Transit Camps in Western Europe During the Holocaust

The previous history of the camps mentioned in the title of this article was very different from when they became transit camps for the systematic deportation to Auschwitz and other extermination camps.

Drancy (France), Malines/Mechelen (Belgium), Westerbork and Vught (The Netherlands): Antechambers of the Extermination Camps

Westerbork was the oldest camp for Jews and the largest. In February 1939 the Dutch government decided to construct one ‘Central Refugee Camp’ for Jews and on October 9, the first 22 German refugees arrived at the new small wooden houses. The Committee for Special Jewish Affairs, established by the Dutch Jewish community organizations in 1933, had financed the construction. It was located in a remote heath area in the northeast of the Netherlands, near the village of Westerbork. The internal affairs of the camp were run by the refugees themselves, in cooperation with the Committee. In May 1940, at the beginning of the German occupation, there were about 750 refugees living in the camp. It remained under the administration of the regular Dutch authorities during the first two years of the occupation. From December 1941 onward, on German orders, more Jewish refugees were sent to Westerbork and the camp was expanded with large wooden shacks. On July 1, 1942, when there were about 1,500 Jews in the camp, it was taken over by German Security Police, and an SS-commander and staff were appointed. The camp’s name was changed to Polizeiliches Durchgangslager (Police Transit Camp) and it was surrounded with barbed wire and seven watch towers.

Drancy is named after the northeastern suburb of Paris in which it was located. It was set up by French authorities as an internment center for militant communists in October 1939. In June 1940, it became a camp for prisoners of war and then an internment center for foreign nationals. From August 1941 onward, it served as an internment center for Jews, and in June 1942 it was converted into a transit camp. Regular French police remained in charge until the end of June 1943 after which German police took over command.

Malines (Flemish: Mechelen) in Belgium and Vught in the Netherlands were the only German-established camps. Malines was set up by German Security Police as the transit camp for Jews in July 1942. The Jewish transit camp at Vught was a section within the Concentration Camp Herzogenbusch near the provincial capital Hertogenbosch in the south of the Netherlands. It was constructed in late 1942 and was the only official Konzentrationslager (KL) outside the borders of Greater Germany under the authority of the SS Economics and Administration Main Office (WVHA) in Berlin.

Drancy (Paris, France)

The direct cause for setting up Drancy as an internment center for Jews were the roundups carried out by French police in Paris on August 20-23, 1941, in which 4,232 mainly foreign or stateless Jews were arrested. A large, five-story, U-shaped apartment building, not far from two railway stations, was now used for their detention. It was built in the 1930s for residential purposes, and was originally intended to serve as a small model town, called Cité la Muette, a modern example of urbanisme social. But in 1940, it was surrounded by barbed wire and watch towers were built at its four corners. In the middle was a courtyard, about 200 meters long and some 40 meters wide. From the outset, the administration, staffing and guarding lay in the responsibility of the French authorities and regular French police (the Paris Police Prefect). The sanitary and health conditions in Drancy were very bad. Between August and November 1941 twelve Jewish internees died of starvation. In November about 800 internees, who were seriously ill and emaciated, were released from Drancy. On December 14, 1941, 47 Jewish internees from Drancy, together with other hostages (communists) were executed in Fort Mont-Valérien in retaliation for a French attack on German officers.

