The well-established Jewish community living in the Netherlands on the eve of World War II was almost totally annihilated by the Nazis in the space of just a few years. For the vast majority of these Dutch citizens, their last moments on the soil of their homeland was on the 'Boulevard of Misery’, the central street of the transit camp Westerbork that led from the camp to the train station. Within the walls of the camp lived a Jewish community divided into two: the ‘privileged’ long-term residents, the German Jews, and the short-term inmates, the tens of thousands of Dutch Jews. Inequalities in power and prestige led to tension between these two groups, although ultimately both were to die in large numbers at the hands of the Nazis. One of the most unique facets of life in Westerbork was the remarkable cultural scene that developed there, including what some characterised as the best cabaret in all of Europe within its prison walls, with major stars such as Max Ehrlich, Franz Engel, Camilla Spira, Kurt Gerron, Erich Ziegler and Willy Rosen.
Westerbork began its existence on a relatively modest scale, as a temporary home for several hundred German Jews in the Netherlands who had no family or friends to vouch for them. Situated in a remote area in the north of the country and close to the German border, it was originally built in 1939 as a refugee camp. Given the increasing number of German Jewish refugees fleeing the Nazi regime, Holland wanted to develop a centralised system for dealing with these unwanted immigrants. The main barracks were situated on a tract of heath and marshland near the small village of Westerbork. Although the Nazi occupation began in 1940, the treatment of Dutch Jews was deceptively generous and slow-paced, particularly in contrast with that of Jews in Eastern Europe, or in Germany itself. Even as the population of the camp grew, the refugees who lived there were not treated as prisoners; they were allowed limited freedom of movement and lived in tolerable conditions. This was to change in the summer of 1942, with the beginning of deportations to the death camps.
On 1 July 1942, the camp was officially placed under the jurisdiction of the SS; it was no longer a refugee camp, but a transit camp. Two weeks later, the first deportations to the east began: dozens of cattle cars left the camp every week for the death camps of Poland. Westerbork became the biggest transit point in Western Europe. As a transit camp rather than a work or death camp, however, it was organised very differently from other Nazi internment centres: no corpses, medical experiments or SS guards with dogs and whips marred the camp grounds. Instead, Westerbork was set up like a miniature city, with a café, offices, a registry, a canteen, kindergarten and hospital. Only the street names – the Boulevard of Misery, Suffering Alley and Worry Street – hinted at the fears and ultimate fate of the inmates.
In addition to the deceptively normalised surroundings of the camp, one of its most nefarious aspects was the fact that its organisation and the assemblage of the deportation lists was left in Jewish hands: those of the Dutch Jewish Council in Amsterdam and the German Jews housed in the camp. The German Jews decided who would be on the cattle cars every week; they also, as German speakers and often of middle- or upper-class status, were treated better by the SS, received better housing, and managed temporarily to keep friends and families off the lists. The tensions that divided the population of the camp defined day-to-day life and left its mark in the surviving diaries and memoirs of Dutch prisoners.
Cultural activity in the camp was also divided along these cultural, linguistic and class lines. The first performance of which there is an existing record took place in 1940: a production of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. The Jewish Council organised a chamber music ensemble, a choir and a 30-40 person symphony orchestra that included some of Holland’s most talented musicians. It was, however, under Nazi rule that the camp cultural scene was to reach its full blossom, especially under the leadership of Albert Konrad Gemmeker, who was camp commander from October 1942 to April 1945. Under Gemmeker’s leadership, Westerbork became, above all, a site of world-class cabaret.
At the beginning of 1943, the comedian Max Ehrlich was sent to Westerbork, where he applied to Gemmeker for permission to establish a theatre group. Gemmeker agreed, hoping that performances would distract prisoners, impress foreign visitors and entertain the camp staff. The cabaret that resulted was made up of many musicians and artists who had fled Nazi Germany for what was to be only temporary safety in Holland. While much of its theatrical activity drew on pre-existing material, the leaders of the Westerbork cabaret, Max Ehrlich, Willy Rosen and Erich Ziegler, composed six original revues during their less than two-year stay in the camp.
