Written by Lucrezio Ciotti
The Holocaust was undeniably a disaster of the 20th century. In his well-known book Modernity and the Holocaust (1991), Zygmunt Bauman argued that the Holocaust is well to be thought of as a disastrous enterprise squarely situated within foundations of modernity. What Bauman argues characterize modernity is the rationalization of techniques of social order, effectively achieved through partitioned bodies and roles. He suggests that considering the Holocaust as a barbarous medieval attack on particular populations, namely Jews, detracts from this historical disaster's analytical potential. Bauman questions how modernity provided the conditions of possibility for the Holocaust, not how the Holocaust was fuelled by premodern hatred for Jews.
Ideas of social Darwinism combined with modern bureaucratic technologies have led to a horrific concoction of state-planned eugenics that functioned like a well-greased machine. Because of these modern conditions of possibility, I set out to observe Kamp Westerbork. I sought to find how memories and remnants of the means of this modern disaster were embedded in the landscape. How did modern aspects of bureaucratic technologies allow Kamp Westerbork to function, and how is the broader disaster of the Holocaust made visible through them?
Kamp Westerbork, situated in Hooghalen, Netherlands, served as a Nazi holding camp during World War II. During its active years, thousands of inmates were housed before being transferred via train to concentration and extermination camps outside the Netherlands. As a holding camp, this was the first stop where inmates were dehumanized through the camp’s structures and functions.
After having had several uses, the camp now serves as a commemorative representation of the disaster. The campgrounds bare remains of the original holding camp and a museum, a visitor centre was established nearby to complement it.
My visit to Kamp Westerbork began in the museum and visitor centre. Here disaster was explicitly and directly remembered as well as portrayed. Letters, pieces of clothing, personal items, and photographs serve to put faces on, and to humanize this disaster, to make it more appealing and relatable to visitors. For me, this had an effect of emphasising the disaster through the reminders of human suffering and complete deprivation of identity by seeing the appropriated items and appropriated lives. Perhaps because of a large Jewish Dutch population, there was an almost exclusive emphasis on Jewish inmates. This portrayed the disaster as a plight against Jewish lives, rather than signifying Bauman’s more nuanced warning.
In and around the museum the symbol of the camp is seen frequently. It was a stylized and blockish depiction of barbed-wire. The sharp and bold symbol loudly bared its own symbolic heft. It was almost impossible not to come across it and not to have feelings evoked. The sternness of its angles and spikes reminded me of the rigid bureaucratic militaristic regime that resulted in the Holocaust disaster. The symbol was brutally honest, not trying to hide the camp’s past but rather depicting and emphasising it in remembrance. It too played its own part in evoking a memory of disaster.
My view of the museum, and of the site of the disaster itself changed after having viewed the campgrounds. Perhaps it is the museum that contextualizes the camp and provides visitors with a background to help ‘see' the disaster, which became more apparent after visiting the campgrounds. The scale model of the camp in the museum was a clear example of this. If I were to have visited the camp without having seen the model first I would have seen and experienced them both differently. It provided a reference from which the remnants of the camp could be seen as part of the whole camp, and as part of the whole disaster, something that became clearer when seeing the ‘lack of disaster’ portrayed on the campgrounds.
Upon visiting the Westerbork campgrounds, a short bus ride from the museum, what first struck me was its size and lack of direct physical and original remnants of the original camp. The ground was a large rectangular shape, surrounded by barbed wire and with pathways crossing it from both sides and intersecting in the middle. Despite the barbed-wire borders of the camp, it was open and freely accessible to the public. Being located within what can be seen as pleasant forest- a forest that would have been interpreted and seen very differently by inmates. Indeed the visitors that were there did not all come with the specific bus from the museum as I had, and some looked to have casually stumbled across the camp during a family stroll through the forest. This lack of remnants from the original camp and its accessibility to the public created a very different landscape than what it originally was. Yet reminders of the disaster that occurred in that same few square kilometres of Dutch ground were definitely not lacking. It struck me that this was a place that beckoned to remind, thus not to forget the Holocaust. Despite the few structures, being able to stroll in almost invites people to come and remember, in order not to forget, placing this disaster as a public, if not within the national, sphere and consciousness.
This sentiment that the camp was reminding of the Holocaust, as something which should not be forgotten, and perhaps feel a certain national guilt about, was one that reoccurred and was further reinforced by other aspects of the disaster site. The sheer size of the camp, although a relatively small one, reminds of the Holocaust's embeddedness in modern technologies and organizations. The management and organization of such a large area, neatly arranged and subdivided spatially (as seen in the model, not the camp itself) reflects the sheer size and reach of the disaster and its level of organization. A couple enormous satellite dishes for a nearby space observatory also stood on the grounds. They were by far the most striking and obvious feature of the camp, something that seemed not to take precedence over the commemorative aspect of the space. This made me think that the campgrounds were almost fighting a battle against other encroaching uses of the space and striving to be remembered.