In the first transport from Drancy, which departed on June 22, 1942, 1,000 Jews were sent to Auschwitz-Birkenau. Altogether, between that first transport and the last, on July 31, 1944, 64,759 Jews were deported from Drancy in 64 rail transports. At the height of the deportations, two to three trains, with about 1,000 prisoners each, left Drancy per week. The capacity of the camp was about 5,000 prisoners, but at times it held more than 7,000. Most Jews in the internment camps of the Unoccupied Zone were first taken by French trains to Drancy before being deported to Auschwitz in August and September 1942. Five sub-camps of Drancy were located throughout Paris (three of which were the Austerlitz, Lévithan and Bassano camps). The precise role of French police authorities and personnel in Drancy between August 1941 and July 1943 requires further investigation. On July 2, 1943, Adolf Eichmann’s special representative, Alois Brunner, took over command of Drancy. The camp was spruced up as prisoners were ordered to do the cleaning and painting. Brunner simultaneously enforced reorganization, introducing divide and rule tactics, new categories of prisoners, using individual interrogations  to turn them into each other’s enemy in an atmosphere of constant fear and envy. There were beatings and other maltreatments. Prisoners were used to serve as a camp police (Membres du Service d’Ordre). Other internment centers in France were also sporadically used as transit camps for direct deportation, such as Pithiviers (six trains), Beaune-la-Rolande (two trains) and the Royallieu camp near Compiègne (two trains). The latter was the only internment camp in France which had been, from its beginning, administered by the German occupiers.

About one-third of the Jews deported from Drancy were French citizens. The others were foreign-born Jews who had immigrated to France during the 1920s and 1930s, primarily from Poland, Germany and Austria. On August 15-16, 1944, as Allied forces approached Paris, the German police in Drancy fled after burning the camp documents. The Swedish Consul-General Raoul Nordling, took over the camp on August 17, and asked the French Red Cross to care for the 1,467 remaining prisoners. For more information about Drancy, the reader is commended to the following internet link.

Malines/Mechelen (Belgium)

The Belgian army barracks named Dossin de Saint-Georges, built in the town of Malines in 1756, were transformed into a Sammellager (Assembly Camp) on July 25, 1942. The first Jews who had received call-up orders arrived two days later, and the first train to Auschwitz left on August 4. This building was chosen for two reasons. It was right next to a railroad and Malines is located between Brussels and Antwerp, where 90% of the Jews in Belgium lived. After the roundups started, the Jews were taken by trucks to the inner square inside the barracks where armed SS were awaiting them. After being registered and stripped of their identity papers and last personal possessions, the prisoners had to wear a card around their neck with their number for the next deportation train. There were various categories of prisoners, the biggest of which were those marked for direct deportation. The barracks could house 1,000 persons, but at times more than 1,700 were crammed into them, with about 100 people on bunk beds in dormitories only about 21 to 7 meters wide. Later, they had to sleep on straw bags on the floor. The guard duty on the perimeter was done by Flemish SS members, supervised by German Security Police. In addition to the Dossin barracks in Malines there was also the general police detention camp (Polizeihaftlager) at the fortress of Breendonk, which was also used to imprison Jews before their deportation, especially individual "punitive cases". Of the about 3,600 prisoners who passed through Breendonk, some 400 were Jews. Both camps were commanded by the SS officer Philipp Johann Adolf Schmitt, but they remained formally under the authority of the Military Administration. Schmitt behaved like a brute, letting his dog bite prisoners at random. Maltreatment and the beating of prisoners were not uncommon, but in Malines they were not tortured in order to extract information. The food and health situation was bad. Only when the Germans feared that a scabies epidemic might spread to town was the care of the prisoners was improved. From early November 1942, when the deportations were interrupted, Malines became a temporary Arbeitslager (work camp). The prisoners had to work in leather and clothing workshops. The products were sold by Schmitt partly on the black market, with some of the proceeds going in his own pocket. Because of fraud charges, he was succeeded as commander by Hans J.G. Frank in March 1943. Compared to his predecessor, he behaved more or less ‘correctly’ but, as before, everything in the camp was geared up for the next deportation train. A total of 25,484 Jews passed through this camp, of which 24,390 were deported in 27 trains to Auschwitz. Other prisoners were deported to other camps. At least 52 Jews died en route to or while imprisoned in Malines or Breendonk. On September 4, 1944, Brussels and Malines were liberated, allowing the remaining 527 prisoners to leave the Dossin barracks. For further information on Malines/Mechelen, see: Kazerne Dossin.

