Transport XXIV/7 from Westerbork, Camp, The Netherlands to Theresienstadt, Ghetto, Czechoslovakia on 04/09/1944
In a report to the German Foreign Ministry on Wilhelmstrasse in Berlin dated February 9, 1944, Otto Bene, the ministry’s representative in the Netherlands, , summarized the situation of the Jews. Some 108,000 of them, Bene wrote, had “left the country” (i.e., had been deported), no more than 11,000 were in hiding and manhunts for them were continuing successfully, and around 8,610 Jewish spouses in mixed marriages had not been rounded up because they had no children. They could be transferred to Westerbork and exploited as labourers.
The Nazi authorities in the Netherlands would need another 8 months to wind up the manhunts and empty out the Westerbork camp.
In the autumn of 1944, the Allies liberated southern Holland in Operation Market Garden but in September they failed to free the entire country. That month, the Dutch railroad company declared a strike, acquiescing to a request from the Government-in-Exile to help the Allied forces. . In retribution, the occupation administration halted all food shipments from rural areas to the western part of the country.
The Allies’ progress hastened the final evacuation of Westerbork in September, precipitating three last transports to Auschwitz, Theresienstadt, and Bergen-Belsen between the 2nd and 13th of the month. After these transports, only some 200 people remained in the camp.
The 7th transport from Westerbork to Theresienstadt, which departed on September 4, 1944, was the largest to leave the Netherlands. It comprised 2,074 Jewish deportees which accounted for around 40 percent of the 5,000 or so Dutch Jews who were sent to Theresienstadt.
The transport was composed of five groups, each with unique characteristics. One was the Stammliste (veterans of Westerbork), a list familiar from previous transports to Theresienstadt, and was usually the largest group. In this transport, the Stammliste included employees of the camp administration along with members of the Joodse Raad (Jewish council) and their families. One of these members was Walter Süsskind who, during his term as manager of the assembly site at the Jewish Theatre (Hollandsche Schouwburg), rescued hundreds of children and placed them in villages outside Amsterdam. Another member of the Joodse Raad who was swept up in this transport was the council’s secretary, Jacob Brandon.
An additional group (approx. 774 persons) comprised the entire staff of the camp hospital and the members of the Bühne (“Stage”), a theatre group set up in the camp that had organized performances of famous artists. The third group consisted of some 196 Jews who had managed to obtain exemptions from deportation until then (Rückstellungsgruppen). The two last groups were new: one comprised 493 Protestant baptized Jews and the other comprised 654 Jews known as the Barneveld group. David Cohen, Chair of the Joodse Raad, also joined the list of last group in Westerbork. A slightly expanded discussion of these two new groups follows.
Jewish converts to Catholicism in the Netherlands had been deported to Auschwitz on August 1–2, 1942, in reprisal for the Catholic Church’s protest in a Sunday sermon against the persecution and deportation of the Jews. The Dutch Protestant Church, in contrast, retreated from its plan to protest the deportation of the Jews after the Reichskommissar for the occupied Dutch territories, Arthur Seyss-Inquart, promised it that its Jewish followers would be exempt from deportation. Indeed, the 1,500 Jews who had been baptized into the Protestant faith received exemption stamps in 1942–1943. The status of these converts, however, remained politically problematic and members of the Nazi administration argued over when to deport them. Hard liners against the Jews headed by Hanns Albin Rauter, Generalkommissar für das Sicherheitswesen (General Commissioner for Security), favored their deportation to the East as early as July 1942, whereas the highest official echelon led by Seyss-Inquart, agreed that they should be deported but only after the other transports had been completed. Seyss-Inquart’s purpose in taking this ostensibly moderate position was to appease the churches.
On October 5, 1943, Seyss-Inquart instructed Erich Naumann, commander of the Sipo-SD (BdS—Befehlshaber des Sicherheitspolizei und SD), to draw up a list of these apostate Jews—and of those in the Barneveld group—and transfer them to Westerbork. He stressed, however, that there was no reason to deport them from the Netherlands because he had given “explicit promises […] by virtue of my authority as Reichskommissar, and I insist that they be honored unconditionally.”
On October 21, 1943, Berlin ordered the deportation of the apostate Jews to Bergen-Belsen — around 1,100 in number by Berlin’s count. . Seyss-Inquart, however, appears to have refused due to concerns about how the churches would react and left them in the camp until the last transport. Ilse Blumenthal-Weiss, one of those aboard this transport, describes the evacuation notice in her post war testimony:
[…] This Sunday morning in early September 1944, a strange disquiet ruffles the calm of the Christianized [Jews] too. […] Small groups already form and stand. […] They also want to know, also want to hear. […] The barracks commander summons several men to the corner where he lives. They sit down around him and listen to his brief report: “The Westerbork camp must be evacuated at once. Only a few people in the camp will stay. All Christianized residents of the block are going together to the transport in two days’ time.” […] The handful of Christianized [Jews] who believed that in Barracks 72 they would avoid this fate suddenly stared it in the face. […] It no longer helps to call oneself a Christian. It no longer helps to rely on one’s certificate of baptism.