A few remnants of walls from buildings did remain in the campgrounds. Seen on their own they hardly evoked disaster in my eyes. These walls could be seen to have been used for any of the multiple purposes the camp had after its days as a holding camp. Memories of the Holocaust, stored within these walls, were only activated through photographs that complemented the ruins and showed their original state. Depressions and elevations in the grass where buildings once stood were visible, arranged in orderly patterned rows. On its own, this provided a slight reminder of the organizational rationality behind the Holocaust's technologically-driven exterminations. Again photographs of the original camp completed this visual reminder. I wondered if without these visual aids, and without having seen a model of the camp, these walls would have elicited a memory, or a trace, of disaster.
This was most notable with the infamous barrack 56. Having had a life after and beyond that of its purpose of a barrack holding inmates, including Anne Frank, what can be seen on the grounds struck me as a desperate and rather crude attempt to portray the camp and the Holocaust. The barrack itself was merely a few walls, most of which were just reconstructions, with merely some original planks still remaining. This struck me as an almost forced reminder. Rather than ‘seeing' the Holocaust through this barrack as a remnant of disaster, what I saw was a strained representation of something one should dare not forget.
I questioned: what value might some mere planks of wood have when the rest is pure reconstruction? Is the wood's direct link to the Holocaust, its own historical link merely by existence over time, reason enough to reconstruct a barrack, and if so why were no other buildings reconstructed? I feared that the link with Anne Frank was desperately used in an instrumental manner to bring more attention to the camp and Holocaust by relating it back to a Dutch conscience and over-used symbols.
Such a forced reminder of the Holocaust was also elicited by the memorial. At the centre of the camp, there was an area where several metal Stars of David were welded onto small raised pillars o
in the ground. A few photographs of persons' faces stood among this memorial. This was definitely not a memorial to the disaster of the Nazi holocaust, but a memorial to lost Jewish lives. No other persecuted groups, or individuals, were symbolized, portraying the Holocaust as a disaster that only affected Jews. This again might link to Dutch history and national consciousness as several inmates of the camp were Jews from the Netherlands history of large Jewish populations.
I also noticed a link with the national consciousness and its relation to multiple ways of ‘seeing' disaster through an informal chat I had with a visitor there. Marie was visiting the camp for leisurely purposes but with an educational intent and with a link to her own identity. Having Jewish ancestors this disaster site was seen and experienced by her in a distinctly different way from my own. For her, the Holocaust was a disaster of the Jewish population, and for the Netherlands. The memorial for her had direct links with her own ancestry and evoked contradicting feelings. Feelings of sorrow for the suffering of her ancestors, but also of guilt related to Holland having ‘allowed' such a disaster. Thus for her, the camp, traces of disaster, symbolic and overt reminders of it retold the Holocaust as something personal and national.
Further down, at the far end of the camp, a few meters of the end of a railway remained with its tracks lifted. The piece of track was part of the original railway that transported inmates East to other concentration and extermination camps. It stood starkly in the camp, posed for commemorative photographs, with the end of the tracks lifted in the air. The organizational and techno-bureaucratic nature of the Holocaust were directly represented by these. The transportation of inmates was a smoothly engineered process rationalized to function at the highest efficiency, a truly modernist feat according to Bauman.
‘No more trains will leave from there and no more inmates will be transported, it has happened, let's acknowledge it and its horrors so as to never have it happen again' seemed to be shouting this memorial.
A performative aspect of disaster also struck me at Kamp Westerbork. A remembrance and representation of disaster seemed to be performed by visitors as much as portrayed by the camp itself. A tour group was centred around the memorial, where a rather large group of Dutch tourist was listening to an explanation by the tour guide. The fact that people were there to learn about and experience the disaster seemed to validate the camp as a site of a disaster. Also, a small camera crew was filming in the vicinity of the central memorial. Although I did not get the chance to have a chat with them, it seemed to be a rather professional operation. The equipment used, the angles of shots, and organization of the small team made the filming seem rather official. It was clearly not a leisurely recording by enthusiasts but a professional one, perhaps being aired on national television. For me, this had the same effect of performing the space as one to be remembered due to its links with the Nazi disaster. People were there because it was a memorial, but it also was a memorial because of the people that were there. The site's link with the disaster was one that was not only represented or portrayed but also performed by its visitors.
In conclusion, the museum and camp Westerbork itself remind of and portray the Holocaust in a certain light and through certain means. The overall impression I received from my visit was that the disaster of the Holocaust is portrayed in order to be remembered as a lesson not be repeated.
This message was only partly achieved through the material traces of the camp, which relied on additional prompts from signs, symbols, and the actions of visitors. It became clear to me that there was a concerted effort to actively portray disaster, to effectively aid a specific interpretation of very few actual material remnants of the land.
However, this version of the Holocaust portrayed by the camp, one tinted with Dutch colours and Jewish blood, might have weakened their own message. Remembering the Holocaust as a matter of genocide rather than eugenics does not emphasise the possibility of repeating a Holocaust. If the message is to never let this happen again, then the attention might be better directed towards the conditions that allowed it to occur. The true disaster were the modern conditions that ran amok, rather than (and including) the lost lives of a specific population, and thus a danger lurking within the foundations of our modern lives. Kamp Westerbork and its museum serve as a distant, yet seemingly desperate, attempt to remind of a disaster that is framed as a catastrophe towards Jewish lives lost within a national context.