Musician Hans van Collem found himself in the penal barracks at Westerbork a year before liberation. There he put together a Jewish male choir. “I thought, ‘We can’t let them destroy us. We’re going to sing,’” said Hans. During recreational hours in the afternoon and early evening, hundreds of convicts would come and listen to Jewish liturgical hymns and songs.
“In the penal barracks, I met music students and musicians. I was obsessed with choral singing. I thought, “‘We can’t let them destroy us. We’re going to sing.’ I finally convinced a number of men to come and rehearse in the barracks in the evenings, which the guards turned a blind eye to. But music also occupied us in other ways. Sometimes when digging up potatoes, for example, we would discuss musical problems, draw music staves in the sand, and solve the problems. In the evenings, we would write the solutions on bits of toilet paper in the barracks. We had nothing at all. Instruments were forbidden in the penal barracks. All we had was the prison clothes the Germans gave us.”
In the Green Valley, the Quiet Valley
There were no cabaret or music performances in the penal barracks, as there were in the other part of the camp. On Sundays, which the prisoners had “off,” the idea to start singing would often arise spontaneously. Under Hans’s direction, the male choir would sing Jewish liturgical, secular, and nostalgic - including Yiddish - songs. “‘Shall we sing for a bit?’ we’d ask one another, and then we’d go outside. Most of the prisoners in the penal barracks would come and listen. They would stand there crying during the performances. The musicians from the penal barracks would sing very beautifully; they were also much better musicians than I was. But I was capable of getting them all involved. We would perform out of doors behind the penal barracks, the outer brick walls of the public lavatories serving as s oundboards. People would ask us to sing nostalgic songs as well. In het groene dal, stille dal ["In the Green Valley, the Quiet Valley"] was one of the songs we would sing.
Offering Beauty and Comfort in Unimaginable Circumstances
On September 13, 1944, just a week after Dolle Dinsdag [“Mad Tuesday,” September 5, 1944], the last train from Westerbork left carrying prisoners who were sent on to camps in Germany and Poland. Only a few dozen of the more than 1,000 people in the penal barracks at Westerbork would stay behind, but no one knew who. Singing the Sunday before seemed inconceivable. But the members of the choir decided to go ahead anyway, realizing that their singing offered people a moment of beauty and comfort in these unimaginable circumstances. Hans recounts that a single tone could touch people in such a way that they could sense an entire world behind the music, a vast and abstract void separate from their daily reality. “That’s what happened in the penal barracks at Westerbork, and people could sense it. We, the singers, did it; the listeners felt and understood it. I still see it happen every week—a revelation that music and singing can inspire in people. The language emanating from music is so spectacular, so strong. Even a single tone can be so powerful.”
After September 13, 1944, Westerbork was no longer a transit camp, yet it remained a prison. Hans was one of the sixty-nine people in the penal barracks who were not sent on. Almost 400 people had been left behind in the “free” part of the camp. The penal barracks choir no longer existed. Hans and a group of others founded a new, smaller male choir that sang up until about January 1945. Subsequently, the approach of the allied armies brought about so much excitement that the members’ interest in singing began to wane. Shortly after Canadian forces liberated Westerbork on April 12, 1945, the British took over the supervision of the camp. In protest against their prolonged captivity, Hans and others cut through the barbed wire around the camp and escaped illegally.
Dilemma in Gouda, 1942
Hans grew up in Gouda, a Dutch town to which several hundred German Jews had previously escaped having been forced to flee the Dutch coastal area. Hans’s parents had also taken in a family. Hans became friends with Hans Kalenbergh, whose family had found shelter one street over. Kalenbergh was an ardent choral singer.
Hans founded a small male choir consisting of about ten members which gave occasional performances at the synagogue in Gouda. “We sang when they announced the anti-Jewish measures and at the gatherings of the Jewish community in Gouda. When we had to prepare ourselves for deportation and pack our bags, we hesitated, wondering whether we should indeed sing on such an occasion.… But my father said, ‘They let us work. We’ll survive. With God’s help, we’ll return.’ We then sang synagogue hymns to give comfort and protection, just as we did later in the penal barracks at Westerbork.”
Yom Kippur, 1942
One of the anti-Jewish measures came into effect on Yom Kippur - the Day of Atonement - in September 1942. A long service lasting the whole day was held in the synagogue. One of the members of the congregation, Sal Gomperts, was dragged out by a Dutch member of the Sicherheitsdienst (SD) and immediately deported along with his wife and two young daughters. “That was Yom Kippur 1942. The choir never sang again after that.”
Parents and Sister: No Chance of Survival
About a year before Hans ended up at Westerbork, his parents and sister spent a short time there. None of them survived the war. By order of the Germans, his parents had reported to Vught on April 22, 1943, and were subsequently transported to Westerbork in early May. On May 16, 1943, they arrived at the Sobibor extermination camp and were murdered that very day. “They didn’t have a chance,” says Hans. The lives of his sister and her husband ended the same way.
Hans did not accompany his parents and thus did not share their fate. He had resigned his membership to the Nederlands Israëlitisch Kerkgenootschap [“Organization of Jewish Communities in the Netherlands”] in Gouda in 1938 owing to a minor disagreement with the other members. This fact, combined with the results of genealogical research carried out in 1942, allowed him to acquire the status of “half-Jew,” which offered him protection for some time. Shortly after his parents had left, Hans nonetheless went into hiding in Rotterdam in May 1943 because he was supposed to have reported as a prisoner of war. At the end of March 1944, however, he was betrayed, arrested, and confined in the Het Haagse Veer police prison at the center of the city. After two months’ imprisonment, he was sent to Westerbork where he ended up in the penal barracks, retroactively judged a full-blooded Jew.
Hans’s mother and father instilled in him their love of music. “I remember my parents singing parts of La traviata in the kitchen.” Between the ages of fourteen and sixteen, Hans studied at the Nederlands Israëlietisch Seminarium [“Dutch Israelite Seminary”] in Amsterdam. Like Hans, the vice-rector was a great lover of music and encouraged him to continue to develop his musicality. Hans would visit the Bibliotheca Rosenthaliana at the University of Amsterdam to get sheet music and to copy the compositions of Katz, the renowned cantor.
Hans was admitted to the Rotterdam Conservatory where he majored in piano and minored in viola. At that time, the composer and conductor Piet Ketting taught and conducted various choirs there. He was also an important source of inspiration for Hans. “I was inspired by Piet Ketting to take up conducting. I was enthralled by how he stood there before the choir. I had a knack for conducting and a solid foundation in theory, but from an instrumental perspective, I was lacking technically. What I was very good at was conveying things to other people.” The well-known music theorist John Daniskas also taught at the conservatory. Hans was given voice lessons by his wife Corrie van Swieten in thanks for taking down Jewish hymns.
After the War
After the war, music remained an important part of Hans’s life. He worked as a choral conductor, music school teacher, and ensemble leader. Following his parents’ example, he, too, has passed on his love of music to his own children, all four of whom went on to enroll at conservatories. Additionally, he continued to give violin, viola, and piano lessons, as do his sons Sholem (violin) and Chajim (cello).
Author: Nicole Janssen