On September 5, the day after the transport to Theresienstadt, Seyss-Inquart went out of his way to send a letter to the Dutch Protestant Church, defending the decision to deport its Jewish adherents to the ghetto: since the Netherlands may once again become a battlefield, he wrote, the Wehrmacht and police officials would not tolerate the presence of Jews near the front.
The Barneveld group comprised of some 650 privileged Jews whose treatment by the authorities was widely envied. Two senior members of the Dutch civil service who were among the few who remained in the country after the Dutch Government fled to London—Dr. Karel Johan Frederiks, General Secretary for Interior Affairs in the Netherlands, and Prof. Jan van Dam, General Secretary of the Ministry of Education, Science, and Culture—took up the cause of these Jews and asked the German authorities to protect them against deportation. Frederiks even managed to persuade Seyss-Inquart that by doing so he would prevent resistance to deportations by Dutch officials. After Prof. van Dam added remarks of his own, Seyss-Inquart allowed the two of them to compose a list of some 500 “worthy Dutch Jews” (276 for Frederiks, 309 for van Dam) and their families. These were prominent personalities in the sciences, music, public administration, etc.—. Seyss-Inquart explicitly promised that these Jews would be allowed to remain in the Netherlands and would be protected against deportation to the East. As sundry others asked to be included, the list swelled to more than 650. Frederiks and van Dam also arranged housing for the Jews in this group at the Castle De Schaffelaar in the town of Barneveld—hence their nickname, the “Barnevelders”— and saw to their needs.
When the castle had no room left, newly joined Barnevelders were accommodated in De Biezen, a villa in Ede. It is hard to know whether all members of the Barneveld group truly belonged to the Jewish elite; evidently, most of those whom Frederiks and van Dam chose belonged to their social circle. Hazon Wyler Martha, a deportee on this transport, described this group in her testimony: “It was a list of people such as professors, artists, musicians, that is, important people. […] The parents, that is, my father and uncle, were included in this list because they were advisors to the Dutch Government in matters of buying grain and distributing food; that’s why they were important.” Notably, artisans were also included in the group.
On April 28, 1943, Wilhelm Zöpf, head of the Jewish Affairs Department (IVb4) at BdS in The Hague, sent a final report on the expulsion of the Dutch Jews to Eichmann’s department at the RSHA (Reichssicherheitshauptamt—Reich Main Security Office). According to this document, 528 protected Jews remained in Barneveld for the time being at the Reichskommissar’s request. Nonetheless, attempts to challenge this decision were made. The very next day, April 29, Rauter asked Seyss-Inquart to allow all persons chosen by Frederiks and van Dam to be deported to Theresienstadt and repeated the request on May 5. On August 28, Eichmann asked Harster to detain these Jews until they could be received at Bergen-Belsen. Even after Eichmann’s intervention, however, the matter still remained unresolved.
In September 1943, new instructions from the RSHA marked the Barneveld group as one of those destined for Bergen-Belsen, and on October 21 Eichmann informed Zöpf that a special camp had been established at Bergen-Belsen for privileged Jews by order of Himmler and that the Barnevelders, among others, would be sent there. On September 10, 1943, the Sipo in The Hague informed the Joodse Raad that the Barneveld Jews would not be harmed. Just the same, on September 29—the day on which the Jewish council was finally dismantled—the Jews in Barneveld were advised that they faced summary deportation.
David Refael, another deportee on this transport, described what ensued in his post war testimony:
“Yes, right then on the eve of Rosh Hashana, it always happened on the High Holidays, at about 10:45 a.m. the Germans came and we were given a speech in which they said that unfortunately they had to transfer us to Westerbork and that we’d be protected there. […] Within an hour and a half we had to pack our suitcases and walk to Barneveld, where a train would be waiting for us. […] For those who had been staying in Barneveld it was a great shock, this move to Westerbork. There was only one good thing: the Germans promised not to send us to the East. So we weren’t afraid.”
The entire Barneveld group was transferred by train to Westerbork. Afterwards, the Nazi authorities promised Frederiks that the Jews on his list would remain there and would not be sent away, and he still believed them. Notably, both the apostate Jews and those on Frederiks’ list received special treatment in Westerbork and were housed in separate barracks. When word about the transport spread, both Frederiks and the Protestant Church protested but managed to remove only fifteen people from each group and issue them with permits to remain in the camp; the other Protestant Jews and the entire Barneveld group were sent to Theresienstadt.
