Yesterday I went to the south of the Netherlands to visit Kamp Vught, the only genuine SS concentration camp located outside of the Third Reich. It wasn’t even finished when prisoners started to arrive, and they had to help finish building it. During WWII it was pretty large, but all that remains now are a few barracks, a visitors’ centre with a small museum, and a monument where the execution place once was, located a fifteen minute walk from the visitors’ centre.
Vught, at the time officially named Herzogenbusch Konzentrationslager, is the third camp I’ve visited; the others are Kamp Westerbork, in the north, and Kamp Amersfoort, in the middle, in my hometown. Both were Durchgangslagers, transportation camps, stops on the way to the east. Kamp Vught was for many the first stop on a long journey past other camps or a short journey to the gas chambers.
It was a foggy autumn’s day which added to the subdued atmosphere. The old watchtowers were still lined up on the side, separated from the barracks by barbed wire. A scale model on the ground showed what the camp once looked like. Inside the two barracks, the rooms were clean and empty; there were only a few granite sinks in the bathroom, bunk beds in the sleeping quarters, two ovens for cremations (it was not an extermination camp) and a table on which they dissected those who had died. Mere suggestions, with an explanatory drawing hung up on the wall to show what it once looked like. I felt a chill creeping down my spine when I entered the sleeping quarters. I felt the same emptiness that I felt in Westerbork. It’s a very loaded silence: solemn and respectful, but full of the echoes of the past. It’s difficult to imagine these empty rooms thronging with people who were sick, dying, beaten by guards, weeping. The emptiness forces you to fill in the gaps yourself. At Westerbork the imagination had to leap even further; only a few brick houses, one barrack and a remnant of the train tracks remained (though I believe they have plans to restore it). Nevertheless, the atmosphere was there. Standing by the monument for the 3200 Jewish children that were taken away in one night, I heard secondary school pupils talking and laughing a few yards away. Walking towards the execution site through a beautiful forest in the throes of autumn, I tried to picture those that walked the same path and never returned. It is something incomprehensible.
The museum added to that feeling. There were many personal stories on display, both from those who perished and those who survived. It was very interesting to read. One letter that struck me was about the children’s transport, and was issued to the prisoners by the camp commander. It said something like: we’ve just been informed about a huge tragedy, so many children need to be taken away, accompanied by one parent, it’s terrible, there’s a good chance they will return soon, et cetera. It reminded me of a story I heard a guide tell at Westerbork: the story of a sickly child who had been born in the camp, and how the SS surgeon went to extreme lengths to make sure he got healthy, only to have him sent to an extermination camp when he was older. All to delude the people about the nature of their superiors. It’s that charade, that tenderness masking the cold calculation that lead millions like cattle to the slaughter, that I find incomprehensible and yet horribly fascinating. I think about it every time I read a survivor’s story that says they had been sent from camp to camp, two months in Auschwitz, on to Ravensbrück; why were some people instantly killed, and why were others driven around Europe, sent on death marches; why was their suffering prolonged? Simply because they were, as Schindler’s List has us believe, essential to the Nazi war effort? The museum provided an excellent insight into the insidious minds of the Nazis who created the camps. Cruelty and violence were at the heart of the system; they weren’t out to restrict freedom, but to destroy it. That’s why the Nazis created a system of rules that was impossible to adhere to, and implemented by each officer according to their own interpretation. Forced labour was a way of breaking the spirit, used to oppress and terrorize. Nothing was certain in these camps; time had no meaning. By prioritizing some prisoners and by making them wear symbols that created a hierarchy of oppression, the Nazis indeed did not simply limit personal freedom, but destroyed it completely, until personal identity was usurped completely by joint suffering. This is, I think, what made the Nazi reign the most cruel: not simply the willingness to decimate an entire race of people, but the slow oppression: taking away their rights bit by bit, and prolonging suffering until death, almost inevitably, followed.
Besides the permanent collection there was an awesome exhibit on the Gulags, the work camps that came into existence with Lenin’s reign, but acquired their horrifying status under Stalin. These camps still exist; some years ago, members of Pussy Riot were sent to such a work camp. The prisoners, called zeks, underwent similar tragedies to those in Nazi camps (though the climate was far more unforgiving); they were used for delusional projects, like the building of a railway line through Siberia, and their work usually consisted of mining rough materials for the war industry. What struck me most is that while after WWII a sort of redemptive movement took place, with lots of books written by camp survivors, movies made, the Nuremberg trials bringing the Nazis to justice, no such tribulation took place in Russia. In the 1950s and 60s some memoires were published that were anti-Stalin in tone, but that all turned around in the mid-sixties. Stalin is enshrined in the Gallery of National Heroes in Moscow; the government has never made any public excuses; no monuments have been erected. In the 1980s a brief period of glasnost and perestroika, “openness and restructuring,” under the supervision of Gorbachev allowed more information about the Gulags to be made known to the outside world, but when Putin came to power he put an immediate stop to that. Survivors of these camps are part of daily Russian society, but are told to keep their stories to themselves. Putin sees the proliferation of the Gulags as a black page in history, as many other countries have, and thinks the Russians shouldn’t be too hung up on the past. I thought it was an absolutely fascinating exhibit on a subject that I never knew much about. They say that 25 million Russians lost their lives during WWII, both Red Army soldiers and victims of the Nazis, but that number surely does not include all the victims of the Gulags. The last part about Putin made me reflect on The Netherlands’ colonial past, which as a country we are hardly prepared to face either. Russia is criticized for its overt oppression of its citizens, but for our part, oppression is not always made visible. Much has been left out of our history books.
After my visit to the museum I went to the execution place, which is a large slab of marble with the names of those who were shot there, surrounded by trees. The monument was defaced with tar at some point, to great public declamation, but it’s still impressive. Then I caught a bus back to the city of Den Bosch, and visited the massive St. John’s cathedral. After that, I had a cup of tea and a Bossche bol, a local pastry. I had plans to visit the Hieronymus Bosch museum as well, but I didn’t have enough time.