Westerbork (The Netherlands)

During the first 32 deportation transports from Westerbork, from July 15 to the end of October 1942, there was not yet a railroad in the camp, so inmates had to walk with their luggage partly on carts between the camp and the nearest station at Hooghalen, almost five kilometers away. A railroad extension to the camp was constructed by the Dutch Railways and came into operation on November 2, 1942. The first SS commander was Erich Deppner, who was succeeded after two months by Josef Hugo Dischner. The latter behaved like a brute, which was not in line with the policy of his superiors in The Hague. In contrast with Drancy and Malines, daily life in the Westerbork camp had to appear as normal as possible. Therefore, from October 12, 1942 until the end of the occupation, Albert Konrad Gemmeker served as the SS commander. Under his regime there were no shouting SS men, there was no maltreatment and no hunger. People could keep their identity papers and wear their own clothes. He presented himself as a decent gentleman who treated the Jews correctly and left the internal running of the camp to the German-Jewish camp staff, which, since February 1942, was headed by the almost all powerful Kurt Schlesinger. Many had experienced German concentration camps or prisons in the 1930s and knew that, to avoid worse, it would be better to keep matters in their own hands as much as possible, instead of leaving them to the Nazis. The German-Jewish camp staff lived in small wooden houses and had a degree of privacy. From their midst came the department heads (Dienstleiter) and other functionaries, whose duties ranged from the registration of new arrivals to the compiling of lists of those to be deported, on orders of the SS commander and within the number fixed by him. Sanitary conditions in the camp were not good but somewhat manageable There was an excellent hospital that, at one time, had more than 1,700 beds with 1,000 personnel, among whom there were 120 doctors. Religious services were held for both Jews and Christians of Jewish descent. In Westerbork, children's education was taken care of, people could take part in sport, and there were even regular cabaret shows accompanied by live music of high quality. Among the camp inmates there was a huge distance between the ‘camp aristocracy’ made up mainly of German Jews, and the 'transportfreien', mainly Dutch Jews who were eligible for immediate deportation. The latter slept on three-decker metal bunks in large wooden shacks, without any privacy. Often, they were in the camp for only a very short while. The inmates had to work in the kitchen, the hospital and workshops for mending clothes. They also were involved in the demolition of crashed aircraft, the dismounting of batteries and, under supervision, agricultural work in the surrounding area. The camp was about 500 meters long and 500 meters wide. At first, the external guard duty was undertaken by members of an SS Wachbataillon assisted by Dutch police, but later, after about six months, solely by Dutch police. In early June 1944, they were replaced by members of a newly trained, pro-German police unit. Internal order was maintained by Dutch police (marechaussee) and the Jewish Order Service (Ordedienst OD). The highest number of inmates ever crammed into the camp shacks was in early October 1942, after the evacuation of the Jewish men from Dutch work camps and the rounding up of their families. Thus, in one action, more than 12,000 people arrived at the camp where 2,000 already were encamped. This created a lot of chaos; people had to sleep on the floors and in corridors. The chaos was only "solved" by stepping up the deportations in October to almost 12,000, the highest monthly number ever reached in the Netherlands. From July 1942 up to September 1944, a total of 65 trains with 58,549 Jews left Westerbork for Auschwitz and 19 trains with 34,313 Jews for Sobibor. Other trains left for Theresienstadt (nine) and Bergen-Belsen (seven), carrying a total of 8,645 Jews. 210 Jews, however, successfully escaped from Westerbork. The precise functioning and interactions between the German staff, Dutch civil servants (population records, food distribution) working in Westerbork and the Jewish camp staff need further archival research. When the camp was liberated by Canadian military on April 12, 1945, there were 876 inmates left. For information about Westerbork see also: https://kampwesterbork.nl/en/; http://www.joodsewerkkampen.nl.

