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Westerbork is best known as the transit camp where Anne Frank and her family were sent prior to their deportation to Auschwitz. I went to Westerbork in the summer of 2017 after many years of avoiding such a visit. Set in a wooded area in the north of Holland, 50 kms south of Groningen, there is virtually nothing left of the camp, apart from the bizarre spectacle of the commandant’s house, which, encased in a vast glasshouse, is slowly decaying. The other strange feature is that the Dutch have chosen the site for a linear array of 14 massive radio telescopes. On arrival, I asked at the small museum information desk if they had an archivist and an elderly man appeared. I told him that my family had been deported from Westerbork and he asked me to write down their names and wait. I was not expecting anything. He reappeared a few minutes later and gave me two photographs; one (top right) is of my uncle Werner, his wife Fanni and my grandmother Selma emerging from what looks like a railway station. The other (top left) is of Werner with a camera and Fanni holding their first baby. I was shocked and remain so to this day. I still have no idea who took the photographs and why they were held in the camp archive.

Westerbork was intended to look like a model camp and the Nazis made a propaganda film showing the facilities. There were courses to follow, sports to play, a kindergarten and school. On Tuesday nights there were revues, concerts and plays in the registration barrack. However, the camp had a ‘double life’. Whilst there was a semi-permanent population, most inmates were held for only a short time before being deported to the death camps. These about 2,000 more permanent camp occupants were mostly German Jews. They were Jewish council members, camp employees and others, all temporarily exempt from deportation and Werner and his family were part of this group. In her diaries, Etty Hillesum says that ‘Dr. Werner Petzal led the so called ‘application centre’ from July 1942 which provided new arrivals with information about the possibilities of postponing transport elsewhere’. Werner also features in a book with drawings of the camp by Leo Kok (bottom right). There was a hospital with decent medical care in Westerbork and it was here on 10th August 1943 that Fanni gave birth to twins, Robert and Elisabeth. As so many Jews in the camp were surgeons, doctors or dentists and a job in the hospital so coveted (delaying transportation) highly skilled staff were easily found. At one time, the hospital had 1,725 beds, 120 doctors and 1,000 staff members.

From October 1942, the organisation of Camp Westerbork was in the hands of SS-Obersturmführer Gemmeker. Outwardly calm, polite and correct, Gemmeker was skilled at flawlessly implementing Nazi plans. His overriding concern was to meet the quota for the number of Jews deported each week. A Jewish police unit kept order and assisted with the transportations. From July 1942 until September 3rd, 1944, 93 trains (train sign, bottom left; train ramp, centre right) departed Camp Westerbork in the direction of the camps in Eastern Europe, taking 97,776 Jews to almost certain death. In the end, most of the permanent inmates were also sent to the concentration and death camps.

Werner was on Transport 24/4, no. 526 on 26th February 1944 from Westerbork to the transit camp at Theresienstadt. He is listed as being part of what was known as ‘The University over the Abyss,’ an extraordinary phenomenon of intellectual and cultural practice within the camp. He was moved again on 16th October 1944 and died at Furstengrube on 27th January 1945. My father was told that as the Germans were retreating from the camp in the face of the advancing Russians, they threw grenades. The grenade that killed his brother Werner blew off the fingers of the man who later told him this story. Selma, Fanni and the babies were on the same transport as Werner to Theresienstadt and were deported again on the same day, 16th October 1944, to Auschwitz. They were all murdered two days later on 18th October 1944. When I was at Westerbork, wild blue lupins were flowering. I picked some seed heads and took them home, carefully propagated them and they now grow and bloom in my garden as my own personal memorial (centre left).