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Culture as a Diversionary Tactic

Life at Camp Westerbork was built on hope - hope for a better future, a positive outcome, and survival. The illusion of normal daily life was meticulously maintained to avoid unrest; as a result, recreation and amusement were given top priority.

With the Gruppe Musik [“Music Group”], the camp boasted a renowned symphony orchestra, and with the Gruppe Bühne [“Theater Group”] an excellent cabaret company. The revue in particular triggered mixed reactions from the camp’s inmates. While it was a vital escape from misery for many, others judged its light-heartedness harshly.
Location main theater hall, Westerbork
Location main theater hall, Westerbork

It was at Westerbork transit camp that Jews, Roma, and Sinti living in the Netherlands were taken during the Second World War. From Westerbork, they were then sent to other concentration and extermination camps in Europe. Of the more than 100,000 people who were deported from Westerbork, only a few thousand returned.

Functional Society
Westerbork was a fully functional society, “a city on the heath”, as one former inmate described it. It had its own hospital and kindergarten, and children under the age of fifteen were required to attend school. It was a society characterized by a full spectrum of cultural expression, ranging from sports to theater and from music performances to amusement. In fact, behind the barbed wire and the sights of the watchtowers was quite possibly the very best wartime cabaret in the whole country.

Entertainment and False Hope
Westerbork was also a world in which musicians and cabaret artists took great pains to prepare their opening night shows and were preoccupied with how their audiences would react to their performances. It was a world in which spectators went to great trouble to get tickets, applauded enthusiastically, and sometimes laughed until the tears ran down their faces. But it was also a world in which others in the camp, who were filled with disgust and shame, turned their backs on what Philip Mechanicus referred to in his diary In Dépôt as “the dance around the gallows” and what Etty Hillesum described as “Gemmeker’s court jesters.” Camp commandant Gemmeker and the other commanders of the camp sought out entertainment for themselves and tried to give inmates a false sense of hope. They would occasionally take their places on the front row of the Westerbork theater and greatly enjoy themselves.

Musicians and Artists Given Temporary Exemption from Deportation
“Oh, it’s all so understandable,” wrote the prominent Dutch historian Presser of the entertainment at Westerbork. The humor - much of it gallows humor, naturally - was not intended as entertainment alone; it also provided a link to the past and helped put the unbearable present situation “in perspective” again. “It gave people a sense of security and sheltered them from despair. It lent a certain element of normal life to existence in the camp. It was vital like food or a place to sleep.” It is understandable that the actors, singers, musicians, cabaret artists, and all the others worked so hard. Practicing their own professionCabaret and orchestra at the main theater, Westerborkest in de schouwburg (barak 9 ) in het Centraal Vluchtelingenkamp Westerbork (source: Memorial Center Camp Westerbork) gave a sense of fulfillment and meaning to an otherwise bizarre life. Most importantly, though, it seemed to give them opportunities to secure an exemption from deportation. Artists and musicians were often granted temporary exemption. They were literally performing for their lives.

Sharp Contrast Between Deportation and Amusement
Still others were too overwhelmed by their loved ones having been deported to enjoy the entertainment, provided they were even able to attend. Indeed, the humor was not a source of moral support for everyone. Of the cabaret shows, Abel Herzberg wrote that they were “much attended and much avoided in equal measure, applauded by those present and abhorred by those who were absent.” In fact, it was not so much the sports games and music performances, but rather the cabaret, that aroused disgust. The reason is that the shows were usually scheduled for Tuesday evenings, while the weekly deportations would have taken place earlier that same day. The sharp contrast between the deportations and the amusement - the stark opposition between tragedy and entertainment—was the main topic of discussion in the camps. This is expressed in Oorlogsduet [“War Duet”], which Rob Heilbut wrote and sang in Bergen-Belsen.

War Duet
Many here have predicted great success for us:
Those war songs will bring you much money in peacetime.
But the lyrics and music you people write are too relaxed;
Why don’t you sing more about tragedy?
Then they say, “We have our whole lives ahead of us
And will write songs about peace later.”
Then perhaps we write a song entitled pain and grief,
Which goes like this: “Be sure you never forget it!”
Now our songs, sung to the guitar,
Are but constant nonsense.
Rob Heilbut
Bergen-Belsen, 1944

Orchestra and Cabaret Disbanded
The final deportations from Westerbork took place on September 3, 4, and 13, 1944. Shortly before these deportations, Gemmeker disbanded the Gruppe Musik and Gruppe Bühne. The cultural activities and exemptions for singers, cabaret artists, and musicians were over. The camp commanders were now fully focused on the deportations to the Arbeitslager [“labor camps”]. All the sets and props belonging to the revue were destroyed in October 1944. After the last deportation, over 500 prisoners remained behind, and still new prisoners would arrive at the camp. Finally, on April 12, 1945, more than 900 prisoners at Westerbork were freed by the Canadians.

Authors: Dirk Mulder, Ben Prinsen