In Westerbork—by itself—there were no gas chambers, there was no beatings. Food was very, very low, not very much. And you had to work. But it wasn't a so-called "concentration camp" as we saw later. It was just used as a point of departure. The Germans were in charge of us, the German guards there and all that.
Can you tell us about when you got picked up and arrested?
In 1942. We were warned that this was going to happen. We were told also—we were given—the police, the local police who had no control of their own destiny, they were told by the Germans—there was in each town, there was some German delegation which was controlled by a larger delegation out of the Hague in Amsterdam, the seat of the Dutch government before the war—we were told what we could take with us. We could have one big backpack and like three shirts, four shirts and two pair of pants and a pair of shoes. They told us that was all we could take.
And then we were told one morning that we had to report to the railroad station. There we went into boxcars and they took us to Westerbork, this Dutch camp, my parents, my sister and I and my grandparents. In the meantime, my grandfather came over very shortly after that after '38 within a few days. My grandmother had died in the middle 30's so my father's father, my grandfather, he also came to live with us. Then for a while we had another man living with us, a friend of the family who had no place to go so my parents took him in too. Everything was make-shift and difficult. Then we went on the railroad in the boxcars and we ended up in Westerbork. The Germans called it a samalog, that's where they put them all together and kept them there until they sent them from there to Auschwitz—Treblinka, Auschwitz, Sobibor—to be killed.
What were the living arrangements like in Westerbork?
Barracks. It wasn't anywhere near what we experienced after that. There were no killings there unless you tried to escape. There was I would say ample food. You wouldn't die of hunger there because they had to keep peace there. It was controlled by the German army, the German SS. Every Tuesday from two to four thousand people—depending on size train they had—left for Auschwitz or Sobibor, where the gas chambers were. The conditions weren't bad you could have lived a life out there under the conditions we were in during the early part. Food became less and less but it wasn't a matter of real hunger. My uncles were there—I had been there now for three years—they were in charge, they knew dairy business and the cattle business. They were in charge of the farm. They [Germans] took a farm away from a farmer near the camp—and that farm had to produce the food—the eggs and the milk and the chickens and the cows—for the German army there. My uncles were in charge of taking care of the cows and bring the food to the Germans. Every so often they used to make sure we had...they took some food and gave it to us, my parents my sister and me. So it wasn't that bad.
It may interest you in the camp there was entertainment because Amsterdam was an entertainment center like you would have today maybe in New York or Hollywood. Amsterdam was a huge entertainment center for Holland, theaters and operas, etc. In addition to that, the entertainment world—not only but part of it—out of Berlin, which was also a large entertainment center, they had moved to Holland during the '30's like we had and some before and some after. There were all in Amsterdam so there was what they called a "stage." It was very prominent, especially the Jewish stage in Amsterdam, with German artists and Dutch artists, they were also in the camp. People get together to relieve their anxieties or whatever. They staged plays and musicals. They were wonderful musicians. One of my closest friends in later years was a magician. They performed to keep people's mind off and they were encouraged by older people to do this for the younger people. The Germans even liked it, they came to those shows. It was bearable—it was not in later years in other camps but in Westerbork there was some civility still in the air and on the table.
Were you ever confronted to be a Jewish policeman?
No. I think I was too short for that. No. That was overplayed, not overplayed in "The Pianist," I suppose that's were you saw it? In Warsaw they had them in the ghettos, but, in my opinion they were overplayed because they, in as much as they were called "Jewish policemen," not in those days, they were used to, more like, I don't know how to explain it, they didn't have any weapons or any sticks or anything to hit people with. They were used to get people together to count every hundred people. That was not as serious as it is made to be.
Did you ever talk back to any German soldiers?
Did I ever talk back to them? I wouldn't be alive. No, you had no direct contact with them. They all had dogs with them and they were specially trained. This was always what's called the SS, the Storm Troopers. But no, you couldn't talk to them.
Would the SS men do anything different on Jewish Holidays?
No, this was totally a government issue, it wasn't individuals per se. The first thing they did, however, they arrested all the leadership—the presidents of the congregation the rabbis—and before we knew it we had no more leadership. There was never—the leadership, unfortunately, didn't train a second line of defense, whatever you call it where they trained assistants. It was very old fashioned. They arrested those immediately. Our Rabbi in the town we lived in was arrested very early within six-eight months after the Germans occupied Holland. They took away some leadership. Then they took the provincials. Then they took the federal who lived in Amsterdam and Rotterdam. So there a systematic program how to control the majorities, the plain and simple people, the plain people. Because we had to put our money in bank accounts and then you got so much a month. Everything was controlled. It was a brilliant—if you want to call it that way—it was a brilliant idea how to control a whole nation. Same thing we have seen now in Iraq, very similar. The people had no authority and nothing to say, they were told what they could eat, they were told—they got twenty guilders a week, something like that, and that's what they had to live off.
When I last saw them was in Holland when I went in the train, in the boxcars. I don't know, I don't know. We thought we'd see each other again because we didn't know we were going to places where I went to, like Auschwitz. It had to be much harder on my parents than it was on me. That much I see more and more as I get older. They took me away because I was getting to be 15 pretty soon. So how did you feel? It's hard to explain how you felt. I'm going back 60 years. I don't know how I felt.
I have one question if I may. Has anyone been to Washington DC to see the Holocaust Museum? Look at this, quite a few. That's very important, if you have a chance to get to Washington to see that because it tells the story of what happened very vividly and very well done. We have had by the 30th of this month when it was opened, the 23rd rather of April, it's ten years, we had almost 20 million people through there. A lot of young people like you from the schools back east, they take there. And foreign dignitaries, heads of government. That's 20 million people, we never expected this kind of attendance.
It was built on federal land, the government gave us some land, it was an old warehouse. We got together and we raised the money to build it. I was the Vice-Chairman of the Commission. We built the museum there with fund raisers all over the country, including San Francisco, we had some very, very generous people here too. It really is a success story, if you call it that, what has been done. We had wonderful technicians and a lot of volunteers and it worked out very well. It is the second most attended institution in Washington, next to the Air and Space Museum, attendance bigger than the Smithsonian. People want to see it. And it tells the whole story, from A-Z.