Jews in western Europe were not interned in ghettos but rather sent to transit camps, where they were held prior to their deportation to the extermination camps. Etty Hillesum, a young woman who was interned in Westerbork transit camp in the Netherlands, described witnessing the departure of one deportation train to Auschwitz-Birkenau on 23 August 1943.
There was a moment when I felt in all seriousness that after this night it would be a sin ever to laugh again… I have told you often enough that no words and images are adequate to describe nights like these. But still I must try to convey something of it for you...
But the babies, those tiny piercing screams of the babies, dragged from their cots in the middle of the night to be transported away. I have to put it all down quickly, in a muddle, because if I leave it until later I probably won’t be able to go on believing that it really happened. It is like a vision, and drifts further and further away. The babies were easily the worst. And then there was the paralyzed young girl, who didn’t want to take her dinner plate along and found it so hard to die…
One more piece of our camp has been amputated. Next week another piece will follow. This is what has been happening now for over a year, week in, week out. We are left with just a few thousand. A hundred thousand Dutch members of our race are toiling away under an unknown sky or lie rotting in some unknown soil. We know nothing of their fate. It is only a short while, perhaps, before we find out, each one of us in his own time. For we are all marked down to share that fate, of that I have not a moment’s doubt.
Etty and her family were transported to Auschwitz two weeks later; she died there in late November 1943. In total, almost 100,000 Jews were deported from Westerbork, mostly to Auschwitz-Birkenau or Sobibór extermination camps. When Westerbork was liberated in April 1945, there were only 876 people left alive in the camp.
Photo: Jews boarding a deportation train, Westerbork; Yad Vashem
Testimony: Etty Hillesum, Letters from Westerbork (Jonathan Cape, 1987)