Shortly after the first deportation train left the Jewish transit camp (Judendurchgangslager) at Westerbork for Auschwitz, Höherer-SS und Polizeiführer (HSSPF) Hanns Albin Rauter, in consultation with Reichskommissar Arthur Seyss-Inquart, decided an additional camp should be built in occupied Holland. It became the only SS concentration camp (Konzentrationslager Herzogenbusch) outside Germany. The Dutch called it Vught after the nearby municipality where it was located.
The electric fences and the look-out towers.
Construction began in May 1942. The camp consisted of 36 living and 23 working barracks. The camp was surrounded by a double barbed-wire fence with watchtowers were placed roughly every 160 feet around the perimeter. The SS lived outside the camp. situated outside the camp.
The first prisoners arrived before it was finished on January 16, 1943. These prisoners came from the camp in Amersfoort , which the Nazis wanted to give up. The famished and abused prisoners arrived at the railway station in Vught and were marched off along the streets. When they arrived at the camp, they were put to work building barracks.
The first commandant of the camp was SS captain Karl Chmilewski, who was well known for the atrocities he had committed at Gusen, a subcamp of Mauthausen. He was removed in October 1943 for misconduct and later sentenced to 15 years in prison by an SS court.
Chmilewski was succeeded by Adam Grünewald (October 1943) who worked previously in Dachau and Sachsenhausen. Prior to Grünewald’s arrival, prisoners were allowed to maintain a school and engage in religious and cultural activities. He put an end to them. On January 15, 1944, to punish prisoners for a women’s protest in the camp, Grünewald put 74 women in a cell measuring less than 100 square feet without ventilation. After 14 hours, 10 women were dead. Grünewald was subsequently arrested and sentenced by an SS court to three and a half years’ imprisonment.
Hans Hüttig (February 1944) took over for Grünewald. He had experience from working at Natzweiler and was considered less cruel than his predecessors. Nevertheless, he was responsible for executing at least 329 prisoners between July and September 1944.
Originally, Vught was divided into two sections: the first one (Judendurchgangslager - JDL) was designed to hold the Jewish prisoners before their transit to Germany. The first prisoners were Jews from Amsterdam who believed they were immune to deportation because their work was useful to the Germans. By May 1943, the prisoner population reached its maximum of 9,000 people. The population shrank as prisoners were sent to Westerbork before being transferred to the extermination camps.
On June 5, 1943, two transports were to be sent to a “special children’s camp.” All children up to the age of three were to be accompanied by their mothers and those aged between three and sixteen by one of their parents. The 1,750 Jews, many of them unaccompanied sick children, went from Westerbork to Sobibor. The next day another 1,300 Jews made the same trip.
Jews were also deported to death camps in November 1943 and June 1944. Two transports went directly to Auschwitz. Prisoners were also sent to Natzweiler at the beginning of July 1943 and to Dachau in May 1944.
The transfer never created panic because many of the Jews thought they would stay permanently in Westerbork, having no idea it was only a waystation before their extermination.
The second section of Vught was designed as a security camp (Schutzhaftlager) guarded primarily by the SS. This section received all the Dutch and Belgian political prisoners. According to the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, “About 12,000 people (11,000 men and 1,000 women) were quartered in this camp for periods ranging from less than a month to more than a year.”
Mobile crematory oven
For two months, February and March 1943, a student’s (Studentenlager) camp was created to house 600 students and 1,200 sons of upper- class families accused of assisting the Dutch resistance. Most were released, though some were sent to Germany for forced labor.
In February 1943, the “hostage camp” (Geisellager) was established to hold family members of resistance fighters and others arrested in reprisal for the resistance activities. Most were incarcerated for only a couple of months.
Two other sections of the camp were established in May and August 1943: the “Frauenkonzentrationslager” (FKL) for women and the “Polizeiliches Durchgangslager” (PDL) for prisoners in detention, mostly for a short period.
D-Day and Liberation
Conditions in Vught were deplorable. The food consisted of warm water with some carrots or sauerkraut floating on the surface. The guards tortured the prisoners, beating some with a club wrapped with barbed wire. The SS sometimes sicced their dogs on prisoners.
