Amersfoort concentration camp
Polizeiliches Durchgangslager Amersfoort
The watchtower of the camp
|Other names||Polizeiliches Durchgangslager Amersfoort|
|Operational||18 August 1941|
19 April 1945
|Liberated by||transferred to Red Cross|
Amersfoort concentration camp (Dutch: Kamp Amersfoort, German: Durchgangslager Amersfoort) was a Nazi concentration camp in Amersfoort, Netherlands. The official name was "Polizeiliches Durchgangslager Amersfoort", P.D.A. or Police Transitcamp Amersfoort. During the years of 1941 to 1945, over 35,000 prisoners were kept here. The camp was situated in the southern part of Amersfoort, on the city limit between Amersfoort and Leusden in central Netherlands.
Camp Amersfoort in 1939 was still a complex of barracks that supported army artillery exercises on the nearby Leusderheide. From 1941 onwards, it did not merely function as a transit camp, as the name suggests. The terms "penal camp" or "work camp" would also be fitting. During the existence of the camp many prisoners were put to work in kommandos. In total around 37,000 prisoners were registered at Amersfoort.
To get to the camp, prisoners had to walk from the railyard through the city and through residential neighborhoods:
Visible in the windows, above and below, of most residences and behind closed lace curtains, were numerous silhouettes, especially those of children. Usually the silhouettes did not move. Sometimes, feebly and furtively, they waved. Children who waved were very quickly pulled back. It was a farewell from the inhabited world – now a realm of shades.
The history of the camp can be separated into two periods. The first period started on August 18, 1941 and ended in March 1943. In March 1943 all but eight of the surviving first prisoners in Amersfoort were transferred to Kamp Vught. The prisoner transfer to Vught allowed for the completion of an expansion of Kamp Amersfoort. Maintaining the camp, despite Kamp Vught becoming operational in January 1943, still appeared necessary to the Nazis.
The camp held Soviet prisoners of war following the invasion of the USSR in June 1941. These included 101 Uzbek prisoners brought to display to the Dutch for propaganda purposes, all either dying in the winter of 1941 or executed in woods near the camp in April 1942. 865 Soviet prisoners are buried in nearby Rusthof cemetery.
Amersfoort was a transit camp, where prisoners were sent to places like Buchenwald, Mauthausen and Neuengamme concentration camps. It was on July 15, 1942 that the Germans began deporting Dutch Jews from Amersfoort, Vught and Westerbork to concentration camps and death camps such as Auschwitz, Sobibor and Theresienstadt.
1943 to 1945
The remaining watchtower, as can be seen on the commemorative place, was built around April/May 1943, when the expansion of Kamp Amersfoort was completed and prisoners could be placed there again. In many ways Kamp Amersfoort had changed relative to the first period. The most important changes were the much larger 'housing capacity', and the faster 'turnover'. What stayed the same, were the anarchy, the lack of hygiene, the lack of food, lack of medical attention and the cruelty of the guards. A point of light for the prisoners was the presence of the Dutch Red Cross. The second period ended on April 19, 1945, when control of the camp was transferred to Loes van Overeem of the Red Cross following the sudden flight of the German camp staff. The facility remained in operation under the auspices of the Red Cross until May 7, when Canadian soldiers of the First Canadian Army arrived to officially liberate the camp. Soldiers of I Canadian Corps fighting north from Arnhem were halted about a mile from Amersfoort before the end of the war, and liberation came on the day the German forces laid down their arms in the Netherlands. The camp and surrounding area was administered by the 1st Canadian Division and later transferred to the 3rd Canadian Division, Canadian Army Occupation Force in June 1945.
Prisoner population and life in Amersfoort
The fluctuating prisoner population showed an eclectic group of people from all over the Netherlands: Jews, Jehovah's Witnesses, prisoners of war from the Soviet Union, members of the resistance, clergy, black marketeers, clandestine butchers and smugglers. From 1941–1943, 8,800 people were imprisoned in the camp, of which 2,200 were deported to Germany. During the period 1943–1945, 26,500 people were imprisoned, of which 18,000 were sent east to places like Buchenwald and Natzweiler concentration camps.
After the re-opening in 1943, 70 Jews from Kamp Vught and 600 Jews from Kamp Westerbork of British, American and Hungarian nationality were briefly sent to Kamp Amersfoort. They were joined by contract breakers of the German Arbeitseinsatz (forced labour program), deserting Waffen SS soldiers, deserting German truck drivers of the Nationalsozialistische Kraftfahr-Korps, and lawbreaking members of the NSB (the Dutch National Socialist Movement).