Such was the success of the first cabaret that Gemmeker gave Ehrlich free rein, providing funding, materials, and even the opportunity to purchase specialised products in Amsterdam. The SS did, however, censor the productions: all songs and texts had to be approved. Although there was some variation, particularly as the camp population was fairly fluid, in general Ehrlich was the director, Rosen wrote texts and lyrics, and Erich Ziegler, a chanson/cabaret composer from Berlin, provided the music. Along with Ziegler and Rosen on piano, eleven musicians made up a small orchestra, and the shows had up to eight dancers and sixteen actors, as well as a staff of up to fifty people taking care of lighting, costumes and set design. These extravagant productions were often staged for the pleasure of the SS. The language of the shows was German; political topics were avoided.
Ehrlich’s cabaret was, however, a source of controversy within the camp. Dutch prisoners in particular were suspicious of the actors and their motives. In addition, since cabaret is generally light-hearted, humorous and often sexually explicit, many inmates were revolted by these shows, and by the fact that 'on the wooden boards of the old synagogue of Assen, which were used for the construction of the stage, the choicest young girls, specially chosen by experts, will swing their legs to the rhythm of jazz music'. Despite the strong currents of protest, however, few could resist the allure of a night of laughter, music and forgetting. Actress Camilla Spira, who was briefly a member of the cabaret, remembered her shock at the enthusiasm of the audience:
This couldn’t be, they enjoyed themselves so, and they sat there in rags. We were the collection camp, these people were dragged here, and then it was on to Auschwitz or Theresienstadt. These volleys of laughter, this excitement - in the moment when they saw us, the people forgot everything. And it was horrible, for the next morning they went to death … they were only there for a night.
The popularity of the cabaret with the Dutch Jews increased when the singing duo Johnny and Jones joined the troupe. Their love song 'The Westerbork Serenade' was also a hit with the SS. (The two were killed in 1944 in Bergen-Belsen).
Popularity, however, was no guarantee of survival. Due to deportations, the cast changed regularly, and new arrivals were taught to replace those who had been sent away. A letter from the Dutch inmate Etty Hillesum described with bitterness the simultaneous privilege and terror that defined the lives of the cabaret stars of Westerbork, such as
the comic Max Ehrlich and the hit composer Willy Rosen, who looks like a walking corpse. A little while ago he was on the list for transport, but he sang his lungs out a few nights in a row for an enchanted audience including the commander and his followers … the commander, who valued art, found it wonderful and Willy Rosen was spared … and over there is another court jester: Erich Ziegler, the favourite pianist of the commanders. There is a legend that he is so amazing that he can even play Beethoven’s ninth as a jazz piece, and if that isn't something else…
Performances ceased entirely between October 1943 and March 1944 as a result of constant deportations. The last two shows were performed with a cast of ten, including the very final performance, a bitter opera parody entitled Ludmilla, or Corpses on a Conveyer Belt. The programme declared: 'ach, we are meschugene [crazy], now we will perform for you an opera'. In March 1944, Westerbork was declared a labour camp, and on 3 August the order came to dissolve all cultural activities. As a memento, the cast gave the commander a photo album as a farewell gift, with the inscription: 'If you’re sitting up to your neck in shit, you had better not sing. I sing nonetheless.'
The remaining members of the cabaret were sent to Theresienstadt, their ‘reward’ for their excellent service to Gemmeker. However, this was only a temporary delay: like the Dutch Jews before them, many of them were murdered in Auschwitz and Treblinka. Of the central cast of the Westerbork cabaret, only the pianist Erich Ziegler survived to the end of the war. On 12 April 1945, Canadian troops liberated the camp. There were only 876 prisoners there, and not a trace of the jazz, the high-kicking girls or the raucous jokes that had filled the reception hall months earlier.
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