Camp Westerbork was a transit camp during World War II. In recognition of Westerbork’s Memorial Center opening 35 years ago on 12 April, RTV Drenthe spoke with the center’s director Dirk Mulder about the memorial’s history.
By Jelte Stol / Translation by Traci White
The Memorial Center is located at the former transit camp near the Drenthe town of Westerbork. Hundreds of thousands of Jewish people and several hundred Romani people were sent from Westerbork to concentration camps and death camps in Germany, Poland and the Czech Republic.
After the Netherlands was liberated in 1945, over the years, the camp was used as a prison for Nazi collaborators, a repatriation camp for Indonesian Dutch people, and accommodations for Moluccans and their families who fought in the Dutch colonial army in Indonesia. In the late ‘60s, the last Mollucans left the camp, and the facilities became storage space for equipment belonging to local farmers.
The remains of the camp were cleared away in 1968 in order to make room for the satellite dishes that form the Westerbork Synthesis Radio Telescope. In the ‘70s, the first efforts were made to create a memorial centre at the site of the former camp in recognition of the atrocities that took place there during the war.
Since the Memorial Center opened in 1983, many of the buildings at the former camp have been restored to how they would have looked in the ‘30s and ‘40s. A visitor’s centre on the grounds has been expanded over the years and is one of the most popular museums in the Netherlands: last year, it had 170,000 visitors.
Director Dirk Mulder has been involved with the centre since 1986 and says that it has really changed over the years. “If you compare what it looks like now with how it was at first, it’s just a world of difference. Back then, it was just a humble barracks-like building.” The original design was created with far fewer visitors in mind. “When the centre was built, they were anticipating 10,000 to 15,000 visitors annually. But in the first year, there were 50,000 visitors.”
It seemed that people were finally ready to face what had happened at the camp during World War II. “People tend to draw this bright line between the war and the period after that. But it became clear that the trauma of the war had left very deep scars, and it’s so important to make sure that society pays it the attention it deserves.”
In recent decades, the number of visitors to the centre has only continued to grow. Primary schools in particular brought many (young) people to Westerbork, and the visitor’s centre has gone through multiple expansions. Mulder feels that the current building is already bursting at the seams: “We’re trying to come up with new ways to provide tours for the students, but our first priority is getting a bigger building.”