Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Transition camp, and then ... Auschwitz

(Tenth in a series)
       Before the concentration camp, before Auschwitz in my parents' case, there were the transition camps.
       These were only intermediate stops on the way to hell on earth in the early 1940s.
       In The Netherlands -- our home country -- this meant Westerbork, a camp in the northeast part of the country, actually close to the German border. That's where my mother and her mother were sent, a few days after the rest of their family. That's where my father's family went; that's where most of the Dutch citizens picked up/arrested/captured by the Germans went.
       But it's not where Dad -- Louis Van Thyn -- went. By then, he was not living in Holland.
       He had left his original family by choice, back in 1936, to move to Antwerp, Belgium, and apprentice in diamond cutting.
       He left the family he married into, in Belgium, by force. He'd already been a POW as a member of the Dutch army -- this was after Holland had surrendered to the invading German army in May 1940 -- only to be released and to return to Antwerp.
       But, of course, the Nazis didn't lose track of him, or many others. By confiscating national, city and synagogue/temple records, they were able to identify and eventually make prisoners of much of the Jewish population all over Europe.
       While conditions increasingly tightened on the Jews, Dad sometimes defied the at-dusk curfews and rode his bike to make some money doing odd jobs ... until his little free time was up. The Germans came and took control of his life.
       It was May 1942.  He never again saw his wife of eight months, Estella, or her parents. For three years, he was a prisoner.
       And, as he related in his 1996 Holocaust interview with the USC Shoah Foundation, he would make two intermediate stops ... before Auschwitz.
       First stop: A work camp in northern France.
       "We spent around three months there. ... It was by the town of Charleville, in the French Ardennes [the dense forest region] by the Belgium border," he told the interviewer.
       Asked for the camp's name, he replied, "I don't think it had a name. ... I want to go there one day and see, but there is nothing there that you can see it was a camp." (He never made that visit.)
       Conditions weren't harsh -- not like they would be soon -- because, he said, "We got enough to eat; we [had] our own clothes on. We did some work there, we worked every day.
       "There was an organization, TOT in Germany, they were in charge there. There were no rifles, no guns. All we did was work."
       On the other hand ...  "It was a camp but you could walk out if you wanted to walk out," he said. "But one [man] walked out, and they said if there's a second one, they're going to shoot a bunch of people. That's what they said, but they never did."
       What kind of work was being done?
        "We were working in the woods; we cut trees down," Dad said. "Then we cut the trees all the way down to small pieces. The Germans, in that time, used coals to move their trucks. They had little coals, and they worked with that. We burned that, or did something with it, and then they used that later on as fuel, or gasoline."
        Then the SS arrived.
        The Schutzstafffel -- the elite of the Nazi war machine, the special forces that protected Hitler and the Nazi Party leaders. As the world would find out in the Nuremberg Trials after World War II, the SS was the unit that carried out most of the Nazi war crimes, the primary culprit in the Holocaust.
        It was time for the next stop.

        "One night, at the end of September, the SS came there," Dad said, "... and picked us all up and took us in trucks to Malines, a camp, an old military fort [in Belgium]. 
        (Dad referred to the camp as Malines, which is the French name. It was a transit camp in the town of Mechelen -- halfway between Antwerp and Brussels, the two major Belgian cities -- and it was a major railroad hub, the taking-off point for most Jews from Western Europe headed to Auschwitz-Birkenau.)
        "That was a camp to send people through," Dad acknowledged in his interview. "We spent three days there. I met my cousins there; one cousin was with me, and we met some people. My aunt was there with her daughter-in-law and the baby."
        The camp conditions? "They fed us, and we were in rooms," Dad said. "... We were handled real well; we didn't know what was going on, that they were transporting [people] to Germany. That was all that they let us know."
        Handled real well, he said. What a deception, what a smokescreen. If these prisoners, if my Dad and so many had known what was ahead, would their mind-set have changed? Would their will to live have been different? 
        It's hard to imagine what they were thinking. My mother always said her father, if he had known his fate, would've chosen a way out before he became a prisoner.
        Records show that between Aug. 4, 1942, and July 31, 1944, 28 trains left from Mechelen and took 24,916 Jews and 351 Roma (gypsies) -- about 1,000 each week -- to the death/work camps of Auschwitz-Birkenau. By the end of the war, 1,240 survived.
        (How accurate are these numbers? Remember, again, the Germans were meticulous record-keepers.)
        Dad told the interviewer he learned after the war that he was in the 15th transport out of Mechelen; his wife and in-laws had been in the 13th transport. So he apparently missed them by two weeks.
        And the deception continued, in one sense. So many of the prisoners sent to the concentration camps traveled by the infamous cattle cars -- packed full of people, no room to move, no restroom facilities. But Dad's transport ... "We were sent in regular trains, not in cattle cars.
        "We were in the train for three days. ... We were about 400 from France, and there were other people, maybe around 1,000, and we arrived in Birkenau. ... It was men, women, children ... I don't know where the others came from, maybe from Belgium somewhere."
        The interviewer asked, "When the train stopped in Birkenau, what did you think, what did they tell you?"
        Dad: "They didn't tell you nothing."
        But what he saw, he never forgot.
        Next: The gates of hell


  1. From Maxie Hays: Awesome story, Nico. God bless your Dad, Mom and all the others that suffered through that horrible time. Keep the story coming.

  2. From Jimmy Russell: I have followed all your pieces on this. Your parents are among the special people of this world. I cannot tell you how I feel when I read these things. How many times have I told you I am sorry I never heard your mother speak.