Kamp Vught- Herzogenbusch, The Netherlands

The last time we were in Europe I thought it was important for my kids to see for themselves what happened to the Jews, Gypsies, homosexuals, resistance fighters, and another other groups/persons who the Nazi’s targeted for extermination.  So we visited the Herzogenbusch Concentration Camp (Kamp Vught) near the town of Herzogenbusch where the horror of what happened to innocent people could be seen and to a small extent be felt by our kids. It was a lesson that shocked and saddened them. One that has changed them and how they see the world.

Although Kamp Vught is considered to be a transport camp rather than a death camp nonetheless 749 prisoners lost their lives while incarcerated against their will. Of those, 342 were murdered just outside the camp as the Allies were approaching.

The camp was built in 1942/43 with the prisoners being forced to finish the construction themselves. Over 31,000 people were housed here before being transported to the death camps of Auschwitz and Bergen-Belsen between the years 1943-1944.

Today Kamp Vught is a National Monument dedicated to the victims of Nazi atrocities. The interior of the museum has been designed to be a reflective and thoughtful place spread out over several buildings and outdoor areas. The museum itself displays diaries,relics, personal items and the clothing of the persons who were incarcerated or murdered here.

DSC05138

We learned that upon entry to the Kamp each prisoner was given a colored triangle on their gevangenenpak. Jewish prisoners received a yellow triangle, political prisoners and resistance fighters one red, homosexuals a pink triangle, and the ‘criminals’ (illegal butchers and black marketers) a black triangle.

DSC05197

Outside there is monument that stands in honor of the children who were separated from their mothers and sent off to be executed. Standing there, reading list after long list of names, you could just “hear” the cries of parents and children as they were taken away by the guards. As a parent it felt horrific to think that there was nothing you could do to save your own child from extermination.

DSC05169

 

Below you will see a picture of my sister-in-law as she stood in cell 115. What you cannot see is the tears running down her face as she contemplated the horror that happened in this room on January 16, 1944.  The day before, as a punishment for some drama occurring in the women’s barracks, the Kamp Commander forced 74 women into this tiny windowless room. Fourteen hours later the cell was finally opened and the remaining 64 women were freed. The plaque contains a list of the names of the ten women who suffocated due to lack of oxygen.

 

Although most the buildings of this once huge camp are gone a few still remain or were rebuilt. In this one, you can walk down row upon row of narrow bunkbeds, each three beds high, where the prisoners were kept. My nine- year-old daughter was shocked at how small and lumpy the straw mattresses were when she laid down upon them.

DSC05157

More sobering was the crematorium. The cart that brought the bodies in to be disposed of still stands here a silent testimony to the hundreds of lives lost.

DSC05179

Crematorium_kamp_vught

Guard towers 100 meters apart and barbed wire fence also surround the property giving visitors a small sense of just what these prisoners were seeing and of the future that awaited them.

Near the exit of the museum there is a wall in which guests can reflect on their experience visiting Kamp Vught. This is what my 11 year old son wrote.

DSC05191

This is a painful place to visit but a necessary one. It should serve to remind us of the horrors of war and and the cruelties that humans perpetrate against one another in the hopes that we never do so again. I would like to think that such vivid reminders of  a world gone mad will encourage the visitors of Kamp Vught to work for peace in their own backyards and keep the horrors of these times forever buried in the past never to see the light of day again. But we know that genocide and mass killings still occur all over the world today and with these events a question must be asked that cannot ever be properly answered. That question is WHY?

Kamp Vught is open 10:00-17.00, Sat, Sun 12:00-17:00.
Closed: Monday (October – March). The entrance fee is about 6 euros.

 

Valkenburg Caves-Valkenburg, Netherlands

What brought us to the charming town of Valkenburg was my 13th G-Grandfather, Jan Van Valkenburg (1515-1575). It was his home town and I wanted to see it. And we did. It was fabulous. But what touched us more were the caves (Cauberg Cavern-Gemeentegrot/Fluweelengrot ) radiating out beneath the center of the city and did they ever have a story to tell. So we listened.DSC05816

You can enjoy the caves either by guided walking tour or by “train.” I would advise walking. The walk is easy not steep and you will be given plenty of time to ask any and all questions that your heart desires.

As for the history of the caves, the Romans began excavating them 2,000 years ago for use as building material in and around the area and significant buildings still stand today as a testament of its worth. The caves have also been used for centuries as a sanctuary for refugees during the French Revolution and more recent wars.

Be sure to step up close to the walls and you will see limestone littered with fossils and shells proof of an underwater world that existed here 100 million years ago. It is fascinating to see all the “fossil gold” left behind.

Yet,  the real treasure in the caves is the art work left by miners and residents of the town  since  before the 1700’s. Drawn in charcoal and created by the dim light thrown off by candles and later, lanterns, these works of art depict a living history of what was known or imagined by these dedicated artisans.  In addition to the paintings there are also huge statues carved into the walls throughout the entire labyrinth of corridors that run under the city.

But perhaps the most compelling picture is the Liberation of the City by the Americans in on September 17, 1944. It is a tribute to those brave men who worked to reclaim this city from the Germans and deed her once again to its citizens. And below the painting you will find the signatures of some of the soldiers who participated in the liberation.

DSC05866

But perhaps even more astonishing is this fact: that during the 10-day battle the towns 10,000 residents all lived in the caves together while fierce fighting raged in the streets. It gives you pause as you wander with your guide thinking about what it must have been like underneath the city not knowing if you might live or die.

At the end of the tour you will be lead to another set of tunnels in which various eras of artwork are projected onto the walls of the cave creating a living-breathing art show that  surrounds you and disorientates you at some level.Very cool!

DSC05887

While we did not visit during Christmas it is my understanding that a huge Christmas Market is held on weekends during the weeks prior to the holiday. Here you will find crafts and fine works of art offered for sale by local craftsmen.

Entrance fee about 5 Euros

Hint: Wear a jacket as it is chilly deep underground.