Vught (The Netherlands)

On January 13, 1943, the first 250 male, non-Jewish prisoners were sent to Vught and, three days later, the first 450 Jews, men, women and children, arrived from Amsterdam. However, the new camp, commanded by SS officer Karl Walter Chmielewski, was far from finished and lacked basic facilities. In the midst of a severe winter with frost conditions, the inmates were forced to help with the completion of the wooden shacks and kitchen. As a consequence, almost 200 non-Jewish prisoners died during the first months. The very poor living conditions also cost the lives of over 100 Jewish children and elderly people. In late March and April, conditions improved. From the outset, the Jewish section in the camp was presented as a "reception camp" (Auffangslager), not a transit camp like Westerbork. The German police created the impression that Vught was a labor camp, and that the Jews would be allowed to remain in the Netherlands as long as they worked hard in the various industries established in the camp. One of the industries was set up by the Philips Company. From late March to October 1943, a group of about 500 Jewish men were put to work in an Aussenkommando of Vught near the village of Moerdijk, some 40 kilometers west of the main camp. Furthermore, up to a certain extent, the Jewish inmates were allowed to manage their own sub-camp with their own Jewish council. They were allowed to wear their own clothes and keep their personal belongings, all this in order to prevent unrest. The Jewish self-administration was headed by Richard Süsskind and, later, by Dr. Arthur Lehmann, both German Jews. At its population maximum, on May 8, 1943, there were 10,400 Jews in Vught. However, during that month it became more and more clear that the German police had no intention of keeping their promise to keep the prisoners in the Netherlands. An increasing number of Jews were transported to Westerbork and from there deported to the East. By that time the name Auffangslager changed to Durchgangslager and the Jewish "inmates" (Lagerinsassen) became "prisoners" (Häftlinge). They had to hand in their luggage and by the end of July they had to wear prison clothes, just like the rest of the prisoners. When, at the beginning of June 1943, all children up to age 16, 1,296 in all, were deported from Vught most of these were deported with only one parent, making it was clear to all others that deportation was inevitable. With the deportation of 1,149 Jews on November 15, 1943, now for the first time directly to Auschwitz, the transit camp was further reduced. In total, about 12,000 Jews passed through this camp between January 1943 and June 1944. The last group of 496 privileged workers for Philips was deported straight to Auschwitz, after which the Jewish transit camp in Vught ceased to exist. For information about Vught see also: www.nmkampvught.nl.

Pim Griffioen


Recommended Reading



Jean Chatain, Pitchipoï via Drancy: Le camp, 1941–1944. Préface d’Albert Lévy. Paris: Messidor, 1991

Jean-Marc Dreyfus, and Sarah Gensburger, Nazi Labour Camps in Paris. Austerlitz, Lévithan, Bassano, July 1943–August 1944. New York: Berghahn, 2011

Mary Felstiner, ‘Commandant of Drancy: Alois Brunner and the Jews of France’, Holocaust and Genocide Studies, Vol. 2, Number 1 (Oxford/New York: Pergamon Press 1987), pp. 21–47

Mary Lowenthal Felstiner, To Paint Her Life: Charlotte Salomon in the Nazi Era. New York: HarperCollins, 1994; Berkeley: University of California Press, 1997 (reprint); 291 p. Esp. Part III: “Toward Pitchipoï”

Serge Klarsfeld, Le camp de Drancy et ses gares de déportation: Bourget-Drancy et Bobigny, 20 août 1941–20 août 1944: 60ème anniversaire de la déportation des Juifs de France. Paris: F.F.D.J.F., 2003

Zacharie Mass, Passeport pour Auschwitz. Correspondance d’un médecin du camp de Drancy. Préface du Jacques Chirac; avant-propos de Gabrielle Mass; texte introduit et annoté par Michel Laffitte. Paris: Le Manuscrit – Fondation pour la Mémoire de la Shoah, 2012; 410 p. (Recueil de 80 lettres, 16 octobre 1941 – 31 juillet 1943)

Maurice Rajsfus, Drancy, un camp de concentration très ordinaire, 1941–1944. Paris: Manya, 1991; Paris: Le Cherche Midi, 1996 (2nd ed.); 2005 (3rd ed.), 2012 (nouvelle édition)

Antoine Sabbagh et al., Lettres de Drancy. Préface du Denis Peschanski. Recueil de 130 lettres, de septembre 1941 à août 1944. Paris: Le Seuil – Points, 2004

Georges Wellers, L’Étoile jaune à l’heure de Vichy: de Drancy à Auschwitz. Paris: Fayard, 1973; 452 p. (This is an augmented edition. First edition, under the title: De Drancy à Auschwitz. Paris: C.D.J.C., 1946; 230 p.)

