Testimony of Gabriele Silten
We, i.e. my father, my mother, my grandmother and I, lived in Amsterdam, Holland. We did not go into hiding, so from the time the war began, i.e. May 1940, until the day we were deported, we stayed in our apartment. On June 20, 1943, there was a big, city-wide, razzia, i.e round-up, from house to house. On that day, a Sunday, we were also arrested (I was then 10 years old) and first taken to a main square in Amsterdam, then to the Central station (a train station) where the cattle cars were waiting for us. We got to the station at about noon. When everyone had been loaded into the cattlecars, the train left for Westerbork.
Westerbork is located in the province Drenthe (a.k.a. Drente) towards the North of the Netherlands. It is in a region of nothing and nowhere, a marshy region with sandy ground where heather grows. There are no mountains or hills in Holland, so Westerbork is surrounded by flat land. The camp also had sandy "streets" totally unpaved which turned into rivers of mud when it rained which it does often in Holland. The camp was surrounded by barbed wire and there were 7 watchtowers around the camp as well, all of them with an armed soldier in them.
By the time we got to Westerbork, it was well after dark which means that it must have been after 10 or 11 o'clock at night, since it gets dark very late in summer in Europe. We had to go through a "registration" procedure. My parents and grandmother went through and I was told by my mother to sit on a chair she showed me and wait for their return. I could see through the open barracks door: it was a huge room with many tables and typewriters. I could also hear the typewriters clicking. Since my mother did not come back very soon and I saw no-one come out of the registration room, I began to cry and eventually an adult took pity on me and took me to my mother. After registration, we had to go through a "medical examination". We undressed, though I do not remember actually being examined. Then we went to the barracks to which we had been assigned; ours was number 65. The barracks were very long, low buildings, made of wood. Since they had been thrown up hurriedly, they were badly built: doors and windows didn't fit tight and chinks were everywhere, so the rain, wind and dust could and did come in. On either side of the entrance to the barracks was a huge room, one for the men and the other for the women. Each held approximately 300 people. The beds were bunkbeds, three-high, with strawsacks for mattresses and pillows. There were no sheets. Blankets we had had to bring ourselves.
Westerbork was overcrowded, so my mother, my grandmother and I shared two beds on the middle "layer". At the end of each room was a washroom, again one for the men and the other for the women. It held one long sink in the middle of the room with faucets spaced about 3 feet apart. It also had one toilet. That could have been a flush toilet (though it probably didn't work), but it could also have been a "chemical toilet" (which is a modern term). Outside the barracks there was at least one latrine building where above a ditch a plank was laid and attached to the walls. The plank had holes in it and one had to crawl up on the plank and then squat. Neither in the latrine building, nor in the washrooms between the faucets, nor in the big rooms between the beds was there any kind of partition; no sheets on strings, no blanket on a string, no low walls - nothing. Thus anything and everything one did was out in public; there was no privacy at all anywhere. We had no closet, cupboard or any other place to hang or store what few possessions we had; everything had to be kept on or in the bed. The mattresses and pillows were inhabited by fleas which bit at all times. Also there were flies, lice and other vermin. Since it was impossible to keep out dust and dirt, any time one scratched a bit and possibly scratched it open, infection resulted. There were doctors (inmates) and nurses (also inmates) but few if any medications, so it was difficult to heal things.
There were all sorts of people in these barracks, of course, from all walks of life, as well as all degrees of religiosity. There were what we would now call the ultra-orthodox; there were all shadings of observance, all the way to totally assimilated Jews, as we were. Assimilated Jews means that, although we were born Jews, we never kept the dietary laws, did not go to synagogue, kept no holidays, but were more like the other inhabitants of the country who possibly might not keep anything either whatever religion they might officially belong to. The differences between people, though, gave rise to a number of quarrels and fights; the fact that one's things were often stolen gave rise to more quarrels and more fights. The fact that we came from all walks of life meant also that not everybody was equally hygienic, that some people washed often and others not at all. That did not help the vermin situation.
All adults had to work. My father, a pharmacist by profession, worked in the "metal industry", i.e. he had to flatten, with a hammer, big pipes like sewer pipes. These were made of metal. I do not know what they were to be used for. My mother, by profession a commercial photographer - though she did not work outside the home - was assigned to be a "kindergarten teacher", i.e. she had to take care of small children whose mothers worked also. The children were aged 1 year through about 8 or 9 years. It was a difficult job for we had no toys, no coloring books, no crayons or anything else to keep the children busy. Also many children regressed and began soiling their pants again, as well as their beds. The fact that many of them had diarrhea did not help matters. Their mothers then raged at my mother for "letting" them do this. We had been given wooden shoes (clogs) to wear when we arrived; in the beginning they were hard on the feet and chafed open spots on our heels and insteps. When the children soiled themselves, these chafe wounds got dirty, then got infected and the children fell ill - more than they already were.
Food was brought to the barracks, on a special small cart, pulled by inmates. The cart had a big contained of soup, called potato soup, which looked like used dishwater. It had no taste and - probably - few calories. We also received bread rations, usually for 3 days at a time, with a bit of fat stuck on top. This fat was called "sana" though I do not know where the word came from nor what was meant by it. Certainly it was neither butter nor margarine. Occasionally we received some jam or sugar. The adults also received "coffee" : a warm, black liquid, but what it was in reality, I do not know. We were able to receive packages from people outside the camp and some people received them.
There was, in my time, no school and no opportunity to learn anything which one might learn in school. We had no books and we children mostly just tried to stay out of everyone's way. There was a small "playground" with a sand box, a swing, a teeter-totter. But the sand in the sand box was polluted since the children soiled their pants in the sandbox and there was no-one to clean it up or to put new sand in it. I remember sitting on the edge of the sandbox, just talking to other children - but I never played in it, nor saw other children do so.
Tuesday nights a list was published with names of those who would go on transport (to Auschwitz, Sobibor, etc.) and they went immediately the next morning. One night my grandmothers' name was on the list and she decided to kill herself rather than go to another camp. She committed suicide in July 1943.
We stayed in Westerbork until January 1944; then we were further deported to Theresienstadt (a.k.a. Terezin).
Today Westerbork is still there. The barracks have been burned, but the camp terrain is still there, still partly surrounded by barbed wire, with still one watchtower standing. It has become a monument of itself. The original monument consisted of railroad tracks (which ran into the camp), bent up, now rusty and chipped and nicked. Later a small museum was added and on the campterrain there are "corners" of barracks with a triangular marker telling what barracks this was. The old "Appellplatz", i.e. the place where roll call and counting took place, is now paved over in white stone. Within that white stone is inlaid the map of the Netherlands in grey stone. Spread over the whole are 102,000 red bricks, put in the ground, short side up. They are put down in unequal height, and in rectangular shape, almost like graves. On many we find a metal Magen David (six-pointed star) on top, on some a metal flame and on some nothing. The star indicated one Jewish inmate, the flame a Rom inmate (Gypsy) and the empty bricks indicate a resistance fighter inmate. 102,000 inmates were there at one time or other, of whom the majority was murdered in Auschwitz or another death camp. The fewest of us, the lucky ones, came back home, to Holland.