that would leave Westerbork and arrived in Auschwitz three days later (Frank, 333-334). Of all the eight residents Otto Frank, Anne’s father, was the only one who survived the camps. The end was the same for the people of Westerbork, and the people of the annex. No matter their strength and hope, the Nazi army stripped it from them and sent them to their deaths. In spite of the humane nature of both the annex and of Westerbork, the Nazi scheme managed to crush any misconception about a person’s ability to avoid the death camps. In the end, nearly all were put to death.

Death was an eventuality for most of the Jewish population of Holland during Nazi occupation. For those already in Westerbork and for those yet to reach it. By the end of World War II nearly all Dutch Jews were either dead or in a prison of some kind, be it a Nazi transit camp or a prison-like hiding place. And however humane any of these places may have seemed, the end result was all too often the same. Jews were sent to their deaths by the thousands. Often they didn’t even know what was happening. Anne Frank and the prisoners of camp Westerbork are only one in hundreds of examples of the Nazi’s blatant disregard for the sanctity of human life. Frank’s diary not only tells the story of a child growing up under terrible persecution it is a testimony to the horrors of the Holocaust. The residents of the annex set their lives aside and hid for more than two years. Enduring indescribable hardship only to be captured and consequently exterminated by the Nazi government. Frank’s diary is one of the only clear windows we have to look into the horrors of this incident. Her contribution to our knowledge of the Holocaust is immeasurable.


Works Cited

Bard, Mitchell G. The Jewish Student Online Research Center. 27 February 2000 <http://www.us-israel.org/jsource/index.html.>.

Boas, Jacob. Boulevard des Miseres: The Story of Transit Camp Westerbork. Hamden: Archon, 1985.

De Costa, Denise. Anne Frank and Etty Hillesum: Inscribing Spirituality and Sexuality. Trans. Mischa Hoyinck and Robert E. Chesal. New Brunswick: Rutgers UP, 1996.

Frank, Anne. Diary of a Young Girl: The Definitive Edition. Trans. Susan Massotty. Ed. Otto H. Frank and Mirjam Pressler. New York: Bantam, 1991.

Hillesum, Etty. An Interrupted Life: The Diaries of Etty Hillesum. Trans. Arno Pomerans. London: Jonathan Cape, 1983.

Sofsky, Wolfgang. The Order of Terror: The Concentration Camp. Trans. William Templer. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1997.

Vanderwerff, Hans. Westerbork, Portal to Auschwitz. 28 Feb 2000. <http://www.geocities.com/heartland/7071/westerbork.html>.