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History's burden
Photo essay: Concentration Camp Vught



Sasan Seifikar
September 20, 2006

Concentration Camp Vught is a national monument and important part of Dutch recent history. It was the only official SS concentration camp outside Germany and its annexed areas. The camp was built by Nazi-Germany in 1942 and opened in 1943. Camp Vught was actually a transit camp for the Jews, from where they were deported to extermination camps and their deaths. 30,000 Jews were held in prison in camp Vught and then transported to the East. The conditions in Camp Vught were so bad that many Jews died here, these included children >>> Photo essay

The camp was also used to hold Dutch and Belgium resistance fighters and political prisoners, both men and women, many of whom were executed here. Gypsies, Jehovah's Witnesses, and homosexuals were also held in camp Vught. Jews and the other prisoners who were interned here were assigned forced labor in the factories which were on the Vught grounds, including some from Philips.

In the summer of 1944, as the Allied forces approached, the number of deportations and executions of resistant fighters increased dramatically. The former Concentration Camp location is now a modern prison. The National Monument Camp Vught occupies only a small portion of the former sight. It is a museum and mostly reconstructed. It opened in April 1990.

As one enters the national monument, one goes first through a museum in which there are personal accounts of prisoners, some artifacts, and general information on concentration camps with particular attention to Vught. From the museum, one can see the guard towers and the barbed-wire fence which surrounded the camp through a large glass. The museum is connected and leads to the larger camp area. In the area between the museum and the camp, there is a miniature model of the original camp buildings.

In the camp area, there are a couple of large buildings which give a glimpse of how prisoners lived here. One is a reconstructed prisoners' barrack where they ate, slept, and washed up. The other building is the original crematorium. Here one will find a laboratory room with an operation table where prisoners' organs where removed, an autopsy room, a hanging room, prison cells, crematory ovens, administration offices, and a workroom.

One of the most notable rooms in the crematorium building is cell 115. On the evening of January 15 of 1944, when out of solidarity the women of barrack 23 protested against the lock up of their barrack leader, the Camp commandant punished them by putting as many women as possible in one cell. This was in cell 115, where there had just been some metal work done. 74 women were locked up and pressed together in this tiny room with hardly any ventilation for 14 hours.

What exactly played out is of course beyond description. But there was much fear and a lack of oxygen, so many women fell unconscious and some went mad from anxiety. When the cell doors were opened in the morning, the unconscious and dead women lay in the middle of the cell pilled up. 10 women had died.

The other moving monument is outside the buildings and in the far end of the camp. It is a memorial to the more than 1800 Jewish children who were transported from here to the Death Camps. The memorial is simple and it is made of vertical metal sheets with stars of David at the top, which bear the full name and age at death of 1269 of these children. They were separated from their parents and deported to Germany and Poland on June 6 and 7 of 1943, where they were immediately killed after their arrival in the extermination camps. There are some images and etching of toys at the base of the memorial, some visitors also bring small toys and leave them there. It is really impossible not to become emotional when reading the names and the ages of these children.

National Monument Camp Vught serves as a reminder of a painful piece of Dutch and European history. The camp monument touched me deeply. It was very powerful. Seeing the museum and the camp is not pleasant. They are not meant to be. The camp serves to remind us of the crimes against humanity perpetrated during the 20th century and how terribly some humans can treat others. It bears witness to man's inhumanity to man. In particular, it bears witness to how genocide was perpetuated by the Nazi's against a certain people, namely the Jews.

However, the Killing Fields of Cambodia, the ethnic cleansing in the former Yugoslavia, in Rwanda, and in the Darfur region of Sudan show that genocide can happen to any people. So the camp is also a reminder that ethnic hatred is still alive in the world today and that we must all learn to recognize and curb the dark side of our natures. This fact serves both to ensure vigilance against gross violation of human rights everywhere and to quicken empathy and make us more sensitive to the suffering of others.

Some of the recent horrific episodes of contemporary world history have happened at least in part because we have been complacent and have not done enough to ensure that they never will happen again. In this sense, genocides do not belong to the people on whom they were perpetuated. They are history's burden of responsibility placed on our shoulders. They are calls for a heightened sense of moral responsibility and discipline. They are fireballs in the night, warning us, warning humanity. They drive home the importance of why we should all seek to improve the world, treat those who are different from us with respect and dignity, and to bravely confront racism, indifference and prejudice everywhere. Comment
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