Hundreds died during the first few months as a result of maltreatment, shortage of clothing, lack of food, polluted water, and various infectious diseases that were rampant in the overcrowded barracks. Children were especially vulnerable. Conditions improved, at least in terms of space available, as Jews were deported.
Most prisoners were employed inside the camp manufacturing clothing and furs. Starting in April 1943, some male prisoners were sent to work outside the camp, with 1,200 employed by the Philips electric company. These prisoners were provided a hot meal every day and were supposed to be exempt from deportation.
After D-day, June 6, 1944, about 1,500 men who had been a political prison in the Netherlands were transferred to Vught and placed in the camp prison. In August and September 1944, they were executed.
Dr Arthur Lehmann was appointed head of the Jewish administration in the camp during October 1943 and did his best to care for the inmates and was apparently very popular.
More than 30,000 people passed through the gates of the camp in the 18 months before the allied forces arrived; 749 prisoners died in the camp. After D-day, the Germans wanted to clear the camp as fast as possible. Most of the women were transported to Ravensbrück and the men to Sachsenhausen.
On October 27, 1944, the 5th Cameron Highlanders reached Vught and met no resistance. The Germans had fled before they had the chance to destroy the evidence of the atrocities committed at the camp.
Vught had its own gallows and crematorium. In September 1943, for example, the gallows was used for the executions of 20 Belgian prisoners. In July 1944, as the Allied forces approached, the number of executions increased dramatically. Altogether 749 people died in the camp. A large number of them (mostly members of the resistance) were executed in the woods near the camp at the so called “Fusilladeplaats.”
On June 3, 1944, 517 of the workers from Philips were put on the last convoy and sent directly to Auschwitz. Philips had made an agreement for them to work there for Telefunken, but that did not save most of them. Only 160 people from Vught survived, two thirds were women and nine were children.
The Allied soldiers found 500 bodies of people executed that morning laying in a pile in a courtyard. There were around 500-600 prisoners left alive who had been set up for execution that afternoon but were spared because of the Allies’ advance. The survivors were in terrible condition suffering from malnourishment, disease and scars from being abused.
Still, the camp was considered far less severe as others. According to the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum:
Following the liberation, the buildings of the camp were used as an “internment camp” for Dutch collaborators. There were also 6.000 Germans forced to stay in the camp until May 1945. The execution site was converted to a national monument in 1947, bearing the names of all 329 male resistance fighters who died here. The internment camp existed until 1949.
In 1961, a German court sentenced Chmielewski to life imprisonment. A French court gave Huttig the same punishment, but he was released in 1956. Grunewald died in combat in 1945 in Hungary.
In April 1990, the National Monument Camp Vught was opened by H.M. Queen Beatrix. The museum is located at Lunettenlaan 600, Vught, Holland. There is also a permanent exhibition about the “Kamp Vught” in the Vughts Historish Museum.
A memorial center is located at the former camp site. There are prisoner barracks, three guard towers and the original fences, as well as a reconstruction of cell 115 where the 74 women were held.
National Monument Camp Vught
Vught, the Netherlands
Tel: +31 (0)73-65 66 764
Tuesday to Friday: 10AM - 5PM
Saturday/Sunday: 12Noon - 5PM
Closed: Monday, 25 and 31 December, 1 January, 10-31 January
(Other dates on special request)
Entrance: free of charge
J. Presser, Ashes in the Wind: Destruction of Dutch Jewry (1968), 464–78, index; Vught, Poort van de hel (1945). ADD. BIBLIOGRAPHY: J. Michman, "Vught," in: Y. Gutman (ed.), Macmillan Encyclopedia of the Holocaust, vol. 4 (1990), 1584–86.
Sources: The Forgotten Camps (first photo from USHMM);
National Monument Kamp Vught;
Holocaust Education & Archive Research Team;
The Camp Vught National Memorial;
Encyclopaedia Judaica. © 2008 The Gale Group. All Rights Reserved;
“Herzogenbusch Main Camp (Vught),” U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum.
Special thanks to Kathy Bjegovich and her father Norman Turner, Canadian WW2 veteran and liberator of Vught concentration camp, for the information they kindly sent me concerning the liberation of the camp. Thanks also to historian Wim Kievits who corrected the information regarding which forces first entered the camp.