Both the revue and the cabaret were meant to provide the prisoners at Westerbork with a distraction. There was a variety show every Tuesday night in the camp, and time after time, the show would be sold out. It was the camp commandant Gemmeker who had deliberately chosen Tuesday nights. From March 1943 up through September 1944, deportations to the extermination camps in the east would take place almost every Tuesday morning.
The Gruppe Bühne [“Theater Group”] at Westerbork was a unique, and exceptionally talented, revue company. German Jews who had fled, such as Willy Rosen, Max Ehrlich, and Erich Ziegler, were the very best in Europe. It comes as little surprise that Gemmeker granted such famous cabaret artists exemption from deportation. After all, he knew he was sitting on a gold mine. What better than a joke or a song from the Gruppe Bühne to lighten things up? Artists were crucial to him being able to show his superiors a camp full of happy inmates, which is why the group was allowed to stay together for so long. With artists like Camilla Spira, Esther Philipse, Otto Audrich, Mara Rosen, Liesl Frank, and Jetty Cantor who went on to become a major success after the war, the group helped keep inmates’ spirits up.
Gemmeker more or less gave the artists carte blanche, though he did inspect lyrics and music, often making alterations and scrapping passages altogether. He would also make frequent surprise visits to rehearsals. After the performances, he would receive the artists with cognac and cigars, staying up late into the night conversing with them.
Cabaret as a Diversionary Tactic
Apparently, the commandant benefited more than anyone else from this arrangement, regularly inviting other members of the SS, such as aus der Fünten, to enjoy his theater company with him, thereby confirming his position and status. No doubt, he was also bored and sought diversion. But more importantly, he needed a distraction for the inmates. Accordingly, the revue was not intended solely as a pastime for the German guards. Besides the German spectators surrounding Gemmeker, every last seat in the house would be filled by camp inmates. Cabaret was supp osed to serve as a diversion for the spectators. Performances were given on Tuesday nights. From March 1943 up through September 1944, trains would leave almost every Tuesday morning, bound for the extermination camps in Poland. The theater would then provide a diversion in the evenings. “I would never ask you to perform on the night before a deportation. But on the following night, that’s when it’s very good. It’s a distraction and gives people something else to think about,” Gemmeker once said to Ehrlich.
Young people in particular did everything they could to get a ticket. The performances were always sold out well in advance, and the competition for tickets was fierce. There was great admiration for the theater and music performances, and the jokes would draw raucous laughter. The audience enjoyed the lyrics and melodies of songs which were often about the camp, as well as the sneering commentary of the master of ceremonies, Ehrlich. A hint of this enthusiastic atmosphere can be seen in the films [http://geschiedenis.vpro.nl/artikelen/39364020/] shot by Rudolf Breslauer in 1944 featuring images of a revue (see end of section 4).
Daily Performances by Johnny & Jones in the Kaffeehaus
Performances by the Gruppe Bühne were not the only ones which were enthusiastically received. Great musical talent could be appreciated at several locations in the camp. Johnny & Jones, a duo from Amsterdam, played in the cafe almost every day. A young camp inmate said, “I would often go to hear Johnny & Jones in the Kaffeehaus [“cafe”], as often as I could. One of their biggest fans in the cafe was a one-armed Dutch Nazi who was around at that time. [...] He would come to see and hear Johnny & Jones every night - not to patrol, but really to watch.”
Apparently, the younger camp inmates tried to continue living the lives they had before they came to the camp. They sought social interaction and relaxation. Former camp inmate Fred Schwarz vividly describes the atmosphere in his book Treinen op dood spoor, published in 1994: “Right away, everyone at our table was in good spirits. Jetty Cantor, an excellent singer, sang a song from the new revue called ‘Ich hab’ es heut’ Nacht den Sternen erzählt, ich liebe dich’ [“I Told the Stars Tonight I Love You”]. [...] It was supposed to be a huge hit after the war. It was a catchy melody, and after the third verse, everyone sang along. [...] Time flew by, and the cafe closed. We [he and his girlfriend Carry] were the first outside. Starry sky. Our arms tightly locked, we made our way home humming Ich hab’ es heut’ Nacht.”
“Everyone does their best to forget everything.”
