Saskia Aukema knew little about her great-aunt Annie, who was murdered during the Holocaust. All she knew was that Annie had declined to go into hiding like her siblings, and continued working as a hospital nurse, even after the Nazi occupation of the Netherlands began in May 1940.
“That was the family story: this was the woman who didn’t hide and chose to be with her patients. That was all I knew… this line, this one sentence,” she told the Observer.
When Aukema, a photographer and editor, was told by her father a few years ago that Annie had married in Westerbork, the Nazi transit camp in the north Netherlands, she was stunned. Westerbork was the last staging post for nearly 107,000 Dutch Jews before they were put on trains to Auschwitz, Bergen-Belsen and other Nazi camps in central and eastern Europe. Only 5,000 returned.
Aukema was left wondering: “How is it possible that you can marry in such a grim place as a transit camp?”
Unsatisfied with an internet search, she began to explore the archives and found dozens of Westerbork weddings. Between 4 September 1940 and 17 September 1944, 261 couples married there. Some of their stories are told in Aukema’s book, Until Death Do Us Part, which was published in Dutch last month.
“First I wanted to honour the couples,” Aukema said. She also hopes to help people feel the enormity of the loss and suffering of the Holocaust, in a more personal way than the formal ceremonies of Remembrance Day. “I thought I could touch a new generation, people who had perhaps forgotten about the history, or hadn’t forgotten but don’t feel it every day, so they could feel it again.”
Author Saskia Aukema’s great-aunt Annie Preger and her husband Hans van Witsen, who married in Westerbork. Photograph: Family archive
The camp authorities, under SS commander Albert Konrad Gemmeker, allowed marriages as well as entertainment such as theatre and sport because they added to the illusion that the worst could be avoided. “Westerbork was a ‘make-believe’ world, the Nazis and especially Gemmeker created an illusion,” Gerdien Verschoor, director of the Camp Westerbork Memorial Centre told the Observer. “Marriages were allowed and facilitated, so as not to arouse suspicion. To keep people calm and to give them something to look forward to.”
Before the Nazi occupation, Westerbork was a refugee camp for German Jews, so it had facilities, such as schools, kindergartens and a hospital.
“The camp had to look as normal as possible,” Verschoor said. The commander, Gemmeker “wanted to create the illusion of normal village life,” she added. “And I think he succeeded very well. People didn’t believe and couldn’t believe that they could be sent to extermination camps; they didn’t have any idea about what was happening in Auschwitz, they really thought they were going to work, and it was very important for Gemmeker to keep that illusion to the end.”
How site of the Westerbork camp looks now. Photograph: Saskia Aukema
As part of this make-believe world, men, women and children were treated in the Westerbork hospital to make them fit enough to be sent to the death camps; couples were allowed to marry and dream of a future.
Not all marriages were love matches. The “right” marriage was thought to offer some protection, from being sent east. “People, especially women who married a man with a job in the camp, thought they were not going to be deported,” Verschoor said.
Staff at the memorial centre knew about the marriages, but the book brought home the jarring contrast between the hopes of the people in photos that survive and the harrowing reality. “If you don’t see the stars [that Jews were obliged to wear], you see happy couples, and that is what is so upsetting,” Verschoor said.
Most of the Westerbork weddings were civil ceremonies. Some were Jewish religious ceremonies that took place in the “synagogue barracks”, which was also the venue for bar mitzvahs. Brides wore white veils and flowers in their hair. There was one white wedding dress shared among several women. And there were wedding “meals” – some extra vegetables, a potato saved up from rations for the celebration. Residents sent homemade cards to the newlyweds: “congratulations from the residents of barracks 42-3”.
Kaatje de Wijze married Leo Emile Kok on 13 September 1943. Leo was a talented artist, who was friends with Rudolf Breslauer, a German Jewish photographer, who arrived in Westerbork after fleeing Nazi persecution. As a gift to the couple, Breslauer photographed them on their wedding day.
Marriages were allowed and facilitated, so as not to arouse suspicionGerdien Verschoor
Few traces survive of the wedding of Aukema’s great-aunt. Annie Preger married Hans van Witsen on 28 January 1943. They had met a few months earlier at the Apeldoornsche Bosch, a Jewish psychiatric hospital, where Annie was a nurse and Hans was a gardener.
It must have been love at first sight. Within two months, they were engaged. But the hospital was no longer the safe haven from Nazi persecution many had hoped. Like many staff, Annie and Hans were sent to Westerbork. They married soon after arriving, in a ceremony witnessed by two colleagues in the hospital.
Soon after, Annie went to the camp hospital, where she was treated for a stomach complaint. Hans missed his new bride, describing himself as a widower, because they were separated so soon. When she was discharged, he wrote to his father: “I am mesjogge [crazy] with happiness.”
The couple hoped Annie could get a job at the hospital. But it never happened. They were selected for “labour deployment” and sent on a train to Sobibor extermination camp in German-occupied Poland. From the train, they succeeded in throwing out some letters: they had “good places” in the carriage and were well, Hans wrote to his father. “We will see you very soon.”
Annie and Hans were murdered soon after arriving. They had been married for 36 days.
Kaatje de Wijze and Leo Emiel Kok married on 13 September 1943. He died aged 22, days after liberation. She lived until 2018. Photograph: Saskia Aukema/Rudolf Breslauer / family archive
Kaatje de Wijze and Leo Emiel Kok did not escape the transports either. Although Gemmeker, an enthusiast for art, theatre and beautiful women, admired Kok’s drawings, it was not enough to save them. Every week the camp had to meet quotas to put Jews on eastbound trains, to be murdered or sent into forced labour. Kaatje and Leo were on the last train to Theresienstadt in September 1944.
At that camp they were separated and Leo was sent to Auschwitz. Kaatje broke through a cordon to say goodbye; they vowed to reunite. Leo was later sent to the Ebensee concentration camp, where he did hard labour in the freezing cold, ruining his health. He died days after the liberation aged 22. Kaatje de Wijze survived the war and lived until 2018. Their marriage had lasted 607 days.
Many marriages were very short. Some lasted just four days, meaning the couple were transported east on their wedding day and murdered on arrival. Maurits van Thijn, who survived the war, with his wife Catharina Blitz, joked bleakly they had been sent on “honeymoon to Auschwitz”, because they had been deported on their wedding day.
After the war, Westerbork was an internment camp for Dutch collaborators, (briefly) a military barracks and later refashioned as housing for immigrants from the Moluccas, an Indonesian former Dutch colony known as the Spice Islands. The final barracks were demolished in 1971 and a memorial centre opened in 1983.
There is almost nothing left of the original camp. To research her book, Aukema visited several times, and photographed the countryside, experiencing the scorching summer heat and mosquitos, and the biting winter cold. “It’s so strange that things like that happened in such a beautiful place,” she said. “You have to make a lot of effort to see it.”