This medley of prisoners was not the only feature that determined the character of Kamp Amersfoort. The extreme cruelty of the camp command made life miserable for thousands of prisoners. Despite their relatively short stay, many prisoners died from deprivations and violence at a camp where "rumour has it that one can hear the screams of people being beaten up there for miles over the heath. It is more than a rumour." Jewish prisoners in particular were treated horribly, not only from guards, but fellow prisoners.
Edith and Rosa Stein, two ethnic Jewish Catholics arrested by the SS, described what it was like arriving at Amersfoort at 3:00 in the morning on August 3, 1942:
When the vans reached the camp, they emptied their passengers who were taken over by the S.S. guards. These began to drive them, cursing and swearing, beating them on their backs with their truncheons, into a hut where they were to pass the night without having had a meal.
The hut was divided into two sections, one for men, one for women. It was separated from the main lager by a barbed-wire fence. Altogether, the lager held at that moment, about three hundred men, women and children.
The beds were iron frames arranged in a double tier, without mattresses of any kind. Our prisoners threw themselves on the bare springs trying to snatch a few minutes sleep; but few slept that night, if only because the guards kept switching the lights off and on, from time to time, as a precaution against attempts to escape, which was next to impossible in any case. Their cold harsh voices filled the prisoners with anxiety about the future and, in these circumstances, it is anxiety which can turn a prison into a hell on earth.
Violence from the guards was not the only thing that prisoners had to worry about. Weakened physical conditions from overwork, very little food and poor hygiene in camp made illness and disease another frightening and lonely way to die. Yehudit Harris, a young boy in Amersfoort remembers screaming from the pain as his mother washed him with snow in the winter to rid them of lice and to protect against illness. Even the mattresses that prisoners slept on were often infested with lice, diphtheria, dysentery or T.B.
Amersfoort was a brutal place to be a prisoner and is summed up by Elie Cohen, who said that "transfer from Amersfoort to Westerbork was like going from hell to heaven".
Camp organizational structure
Highest responsible authority went to the Lagerkommandant (camp commander). Below him was the Lagerführer (camp leader), who actually ran the camp. His assistants were the Blockführer (barrack leaders). Virtually all prisoners were divided into workgroups or Kommandos. These kommandos were led by an Arbeitsführer. The lowest leadership level were the Ältesten (Elders), also called "prominents" or "foremen". These were prisoners, who in exchange for taking care of minor issues, usually theft among prisoners, received special privileges.
Wachbataillon Nord-West (6 companies, around 1200 men total) was commanded by SS-Hauptsturmführer Paul Anton Helle.
The first of these six companies was in charge of Kamp Amersfoort, under the command of SS-Obersturmführer Walter Heinrich. This company was split into Kamp-SS (20 men selected by Heinrich) and Guard-SS (100 men).
The first camp leader was SS-Schutzhaftlagerführer I Johann Friedrich Stöver. From January 1, 1943, the camp leader was SS-Schutzhaftlagerführer II Karl Peter Berg. Berg was a very cruel man, who was described as a "predator who derived great pleasure from the agony of others". During roll call he loved to sneak about unnoticed behind the rows of men and catch someone in some violation, such as talking or not following orders properly. With a big grin, he would torment his victim." 
Another camp leader was SS-UnterSchutzhaftlagerführer Josef Johann Kotälla, a notorious sadist who often replaced Stöver during his absence. This former sales representative and repeat psychiatric patient was one of the most infamous SS guards in Amersfoort. B.W. Stomps, a Resistance fighter sent to Amersfoort recalled Kotälla's actions in the Christmas season of 1944:
On 23 December, Kotälla announced a ban on parcels for three weeks, which meant no Red Cross presents for Christmas or New Year. He further cancelled breakfast, lunch and dinner on Christmas Day itself, using the discovery of a smuggled letter as a pretext. And as an extra punishment on Christmas morning he kept the men standing on the parade ground, which was covered with thick snow, from their roll-call at seven till half past midday. A few days before, the geese for the guards' Christmas dinner had been on show, hanging on the barbed wire.
Also notorious were Blockführer Franzka, SS-Arbeitsdienstführer Max Ritter, SS-er Hugo Hermann Wolf, among many others.
In 1948 the camp commandant and guards of Amersfoort were tried and convicted for their crimes. Karl Peter Berg was sentenced to death and was executed in 1949. Josef Johann Kotälla was also sentenced to death but it was later commuted to life in prison. Along with three other prisoners he became involved in what was known as the "Breda Four", a group of prisoners whose possible release stirred up very strong feelings amongst Dutchmen. Kotälla was never released and died in prison.