Schwarz also describes a visit to the revue: “Tonight we went to the revue together. You can see it’s really a night out for people; everyone does their best to forget everything. People are dressed as well as they can, and we, too, felt like we were going to the opera.… We enjoyed ourselves. When Jetty Cantor sang our song ‘Ich hab’ es heut’ Nacht,’ we held one anoth er tightly. From that moment on, nothing could spoil the evening. On the way home, we shared our first real kiss and agreed that the tune would be our special whistle signal to one another.”
Everyone did their best to forget everything. Philip Mechanicus, a journalist who took a cynical view in his analysis of camp life and entertainment, called this sentiment self-deception: “They don’t want to miss the revue, that outing. They have nothing at Westerbork.” Former camp inmate Hans Margules theorized that an evening spent laughing helped audiences forget their uncertainty and the drudgery of their daily lives: “We loved hearing those famous songs we had known back in Germany.”
Refusing to Attend Revue Performances
For most, spending an evening out to forget the misery was merely an illusion. Many felt it impossible to unreservedly enjoy these cabaret programs, the very best ever performed in the Netherlands. Mechanicus observed that many members of the public were not prepared to let themselves go, despite the efforts of Gemmeker and the Gruppe Bühne. The artists’ encouragement did little to change this either. Over and over, only the younger members of the audience were prepared to sing and clap, while “the older generation remained silent, never able to let go of their agony, which they are suffering and which they suffer every day anew.”
One group of camp inmates, made up of both Dutch and German Jews, refused to attend the revue performances. For them, the disparity between the cabaret and the tragedy of the deportations was too painful. They found it impossible to enjoy dancing and singing while their family members had been consigned to an unknown fate in Poland. Even the singer Jetty Cantor mentioned this group of inmates in an interview with film-maker Willy Lindwer. “Certainly not everyone liked the cabaret. Many of the camp inmates were angry that performances for the Germans were staged under such tragic circumstances. So they didn’t attend the performances.” Presser put forward the theory that a number of prisoners wanted nothing to do with this “dance around the gallows” but often could not resist “such an opportunity, which gave them something of a distraction and conviviality, neither of which could be found in a normal way in the barracks.”
Mechanicus and Hillesum: A Harsh Judgment
The chroniclers Mechanicus and Hillesum were often harsh and cynical in their judgments. Mechanicus attended various performances and observed artists and audience members alike. Jacob Boas, who was born at Westerbork, describes Mechanicus: “That evening, Mechanicus wa s among the spectators. As usual, he had not come to enjoy himself, but to look around and record events. As he sat there quietly, he observed the reactions of the people around him.” Mechanicus was scornful of Gemmeker encouraging the revue: “We couldn’t care less if he wants to treat us to his light music or whether his cabaret shows with their disgusting aftertaste will continue or not. We are waiting for the regime to collapse.”
Mechanicus criticized the artists, his “congeners in misery,” who “by order of the Obersturmführer [“Senior Assault Leader”], who loves a fun night out, act so cowardly and insipidly. [...] What a moral muck, what a sty. [...] In all the barracks, on every street corner, men and women were assessing their future lot, mothers sat weeping over their children’s future, men sat comforting women, the penal barracks were filled with men and women, and all the while, the commandant and the Jewish elite of Westerbork sat listening to Max Ehrlich’s wisecracks and staring at the comical, lewd dancing of Jewish women.”
It was not only the enthusiastic audience and their guards’ cynical behavior that Mechanicus and Hillesum described with mixed feelings; the artist–members of the Gruppe Bühne are also depicted with both repugnance and pity. Hillesum called the stars of the revue the “commandant’s court jesters.” She was repulsed by, and at the same time pitied, an artist who carted deportees’ belongings to the train by day and basked in the veneration of cabaret spectators by night, speaking of them with bitter irony and thinly veiled contempt.
The Lot of the Camp Inmates
Rosen and Ehrlich were sent to Theresienstadt and eventually died in the gas chambers of Auschwitz. Ziegler, who had stayed behind at Westerbork, was one of the few survivors. Johnny & Jones were sent first to Theresienstadt, then to Auschwitz, and finally to Bergen-Belsen where they died shortly before liberation.
Hillesum was deported to Auschwitz on September 7, 1943, where she died on November 30 that same year. Mechanicus was sent to Bergen-Belsen on March 15, 1944, and from there to Auschwitz on October 9, 1944. It is thought that he was executed there on October 15, 1944.
Authors: Dirk Mulder, Ben Prinsen