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Book Notes: Boulevard des Misères: The Story of Transit Camp Westerbork, Jacob Boas

Irene Williams

<plain_text><page sequence="1">Boulevard des Miseres: The Story of Transit Camp Westerbork. Jacob Boas. (Archon Books, Hamden, Connecticut 1985) xi+ 169pp. Boulevard des Miseres is concerned with the main transit camp in the Netherlands during the Nazi occupation of the Second World War. The title refers to the main street of the camp, down which each inmate eventually walked to embark on the trains bound for the East every Tuesday morning. Westerbork was unique in the sense that it was largely administered by the Jews themselves. By this particularly clever method the leader of the camp, Konrad Gemmeker, attempted to obtain orderly cooperation from a persecuted people, a technique which, as Boas highlights, succeeded extremely well. It stands to reason that every inhabitant of the camp would endeavour to cancel or postpone an imminent departure. Certificates granting exemptions or sperren became a commodity; the power to distribute these was given to the Jews. Of course, as can be imagined, power held by a few to distribute exemptions or delays in transport would lead to intense stress and resentment among the in? habitants; the only person who gained from this system was the commandant. Boas has amassed a collection of eye-witness reports in this book. He uses extracts from the well-known diaries of Philip Mechanicus and Etty Hillesum, as well as indicated scenes from a filmscript which had been made by Gemmeker after rumours, that the war was ending, presumably in an effort to prove his 'fairness' in the administration of the camp. Through these extracts we acquire some insight into the way the camp was 'run' by the Jews, although the knowledge that their power was no more than an illusion is never far from our minds. The book highlights the struggle of the inmates of the camp to maintain their morale by making use of the artistically talented among them. Many 335</page><page sequence="2">Book Reviews apparently wonderful shows were produced and performed. Yet the final control here too was with the commandant; as their enthusiastic 'patron', he alone had the power to promote or cancel a production. Finally, a tension is shown in this book between the Dutch and the German Jews, an animosity with disastrously divisive results. The oldest inmates of the camp were the German Jews, refugees from Hitler's Germany before the occupation of the Netherlands. Disappointment and resentment regarding the Dutch Jews' lack of support, as perceived by the German Jewish leaders, led them to sacrifice many ot the Dutch Jews first. As a general conclusion, this books underlines how subtly powerful the methods with which the Nazis approached the Netherlands were. Because they viewed the Dutch as 'fellow Aryans', they took a 'gentler' and less direct approach which largely divided, and therefore weakened, the overt resistance of the people; and this much increased the vulnerability of the Jewish population. The same approach taken by a single Nazi in the Westerbork camp proved extremely effective in this respect. Few books deal with the tensions and horrors of the transit camps of the Nazi regime, and Boulevard des Miseres shows them effectively. Irene Williams</page></plain_text>