The NIOD Institute for War, Holocaust and Genocide Studies has many resources concerning the guards of Amersfoort and their trials. The NIOD has dossiers on the following Amersfoort guards and personnel: Berg, Brahm, Dohmen, Fernau, Helle, Kotalla, May, van der Neut, Oberle, Stover, Voight, Westerveld and Wolf. Newspaper clippings are available for Berg, Fernau, Stover and Helle.
Court records for the trial of these guards are also available, the following being a sampling of what is available:
- Indictment and verbal reports made by the period of the trial against EE Alscher, K.P. Berg, E. Brahm, J.J. Kotälla, e.g. May, J. Oberle and H.H. Wolf, November 16–14 December 1948.
- Graphic shorthand reports made by the period of the trial against EE Alscher, K.P. Berg, E. Brahm, J.J. Kotälla, e.g. May, J. Oberle and H.H. Wolf, 16–23 November 1948.
- Museum Flehite. Camp Amersfoort Semi-permanent exhibition in Amersfoort occupation (1940–1945)
- Encountering God in the Abyss, by Constant Dölle, John Vriend, page 133. Peeters 2002.
- "Why were 101 Uzbeks killed in the Netherlands in 1942?". BBC. 9 May 2017.
- Yad Vashem Studies By Yad ṿa-shem, rashut ha-zikaron la-Shoʼah ṿela-gevurah. Published by Yad Vashem Martyrs' and Heroes' Remembrance Authority, 1996; Anne Frank and after by D. van Galen Last, Rolf Wolfswinkel, page 157. Amsterdam University Press 1996.
- United States Holocaust Memorial Museum
- Stichting Nationaal Monument Kamp Amersfoort, Visitor Guide, page 5
- Camp Amersfoort – Kamparchieven
- Chapter 21, HyperWar: The Victory Campaign
- Chapter 23, HyperWar: The Victory Campaign
- For example, on April 19, 1944, 499 Dutchmen were sent from Amersfoort to Buchenwald. Stein, Harry. Buchenwald concentration camp 1937–1945, page 175, edited by the Gedenkstatte Buchenwald; Three transports of Jews from Amersfoort to Mauthausen and Auschwitz via Westerbork. Netherlands Institute for War Documentation, Collection 1997.A.0117, Reel or Fiche Number: 389, Admin Number: Collection 250K, Mauthausen; Transports from July 1943 to February 1944 from Amersfoort to Natzweiler. Netherlands Institute for War Documentation, Collection: 1997.A.0117, Reel or Fiche Number: 347, Admin Number: Collection 250F, C(62)312.1 1, .
- Etty, By Etty Hillesum, K. A. D. Smelik, Arnold Pomerans, page 416. Owl, 2001.
- "Kamparchieven.nl is a publication of the Netherlands Institute for War Documentation in cooperation with institutions that hold archives or documentation on German prison camps on Dutch territory". Archived from the original on 2007-06-11. Retrieved 2009-05-12.
- Novena to Saint Teresa Benedicta of the Cross. (Edith Stein)
- From the Testimony of Yehudit Harris about Life in Amersfoort, Shoah Resource Center; Overduin, Jack. Faith and Victory in Dachau, page 94. Paideia Press 1978.
- Overduin, Jack. Faith and Victory in Dachau, page 60. Paideia Press, 1978. Also see page 158-159 of Hitler's Bounty Hunters: The Betrayal of the Jews, by Ad Van Liempt, Berg New York City. A bizarre "trial" is described here with a camp guard Westerveld being the judge and Karl Peter Berg the defendant's lawyer. When the defendant was convicted and sentenced to death, Berg's response was "Ich bin damit einverstanden." ("I concur").
- Graef, Robert. Bicycling to Amersfoort: A World War II Memoir, page 134. iUnverse 2005.
- Van der Zee, Henri. The Hunger Winter, page 125. University of Nebraska Press, 1998.
- For more information on the "Breda Four" and debate in the Netherlands over whether to release these war criminals, see Hinke Piersma's book De drie van Breda, Duitse oorlogsmisdadigers in Nederlandse gevangenschap, 1945–1989, paperback, 280 pages with illustrations, publisher Balans
- NIOD. Documentation of guards and prisoners can be found in the Documentation I Collection, People Collection and newspaper clippings I Persons
Media related to Kamp Amersfoort at Wikimedia Commons
- (in Dutch) Official website