Love in a Time of Terror: The Tragic Couples Who Wed in a Dutch Nazi Transit Camp | Holocaust
Saskia Aukema knew little about her great-aunt Annie, who was murdered during the Holocaust. All she knew was that Annie refused to go into hiding like her siblings and continued to work as a hospital nurse, even after the Nazi occupation of the Netherlands began in May 1940. .
“It was the family story: it was the woman who did not hide and chose to be with her patients. That was all I knew…that line, that one sentence,” she told the Observer.
When Aukema, photographer and editor, learned from her father a few years ago that Annie had married in Westerbork, the Nazi transit camp in the north of the Netherlands, she was stunned. Westerbork was the last stop for nearly 107,000 Dutch Jews before they were put on trains for Auschwitz, Bergen-Belsen and other Nazi camps in Central and Eastern Europe. Only 5,000 returned.
Aukema wondered, “How is it possible that you can get married in such a grim place as a transit camp?”
Dissatisfied with an internet search, she began exploring the archives and found dozens of Westerbork marriages. Between September 4, 1940 and September 17, 1944, 261 couples were married there. Some of their stories are told in Aukema’s book, Until death do us partwhich was published in Dutch last month.
“I wanted to honor couples first,” Aukema said. She also hopes to help people feel the enormity of the loss and suffering of the Holocaust, in a more personal way than the official Remembrance Day ceremonies. “I thought I could reach a new generation, people who maybe had forgotten history, or who hadn’t forgotten it but don’t feel it every day, so they could feel it again.”
The camp authorities, under SS Commander Albert Konrad Gemmeker, allowed weddings as well as entertainment like theater and sports because they added to the illusion that the worst could be avoided. “Westerbork was an ‘imaginary’ world, the Nazis and especially Gemmeker created an illusion,” said Gerdien Verschoor, director of Camp Westerbork Memorial Center. Observer. “Marriages were authorized and facilitated, so as not to arouse suspicion. To keep people calm and give them something to look forward to.
Before the Nazi occupation, Westerbork was a refugee camp for German Jews, so it had facilities such as schools, kindergartens and a hospital.
“The camp had to look as normal as possible,” Verschoor said. Commander Gemmeker “wanted to create the illusion of normal village life”, she added. “And I think he did very well. People didn’t and couldn’t believe that they could be sent to extermination camps; they had no idea what was going on in Auschwitz, they really thought they were going to work, and it was very important for Gemmeker to keep this illusion until the end.
As part of this fantasy world, men, women, and children were treated at Westerbork Hospital to make them fit enough to be sent to death camps; couples were allowed to marry and dream of a future.
Not all marriages were love marriages. The “good” marriage was thought to offer some protection against being sent East. “People, especially women who married a man who worked in the camp, thought they weren’t going to be deported,” Verschoor said.
Staff at the memorial center knew about the weddings, but the book brought out the stark contrast between the hopes of the people in the surviving photos and the heartbreaking reality. “If you can’t see the stars [that Jews were obliged to wear]you see happy couples, and that’s what’s so upsetting,” Verschoor said.
Most Westerbork weddings were civil ceremonies. Some were Jewish religious ceremonies that took place in the “synagogue barracks,” which was also the venue for bar mitzvahs. The brides wore white veils and flowers in their hair. There was a white wedding dress shared between several women. And there were wedding “meals” – some extra vegetables, a potato saved from rations for the celebration. The inhabitants sent handmade cards to the newlyweds: “congratulations from the inhabitants of barracks 42-3”.
Kaatje de Wijze married Leo Emile Kok on September 13, 1943. Leo was a talented artist, friend of Rudolf Breslauer, a German Jewish photographer, who arrived in Westerbork after fleeing Nazi persecution. As a gift to the couple, Breslauer photographed them on their wedding day.
Few traces remain of the marriage of Aukema’s great-aunt. Annie Preger married Hans van Witsen on January 28, 1943. They had met a few months earlier at the Apeldoornsche Bosch, a Jewish psychiatric hospital, where Annie was a nurse and Hans a gardener.
It must have been love at first sight. Within two months, they were engaged. But the hospital was no longer the refuge from Nazi persecution that many had hoped for. Like many employees, Annie and Hans were sent to Westerbork. They were married shortly after their arrival, in a ceremony attended by two colleagues from the hospital.
Shortly after, Annie went to the camp hospital, where she was treated for a stomach ache. Hans has missed his new bride, describing himself as a widower, as they were separated so early. When she was released, he wrote to her father: “I am mesjogge [crazy] with joy.”
The couple hoped that Annie could find a job at the hospital. But that never happened. They were selected for “labour deployment” and sent on a train to Sobibor extermination camp in German-occupied Poland. From the train they managed to throw a few letters: they had “good seats” in the carriage and were doing well, Hans wrote to his father. “We will see you very soon.”
Annie and Hans were murdered shortly after their arrival. They had been married for 36 days.
Kaatje de Wijze and Leo Emiel Kok did not escape the convoys either. If Gemmeker, passionate about art, theater and beautiful women, admired Kok’s drawings, that was not enough to save them. Each week, the camp had to meet quotas to put Jews on eastbound trains, to be murdered or sent to forced labor. Kaatje and Leo were on the last train to Theresienstadt in September 1944.
In this camp they were separated and Leo was sent to Auschwitz. Kaatje crossed a cordon to say goodbye; they swore to meet. Leo was then sent to Ebensee concentration camp, where he performed hard labor in the freezing cold, ruining his health. He died a few days after liberation at the age of 22. Kaatje de Wijze survived the war and lived until 2018. Their marriage lasted 607 days.
Many marriages were very short. Some only lasted four days, meaning the couple were transported east on their wedding day and murdered upon arrival. Maurits van Thijn, who survived the war, with his wife Catharina Blitz, darkly joked that they had been sent on “honeymoon to Auschwitz”, because they had been deported on their wedding day.
After the war, Westerbork was an internment camp for Dutch collaborators, (briefly) a military barracks and later turned into housing for immigrants from the Moluccas, a former Dutch Indonesian colony known as the Spice Islands. The last barracks were demolished in 1971 and a memorial center opened in 1983.
Almost nothing remains of the original camp. To research her book, Aukema traveled several times and photographed the countryside, enduring the scorching summer heat and mosquitoes, and the biting cold of winter. “It’s so strange that things like this happened in such a beautiful place,” she said. “It takes a lot of effort to see it.”