From 1 July 1942 onwards, the camp had become the Polizeiliches Judendurchgangslager Westerbork and was used as the point of departure for a total of 93 trains to Auschwitz, Sobibor, Theresienstadt and Bergen-Belsen.
The camp was supposed to function like a normal village as much as possible. A simulacrum. There were courses to follow and sports to play. Inhabitants could go shopping, too. Every camp had its own currency, which you could use in the Lagenwarenhaus and the Lagerkantine. There even was an exchange office, where you could exchange the last ‘regular’ money for the bills used in Camp Westerbork. And on Tuesday nights, there were revues, concerts and plays in the registration barrack.
Children in the camp had to go to school, just like they did at home. For children between the ages of 1 and 6, daycare and kindergarten crossed over. For older children, it was obligatory to go to school until age 15. As such, the youngest camp residents lived a life that seemed completely normal during the day. Since teachers could be transported every week, education, too, was dependent on incoming and outgoing transit.
Medical care was especially unique in Camp Westerbork. It was useful that so many Jews were surgeons, doctors or dentists. A position in health care was so desired that it was easy to find the best staff possible. At one point, the hospital counted 1,725 beds, 120 doctors and 1,000 staff members.
From October 1942, the organization of Camp Westerbork was in the hands of SS-Obersturmführer Albert Konrad Gemmeker. His predecessors did not meet the requirements the Nazis set for the way the camp functioned. They wanted to deport the Jews quickly and quietly. This led to much resistance and unrest in the camp. Gemmeker appeared to be much more skilled at flawlessly executing the plans and appeared to be a proper man who treated the Jews correctly. His main concern was to meet the quota for the number of Jews supplied every week.
From Camp Westerbork, 93 trains departed in the direction of the camps in Eastern Europe. On 15 and 16 July 1942, the first prisoners were deported to Auschwitz: 2,030 Jews, among which a few orphans.
During the first months, the train departed two times per week. In 1943, however, Tuesday became the day of transport. It was announced for every barrack who would be deported. If you heard your name, you knew what you had to do: take your possessions in the same suitcase, backpack or bag you had on you when arriving in Westerbork, and get on the train.
This lasted until 13 September 1944. On that day, the final train with 279 people left for Bergen-Belsen. The transport included 77 children taken from their hiding addresses.
Persecution Sinti and Roma
On 14 May 1944, the German occupier sent a telegram to the Dutch police forces in the Netherlands with the task to execute ‘a central arrest of all persons residing in the Netherlands that bear the characteristic “gypsy”.’ All Sinti and Roma families had to be brought to Camp Westerbork.
In Westerbork, it became very clear that the Dutch police forces had taken the term ‘gypsy’ too broadly. Around 200 people did not appear to be Sinti or Roma, but were caravan dwellers. They were released shortly after their arrival. Over 50 Sinti and Roma carried passports of a neutral or allied country – they, too, were allowed to leave the camp.
On 19 May 1944, 245 Sinti and Roma were deported to Auschwitz-Birkenau from Camp Westerbork. One of them was Settela Steinbach, world famous due to the picture taken of her on that day in the carriage opening. Settela was killed in the gas chambers of Auschwitz-Birkenau on 3 August 1944.
Of the 245 Sinti and Roma who were deported from Camp Westerbork, only 31 survived the war.