Georges Wellers, ‘Testimony about Conditions in France and Deportations from France, at the Eichmann Trial, Jerusalem, 9 May 1961’ (Selected Extracts), see: http://www.holocaustresearchproject.org/trials/wellers.html

Annette Wieviorka, Michel Laffitte, À l’intérieur du camp de Drancy. Paris: Perrin, 2012

Malines / Mechelen (Mecheln), Breendonk:

Jos. [Joseph] Hakker, The Mysterious Dossin Barracks in Mechlin. The Deportation Camp of the Jews. Antwerp/ Liège: s.n., October 1944; French ed.: La mystérieuse caserne Dossin à Malines, le camp de déportation des juifs. Anvers: Ontwikkeling, 1944; Dutch ed.: De mysterieuze Dossin Kazerne in Mechelen. Deportatiekamp van de Joden. Antwerpen: Ontwikkeling, 1944. This is an eyewitness account by a Jewish survivor who escaped from a deportation train after departure from this transit camp.

Markus Meckl, ‘Wartesaal vor Auschwitz: Das Lager Mechelen (Malines)’, in: W. Benz, B. Distel (Hg.), Terror im Westen. Nationalsozialistische Lager in den Niederlanden, Belgien und Luxemburg, 1940–1945 (Berlin: Metropol 2004)

Patrick Nefors, Breendonk 1940–1945; de geschiedenis (Breendonk, the history). Antwerpen: Standaard, 2004; 400 p. French ed. (transl. E. Brutsaert and W. Hilgers): Breendonk, 1940–1945. Bruxelles: Racine, 2005

Maxime Steinberg & Laurence Schram (texts), Ward Adriaens (concept & introduction), Patricia Ramet & Eric Hautermann (research, identification, scanning), Ilse Marquenie (index), Mecheln–Auschwitz 1942–1944. Brussels: VUB Press, 2009; 1600 p.; four tri-lingual books in Dutch, French, and English.

Mark Van den Wijngaert, Patrick Nefors, Olivier Van der Wilt, Tine Jorissen, Beulen van Breendonk: schuld en boete (Brute bullies of Breendonk: Guilt and Penance). Antwerpen: Standaard, 2010

Westerbork, Vught:

Jacob Boas, Boulevard des Misères. The Story of transit camp Westerbork. Hamden, Conn.: Archon Books, 1985; 169 p.; Dutch ed.: Boulevard des Misères. Het verhaal van doorgangskamp Westerbork. Amsterdam: Nijgh & Van Ditmar, 1988

Max Cahen, Ik heb dit alles geschreven… Vught–Auschwitz–Vught: Memoires van Max Cahen, 1939–1945 (I have written all this… Vught–Auschwitz–Vught: Memoirs by Max Cahen, 1939–1945). Edited by Truus Wertheim-Cahen, Ruud Weissmann, René Kok, Jeroen van den Eijnde, Theo Hoogbergen. ’s-Hertogenbosch: Wolfaert, 2010

Anna Hájková, ‘Das Polizeiliche Durchgangslager Westerbork’, in: W. Benz, B. Distel (Hrsg.), Terror im Westen. Nationalsozialistische Lager in den Niederlanden, Belgien und Luxemburg, 1940–1945 (Berlin: Metropol, 2004)

Etty [Esther] Hillesum, Etty. The Letters and Diaries of Etty Hillesum 1941–1943. Complete and Unabridged. Edited and with an introduction by Klaas A. D. Smelik; translation by Arnold J. Pomerans. Ottawa, Ontario/Grand Rapids: Novalis Saint Paul University – William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2002. [Partly on Westerbork.]