In his testimony, David Refael described the announcement about the transport:
“On September 2, the commandant gave us a speech and said that the whole population would have to move to the East. The next day, Sunday, September 3, 1,000 people were sent to Auschwitz and on September 4, Monday, we went on to Theresienstadt. It was just one day before the mad Tuesday in Holland, when everyone thought the war had already ended.”
Ilse Blumenthal gave the following account:
“The routine of preparing for the transport is repeated again, unchanged. It doesn’t matter whether it’s Christianized Jews or other Jews. They’re sorted. Unnecessary things are left behind and necessary ones are stuffed into the rucksack. […] The certificate of Christianity also goes with the luggage that’s packed. […] We begin to march to the cattle cars that are standing at the ready, as usual. Two sliding doors crossed by two heavy bolts to lock them from the outside serve as both entrance and exit. One of the doors has a pinhole-sized window. It’s dark in the car. There’s no lighting. The floor is covered with a thin layer of straw. A large barrel stands next to the door. Under ordinary circumstances, the capacity of such a car is calculated at sixty people at the most, without luggage, and now ninety people are packed into it: ninety people burdened with rucksacks, cooking pots, coats, blankets, canteens, etc. No food is given en route. No bread and nothing to drink. […] Men, women, children, old and frail people are squeezed into the cattle car. Wherever possible plank walls serve as backrest. Where impossible, people support each other or lean on one another while sitting, crouching or bending over.”
The transport left Westerbork in a train consisting of cattle cars that were crushingly packed with 2,074 people. At the gate of the camp, command of the train was relayed to German forces; after they counted the deportees, the train set out.
At that time Germany was subjected to heavy Allied air raids. Survivor Sasha Ben Shalom reports that the train stopped on a siding, the locomotive was uncoupled and proceeded on its own, and the cars, locked, remained in place.
Ilse describes the continuation of the trip:
“We hardly notice that the train is slowing, that it’s stopping, and that the doors are flung open for a short while. “Heil Hitler,” a man in uniform shouts. “Hand over all watches and fountain pens!” Trembling hands hurriedly surrender the small valuables that they still possessed. […]When the doors are opened after thirty hours of darkness, the daylight dazzles the eyes and the briefly glimpsed sight of the landscape—a road, a house, some grass—causes pain. […] The train starts out again. […] We have no way of moving about. We sit silently, bent over and packed together side by side […] and then the train stops for good. The transport of the Baptized Jews has reached Theresienstadt. Befouled, frightened, dead-tired, the people totter out of the cattle cars that have at last opened onto the railroad platform. […] hardly have they managed to leap out of the high cars when they’re already bombarded with orders: “Line up!” “Forward march!” Instinctively they lower their heads. In a large, empty, dirty hall, a commanding voice shouts out: […] “soon” …“wait” … “picked up…” The column of people advances in lengthy rows, the Christianized Jews from Holland on the right and the others on the left. […] Theresienstadt isn’t Westerbork. […] The Theresienstadt camp does away with the distinction between Jews and Christianized Jews.”
Some passengers in the transport had been classified as “special cases” (Sonderfälle). One of them was Eduard Meijers, who was deported with his family. Meijers was a noted jurist from Leiden University whom the Dutch Government had commissioned to compose the civil code. When the occupation authorities dismissed him from his professorship, Leiden University went on strike. In November 1942, when Meijers’ impending deportation to Theresienstadt became known, an acquaintance offered a large payment for the release of the Meijers family and their transfer to Switzerland. The offer, however, was rejected on the grounds that Meijers had taken part in a student strike in Leiden. Meijers’ case (“Causa Meijers”) was discussed at a meeting of the Foreign Ministry staff. As it happened, Meijers was not deported to Theresienstadt at that time; in December 1942 he reached Barneveld with the rest of his family. There, without any reference books, he continued to compose the code of laws and gave lectures on law in the evenings. In September 1943, the Meijers family was taken to Westerbork with the rest of the Barnevelders, from where, as stated, all were sent to Theresienstadt. After his liberation, the Dutch Government asked him again to write the civil code.
When the transport reached the Theresienstadt ghetto, it was marked in the ghetto records as XXIV/7, the Roman numerals denoting the Netherlands.
In Theresienstadt, too, both the apostate Jews and the Barnevelders were given special status. Several Jews in these groups—including 150 apostates—were liberated before the end of the war in a swap that was engineered by the Red Cross, which also helped to move them to Switzerland. Apart from several elderly deportees, most survived the war.
The Bühne (theatre) group, which had been added to the transport, did not even manage to perform in the ghetto because its members, along with most of the musicians in Theresienstadt, were sent to the East.
The Red Army liberated Theresienstadt on May 8, 1945. The Dutch Jews who experienced the occasion, including those who had immigrated to the Netherlands from Germany, burst into the Dutch national anthem and, although they had been deported from the Netherlands, continued to consider themselves Dutch nationals. Some of the Dutch, however, found it displeasing that the German migrants had also joined in singing the anthem.