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After the introductory film, you enter the room with a view of the camp grounds where you come face to face with the past. The permanent exhibition is made up of seven ‘islands’ which together encompass 18 months of Camp Vught both chronologically and thematically. A unique aspect is the focus on the roles people took on – either voluntarily or under pressure: of victim, perpetrator, bystander or helper.
Construction of the camp
Building work started on the camp in the summer of 1942. The story literally takes shape in the attractive surroundings of the lake and beach known as De IJzeren Man. What kind of people were involved in building the camp?
The many personal belongings, documents and eye-witness accounts reveal how the Nazi system gradually dehumanised the groups they were persecuting and how a concentration camp came into existence on this spot.
And so I arrived in Vught, where everyone was given a camp uniform, clogs and a number. But it’s always up to you whether you actually become a number.
Work in the camp
There were various types of work units, called commandos, in the camp. The Philips-Kommando was the best known one. Some prisoners worked on machines in textile workshops, sewing huge lengths of material. Others turned rags into useful items or made fur hats in the fur workshop. The Luftwaffekommando did a lot of the heavy work. Prisoners dismantled wrecked planes with their bare hands in the aircraft scrapyard, where any functional parts were retrieved, sorted and stored.
Many prisoners were sent to Vught on the way to other camps. For the approximately 12,000 Jewish prisoners, Vught was an intermediate station before the extermination camps in occupied Poland. Almost 1,300 Jewish children were dispatched there in June 1943; they were gassed shortly after arriving in Sobibor. The exhibition focuses special attention on this horrifying tragedy; you can see the monument with their names in the grounds.
It was forbidden to take photos in and around the camp, which is why the exhibition shows illustrations of situations that were described in former prisoners’ own documents, such as the roll call. The exhibition contains over 240 personal objects; in the “Autumn 1943” section, you can see various gifts, games and ornaments made by the prisoners themselves.
Violence and resilience
There were enormous contrasts during Camp Vught’s brief existence. Violence is reflected in objects such as guns and a whip, yet at the same time you can see that festive occasions such as St Nicholas and Easter were celebrated. This section ends with a reconstruction of the bunker tragedy in January 1944, which was illustrative of how the camp commandant, Adam Grünewald, abused his power.
Approaching the end
Camp Vught was evacuated at the beginning of September 1944; the south of the Netherlands was liberated at the end of October that year. This ‘island’ shows you examples of this chaotic period, including various emotions such as joy, pain, grief and loss. From here, you go outside to the north-eastern part of the original camp grounds.
I was held in Camp Vught while on my way from the prison in Scheveningen for the trial at the district court in Utrecht. I had been arrested for working for the resistance. After Dolle Dinsdag on 5 September 1944 [when celebrations followed false reports that the liberation had begun], I was dispatched to various prisons in Germany and I recorded all the places, dates and details on this handkerchief using threads I pulled out.
Leaving the permanent exhibition, you go to part of the original camp grounds. You will pass the camp trench which prisoners themselves had to dig, reconstructions of watchtowers and of camp barracks, the children’s memorial and the authentic crematorium.
Outside there is a 3D model made of natural stone showing all the buildings in the camp. You can listen to more information and former camp prisoners’ personal stories on the audio tour.
Every hundred metres stood a watchtower, from where guards with machine guns and searchlights surveyed the camp. What you see today are reconstructions, because so much was demolished after the war. The concrete pillars for the camp trench are authentic.
The reconstructed barracks show how prisoners in Camp Vught were accommodated. The reconstruction only half the original size: a sleeping area with 240 bunk beds, a communal area, a toilet and washroom. Again, you can listen to many eye-witnesses’ personal stories on the audio tour.
The Children’s Memorial, also called the children’s monument, is on the edge of the grounds. It was designed in 1999. The monument lists 1,269 names of children who were murdered in Sobibor, the extermination camp in occupied Poland, in June 1943. Later research revealed that the number of children was at least 1,296. After arriving there, they were gassed with one or both of their parents: 3,014 people in total.
The crematorium was built at the far end of the camp grounds. This was used to cremate the bodies of some 750 prisoners who had been executed by firing squad or had died as a result of illness or debilitation in the camp. The building also houses a reconstruction of Cell 115, where the bunker tragedy took place in January 1944. The original cell is on the site of the adjoining prison.
Before you go back into the building, you will pass the defaced panels bearing the names of 329 executed prisoners, which formerly stood where executions by firing squad took place. Princess Juliana unveiled the monument in 1947. The monument was defaced in 1995 and 1997 but the culprits have never been found. The panels have been given a place in the memorial centre. You can follow a trail to walk to the monument in the woods.
Wall for feedback and "Eyes of the war"
After you return to the building, you can leave your thoughts on a card. What would you like to share with other visitors?
In the “Eyes of war” section, you can see people who survived Camp Vught – and sometimes several camps. Rogier Fokke’s portraits were reinstated after the renovations in 2019; as the people gaze out at you, they bring the war closer.
Room for contemplation
This is where you will find all the names of prisoners who were executed in Camp Vught or died of illness or debilitation, including their place of birth and dates of birth and death. One row of names is of people who died elsewhere, but were cremated and buried in Vught, including three RAF pilots.
If you enter your own details (age, gender and Dutch province) you will be ‘introduced’ to a prisoner with a similar background. Dates, numbers and types of prisoners are continuously projected on the wall. In effect, the number representing 32,000 prisoners makes way for 32,000 stories: people like you and me. This section is further enhanced by dates, biographies and photos of prisoners.
Lastly, you return to the here and now, in a room presenting several short films. First, you will see a few ‘third generation’ portraits: how does the war live on in today’s families?
Three semicircles invite you to sit quietly and watch the other films, based on iconic photos of courageous individuals and portraits of ordinary people who were faced with various choices. The last film presents three fictitious scenes in which the characters are a victim, a perpetrator and a bystander – or are they?
Watch two trailers: