Deportation of European Jews
Trains from Westerbork, a transit camp in northeastern Holland, deported more than 100,000 of the Netherlands' 140,000 Jews to the death camps at Sobibór and Auschwitz. On August 24, 1943, a 29-year-old Dutch Jew named Etty Hillesum wrote a clandestine letter describing one of those deportations: "My God," she wrote, "are the doors really being shut now?...Through small openings at the top we can see heads and hands, hands that will wave to us later when the train leaves....The train gives a piercing whistle, and 1020 Jews leave Holland."
Prior to the autumn of 1938, Nazi Germany pressured Jews to emigrate. As military conquest brought new territory and millions of Jews under Nazi domination, solutions to the "Jewish question" required a more aggressive policy. During the first 18 months of World War II, deportation was part of a Nazi plan to eliminate Jews from Hitler's expanding Third Reich by sending them to ghettos or restricted areas in the East. With the 1941 Einsatzgruppen massacres and decisions to solve the "Jewish question" by mass murder, the meaning of deportation changed. No longer the goal, deportation became the means for sending Jews to killing centers at Chelmno, Belzec, Sobibór, Treblinka, Majdanek, and especially Auschwitz-Birkenau.
With essential support from the German Transport Ministry and its railroad bureaucracy, Adolf Eichmann and his staff in Section IV B 4 of the Reich Security Main Office managed this continent-wide operation. From far-flung European stations, trains shipped almost three million Jews to the killing centers. "Passengers" had to pay one-way fares, then often were transported as cargo in crowded freight wagons.
In 1942 deportations devastated Polish Jewry, but the network extended far and wide. In March it snared Slovakian Jews. In July mass deportations of Jews from France and Belgium, as well as the Netherlands, were under way. Deportation by sea and rail decimated Norway's small Jewish population in November.
Deportation continued in 1943, the year in which new gas chambers and crematoria became operational at Auschwitz-Birkenau. Danuta Czech's Auschwitz Chronicle records the gassing of 873 Jews from Berlin on January 13. On February 6 1868 deportees from the Bialystok (Poland) Ghetto were gassed on arrival. Six weeks later 2191 Jews from Salonika, Greece, were killed in the gas chambers. On and on it went.
Etty Hillesum and her family were deported from Westerbork on September 7, 1943. They probably reached Auschwitz on September 9. Her parents were gassed immediately. On November 30, 1943, the prisoner population at the Auschwitz complex consisted of 54,446 men and 33,846 women. Of that number, 9273 men and 8487 women were reported as sick and unable to work. A Red Cross report lists November 30, 1943, as the date of Etty Hillesum's death.
Photo: Leopold Page Photographic Collection / United States Holocaust Memorial Museum Photo Archive