Louis de Jong, Het Koninkrijk der Nederlanden in de Tweede Wereldoorlog (The Kingdom of the Netherlands in the Second World War). 14 vols. The Hague: Martinus Nijhoff, 1969–1991; vol. 8 (Judendurchgangslager Vught) (Westerbork)

Peter W. Klein, Justus van de Kamp, Het Philips-Kommando in Kamp Vught. Amsterdam: Contact, 2003

David Koker, At the Edge of the Abyss: Concentration Camp Diary, 1943–1944.Transl. Michiel Horn and John Irons; edited by Robert Jan van Pelt. Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 2012. Original Dutch ed.: Dagboek geschreven in Vught (Diary, written in Vught). Amsterdam: G.A. van Oorschot Publisher, 1977

Willy Lindwer, in cooperation with Karin van Coeverden, Kamp van hoop and wanhoop. Getuigen van Westerbork, 1939–1945 (Camp of hope and despair. Witnesses of Westerbork, 1939–1945) Amsterdam: Balans, 1990

Philip Mechanicus, Waiting for Death, a Diary [from the Westerbork transit camp] Transl. from the Dutch by Irene R. Gibbons. London: Calder and Boyars, 1968. With “Introduction to the English language edition” by Prof. Jacob Presser. Original Dutch ed.: In dépôt. Dagboek uit Westerbork (In depot. Diary from Westerbork) Amsterdam: Van Gennep 1964; http://www.dbnl.org/tekst/mech011inde01_01/

Marieke Meeuwenoord, Mensen, macht en mentaliteiten achter prikkeldraad. Een historisch-sociologische studie van concentratiekamp Vught (1943-1944) (People, power and mentalities behind barbed wire. A historical-sociological study of the Vught concentration camp, 1943-1944). Doctoral dissertation, University of Amsterdam, 2011; 413 p. Dutch text, English summary (pp. 400-404). Book publication forthcoming. For the English summary, see: http://dare.uva.nl/document/220801

Janneke de Moei, Joodse kinderen in het kamp Vught (Jewish children in the Vught camp). Stichting Vriendenkring Nationaal Monument Vught, 1999; 112 p. Second edition 2007

Dirk Mulder, Ben Prinsen (eds.), Westerbork Cahiers, vols. 1–11. Hooghalen: Herinneringscentrum Kamp Westerbork/ Assen: Van Gorcum, 1993–2006

Is. van Nierop, and Louis Coster, Westerbork. Het leven en werken in het kamp (Westerbork. Life and work in the camp). S.l.: June 1945

A. H. [Harry] Paape, Herinneringscentrum kamp Westerbork / Commemoration Centre camp Westerbork / Erinnerungszentrum Lager Westerbork. Hooghalen: Stichting Herinneringscentrum kamp Westerbork, 1984

Jacob Presser, Ashes in the Wind. The Destruction of Dutch Jewry. Transl. Arnold Pomerans. London: Souvenir Press, 1968, reprint 2010, Chapter 7: “The Transit Camps” (Westerbork, Vught)

Harm van der Veen, Westerbork 1939–1945. Het verhaal van vluchtelingenkamp en Durchgangslager Westerbork (Westerbork 1939–1945: The Story of the Refugee Camp and Transit Camp). Hooghalen: Herinneringscentrum Kamp Westerbork, 2003

Hilde Verdoner, Levenstekens: Brieven uit Westerbork (Signs of Life: Letters from Westerbork). Amsterdam: Boom, 2011. English edition: Yoka Verdoner, Francisca Verdoner Kan, Jacob Boas, Signs of life: the letters of Hilde Verdoner-Sluizer from Westerbork Nazi Transit Camp, 1942–1944. Washington DC: Acropolis Books, 1990

Hans de Vries, ‘Das Konzentrationslager Herzogenbusch bei Vught: “streng und gerecht”?’, in: W. Benz, B. Distel (Hrsg.), Terror im Westen. Nationalsozialistische Lager in den Niederlanden, Belgien und Luxemburg 1940–1945 (Berlin: Metropol, 2004), pp. 197–216.