Visiting the Nationaal Monument Kamp Vught is a sobering and surreal experience. The former Konzentrationslager Herzogenbusch camp, operated by the occupying Nazi forces between January 1943 – September 1944, is located in pretty woodlands. To reach the camp, I’d cycled through picturesque countryside and along a tranquil canal passing dog walkers and other cyclists. It’s almost unimaginable to think of the multiple horrors that were carried out in these peaceful surroundings, but Kamp Vught was the scene of barbarity that is difficult to grasp.
This was the only SS concentration camp outside of Nazi Germany and, in the eighteen months of its operations, more than 32,000 men, women and children were sent to the camp. Approximately 12,000 of these people were Jews, sent here before being sent to the death camps in Eastern Europe. The rest of Kamp Vught’s inmates were resistance fighters, political prisoners, Roma, criminals, and a variety of others whom the Nazis deemed unacceptable. As with other camps, prisoners were forced to wear coloured triangles on their prison clothes to identify their category of ‘crime’.
Conditions at the camp were horrifying. Unlike other camps outside Germany, Kamp Vught was run exclusively by SS troops, who seemed to take pleasure in extreme punishments. The camp had three different SS commanders over its lifespan, including the notorious SS-Untersturmführer Karl Chmielewski, who came with a reputation for sadism gained at Mauthausen–Gusen concentration camp in Austria. During his time prisoners could expect overcrowded and unsanitary living quarters, appalling working conditions and severe beatings. Food was rarely more than watery soup.
It’s no surprise that hundreds of people died of starvation and disease. Others were executed by firing squad at a location deep in the surrounding woods. There is a small museum that tells the story of Kamp Vught, and there’s an excellent audio guide that explains the workings of the camp and its buildings. It also provides personal stories from some of the survivors. It’s a very moving and emotional experience, and it doesn’t pull any punches when describing the inhumanity and suffering witnessed here.
Of the many incidents of barbarity, one stands out. The ‘bunker tragedy’ came about when a female inmate was sent to the camp prison (the ‘bunker’), provoking a protest by other women. Camp commander Grünewald, retaliated by forcing 74 women into cell number 115. It was tiny, with little ventilation. The screams of the women could be heard around the camp. When the cell was opened on January 16, 1944, ten women were dead. The tragedy became propaganda for the Allies, the embarrassment to the German authorities saw Grünewald sentenced to prison. A punishment later revoked by Himmler.
Equally notorious were the two ‘kinder transports’, when camp authorities transported Jewish children to death camps in the East. One of the transports left on the 5th and 6th June, 1943. The parents were told that the children were being sent to a special children’s camp. Instead, at least 1,269 Jewish children were sent to the Westerbork transit camp, also in the Netherlands. Afterwards they were deported to Sobibor in Poland, where the majority were sent to the gas chambers almost immediately upon arrival.
As I walked around the camp, I had to remind myself that I was still in the Netherlands. The German’s recruited local labourers to build the camp, they thought that this was simply an army barracks. It wasn’t long before trains started arriving at the nearby town of Vught though, their tragic human cargo marched through the town towards the camp. It’s impossible to imagine how the knowledge of what was happening at the camp impacted the local community, but people learned to keep their windows closed on days when the wind blew the crematorium smoke in their direction.
A surprise for me was that part of Kamp Vught was used for specialised work, including salvaging parts from crashed planes and making radios for the German war effort. The radios were made using the slave labour of former workers from the Philips factories in Eindhoven. Many of these skilled specialists were Jewish. Philips negotiated improved conditions for the prisoners who worked in the radio factory, but for Jews who worked here it was only a temporary reprieve. As the Allies got closer to liberating the camp, Jewish workers were summarily despatched to the death camps.
This act was committed by SS-Untersturmführer, Hans Hüttig, who was responsible for evacuating the camp before the Allies reached it. As the Allied invasion gained pace so too did the murders at Kamp Vught. Hüttig executed well over three hundred people between July and September of 1944. Days before the camp was liberated, over 3,400 jewish inmates were sent to Ravensbrück and Sachsenhausen death camps. One final act of barbarity that brought this period of the camp’s history to a close.
When Allied forces finally arrived, there were only a few of people left to bare witness to what had happened in this peaceful corner of the Netherlands. It is the ordinariness of the setting that Kamp Vught occupies that is most shocking; the knowledge that this could, did, happen in the most ordinary of places. This, perhaps, is the most compelling reason why a visit to Kamp Vught today is important. We must remind ourselves of the need for constant vigilance to prevent these horrors from happening again.