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The copy on most of the exhibits was written in Dutch, so we missed out on a lot. I didn’t complain–then or now, thirty years later. I had known ahead of time what the memorial at Westerbork commemorated, even something of how the place operated and looked–especially the twisted prongs of a railroad track meant to memorialize death trains that operate no longer.
Westerbork was a station and a camp. Originally a refuge for displaced Jews escaping from Germany, or wherever they felt suddenly conscious of being Jewish and therefore at risk, Westerbork was originally a safe place.
But two years after the German occupation of the Netherlands, Westerbork was transitioned to something else altogether. The Nazi SS took the place over, and on July 15, 1942, a passenger train–eventually cattle cars–left the old station for the German/Poland border, a place called Auschwitz. More than 55,000 Dutch Jews would take that trip, most all of them would not return.
Our family visited Westerbork in 1991, 31 years ago. I had taken on the job of helping a Holocaust survivor write her story, and I wanted to see for myself some of the places she spoke of when she remembered the Occupation, a time when she and her fiancé operated in great danger as members of the Resistance. One of those places, a final destination, was a camp close to the German border and far from major cities, a transit camp named Westerbork.
Sometimes pictures are worth a thousand words. The experience of the place was stunning–more than that, chilling. No occupied country lost as high a percentage of its Jewish population during the war as did the Netherlands. Almost 100,000 Jewish men, women, and children were lost.
We must have stopped there in the morning because later that day, just outside of Arnhem, we stopped as planned at the National Open-Air Museum, a sprawling community all its own, full of Dutch history–barns and bridges, shops and open houses where docents in the dress of their time worked at tasks like blacksmithing, long departed from everyday life.
We’d separated for some unknown reason–mom and daughter were off somewhere on their own, as were our son and I. Seems to me we were inside some general merchandise store, the kind of place every burg in northwest Iowa had until horsepower came in gasoline engines. Maybe something like the Middleburg Store.
The burly docent wore an all-encompassing apron and a bush of a beard, as I remember. His shirt looked much like what I’d seen at a Tulip Festival. The two of us wandered slowly though, didn’t beg attention or conversation until he opened with a question that surprised me. “You’re Dutch, aren’t you?” he said, pointing a bit with a wave of his hand.
“Well, yes,” I told him, “but we’re fifth-generation Dutch-American.” I was amazed that he’d called me out the way he did–I don’t think I was conscious of “looking” Dutch.
“And your name?” he said.
“Skkkhhhaap,” I said, trying to wiggle my epiglottis into that unique lingual marker.
“That right?” he said. “You’re Jewish.”
I shook my head.
“Schaap, in Holland, is a Jewish name,” he told me. He explained it this way. Years ago, when Jewish people immigrated to the Netherlands–which they did and had done for hundreds of years, the Dutch being more tolerant than other countries–they were accepted as citizens if they would jump two formidable hurdles: first, they needed to join the Dutch Reformed Church; and second, they had to take a Dutch name. “In the Netherlands,” he told us, “Jewish people often have very simple names–like Schaap, from ‘sheep,’ or Van Rotterdam or Van Amsterdam.”
I don’t think my son had quite made it to middle school back then. He was a kid, and I may well be creating a story that wasn’t there. But when I looked at him just then, when the Dutchman in the old general store told me we were Jewish, something of the reality of the transit camp at Westerbork, maybe a bit of its horror and its shame is something I thought I saw in his eyes and on his face. Those people moving onto those trains, still photographs, in a moment became moving pictures.
A few weeks ago, my wife and I toured an exhibition from the Auschwitz museum when that exhibition of artifacts was in Kansas City. I’ve seen dozens of Holocaust movies, read dozens of books, even wrote one; but the images we saw in that exhibition are still beyond description, so much so that I couldn’t help but feel a chill so deep it’s stayed with me. So when I heard a Russian missile, amid all the horror, had taken out Babyn Yar last week, the Ukrainian Holocaust memorial, I couldn’t help but remember the title of that Kansas City exhibition: “Auschwitz. Not long ago. Not far away.”
And I checked with my son, who’s in his forties today and has two precious pre-schoolers. I asked him if he remembered Westerbork, that Open-Air Museum in Arnhem, and the odd thought that he was Jewish.
He’d never forgotten, he said.
Not long ago. Not far away.