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Camp Westerbork - Medical care


Railroad tracks in Juden Durchgangslager Westerbork


       In contrast to other Nazi concentration camps, medical care at camp Westerbork is a story in itself. It fits right in with the insidious set-up the Nazis applied within the camp. Dutch Jews, after having been rounded up for deportation, who were too ill to make a long journey often were submitted to the hospital for medical treatment by the the medical staff. However, once declared fit, they usually were placed on the next deportation list for eastern Europe. For Arbeitseinsatz - Work detail, they were told. Although it must be emphasized that many were deported ill, hospital beds were emptied and the mentally ill were shipped out mercilessly to the east for "final treatment."

       Medical care for the inmates included a hospital, a policlinic, a pharmacy, and a dental clinic. At one time during the war, hospital facilities at Westerbork could boast to be the largest in the Netherlands because the best doctors and specialists were Jewish who called camp Westerbork home. Before the war the Netherlands counted many good Jewish doctors. Most of them passed through camp Westerbork at one time or another. Commandant Gemmeker was proud of his hospital and involuntary medical staff. He personally knew the Chief Medical Officer, the German Jew Dr. Fritz Spanier. Both men had lived in Düsseldorf before coming to Westerbork. Commandant Gemmeker came as the SS officer in-charge of camp Westerbork, Dr. Spanier had arrived as a German Jewish refugee. Ironically, before the war Spanier had been Gemmeker's general practitioner.

Wolf made sure teeth were in good shape before the journey to one of the death camps took place


       Once the deportation trains started rolling, almost every transport to Poland included some of the ill and handicapped. Usually these were accompanied by a number of physicians and medical attendants as well. After all, Gemmeker had access to an almost unlimited source of candidates. Exact records and accounts were meticulously kept of each transport. All this regardless the fact that the commandant showed real concern for 'his sick Jews.' A stay in the hospital was extended as much as was possible. As long as one was registered in the hospital, deportation was delayed. Sometimes doctors kept people knowingly longer on the sick-roll in order to postpone the dreaded deportation, even if it was but for one week. Each day longer on Dutch soil was treasured because the future was an uncertainty. Cases are on record of inmates who had unnecessary surgery performed on themselves in order to escape deportation. Even though no one knew what deportation stood for, it was feared by all. However, in the end for most it only meant a stay of execution. The hospital set-up was a typical Westerbork phenomenon, part of a clever yet diabolic Nazi scheme.

       To understand Nazi rational, I relate the following true story: "A young Jewish woman, Mrs. Prins, had prematurely given birth to a son while incarcerated in camp Vught. Almost immediately following the birth, together with her baby she was transferred to Westerbork. The baby boy, whose name was Machiel, was tiny and wanting. He was wrapped in a bundle of clothing to keep him warm and brought to the camp hospital for observation. Both mother and child were immediately admitted. Because the mother was unable to breast-feed her baby she was looked upon as useless. Only breast-feeding mothers could get a Sperr - an exemption from deportation. Mothers whose babies had died in a diphtheria epidemic continued to breast-feed other babies to secure such a Sperr. This particular young mother, after having recuperated from child-birth, was put on the first available cattle-train to the East for Arbeitseinsatz - Work employment. We all now know what that meant. However, her baby remained behind in the camp hospital to receive extra ordinary medical care.

       Commandant Gemmeker, whose reputation was that he "loved little children so much," immediately ordered an incubator from Groningen. Not only that, he summoned the Jewish professor van Creveld who had taught child therapeutics at the university in Amsterdam. Van Creveld was to take care of the baby and Gemmeker charged him with the responsibility to keep the boy alive. Professor van Creveld arrived in Westerbork the same day the incubator arrived from Groningen. Dr. van Creveld prescribed a special formula for the baby which needed to be administered every hour because the baby was too weak to suckle. He also suggested the infant be given one drop of cognac with each feeding. Amazingly, Gemmeker immediately ordered a bottle of the finest Hennessy cognac be given to the doctor for the child. Two Jewish registered nurses were also assigned to the case to monitor the baby's progress round the clock.

       Gemmeker visited the baby daily to ensure that everything possible was done for the child's survival. Machiel gradually grew stronger and started to gain weight. At five and a half pounds, he was taken out of the incubator and everybody, including Gemmeker, felt that the struggle to keep him alive was won. But once Machiel weighed in at six pounds the game was over. Gemmeker ordered him placed on the next transport. He followed, so he could join his mother who already had arrived at her destiny. For Arbeitseinsatz, everyone was told. However, it proved to be his final journey.

       In the picture on this page we see dentist Wolf at work in his camp office. Besides dentistry the hospital counted one hundred and fifty seven three tier beds, but the rooms were lacking furniture and closet space was non-existent. Regardless the one hundred and twenty five professional medical doctors, including surgeons, dentists, and anesthetists who were supported by a staff of over one thousand nurses, nurses' aids, and maintenance personnel, condition in the hospital was far from ideal.