The Hollandsche Schouwburg as a deportation centre

The minute I entered I realized something terrible had happened. The stage was stripped of its decors and looked as if a robber had made off with all its contents. Ropes swung from the electricians' lighting bridge, reminiscent of a hangman's noose. The paintings and sculptures were gone. The seats in the orchestra pit and the auditorium had been wrenched from the floor and stacked against the walls. All the lighting was dimmed, except for the emergency bulbs that glowed like blood-red fireflies. From: Grohs-Martin, Silvia and Carla Benink, Silvie, Amsterdam, 2001

This is the memory of Silvia Grohs as she thinks back to her arrival in the Hollandsche Schouwburg in early August 1942, after the Nazis had ordered the building to be used as assembly place for Jews waiting to be deported. Silvia Grohs had performed for quite some time in the theatre, also after- under Nazi threat - it had to change its name to Joodsche Schouwburg (Jewish Theatre). She and her fellow artistes were given an impossible choice: either help to organize the large numbers of Jewish prisoners arriving and leaving the Hollandsche Schouwburg; or else be sent immediately on transport. The newly appointed head of Jewish staff at the theatre was Walter Süskind.

The Hollandsche Schouwburg had a double function as assembly point. It was both the place to register for immediate deportation and also a prison where Jews were kept for longer periods. In uniting these two functions in one building - a former theatre on a busy boulevard in the heart of Amsterdam, in a neighbourhood with plenty of non-Jewish residents - the Nazis testified to a cocksure arrogance that assisted them in carrying out their murderous plans.

At an earlier date the acting head of the Central bureau for Jewish emigration ( Zentralstelle für jüdische Auswanderung ) Ferdinand Aus der Fünten, had made investigations to find suitable locations where large numbers of Jews could be held prisoner awaiting deportation. The Portuguese Israelite Synagogue on Jonas Daniel Meijer Square didn't seem a suitable building because its large lofty windows would be difficult to black out. The blackout had become compulsory so that buildings could not be seen at night, in connection with Allied bomb attacks. But the Hollandsche Schouwburg at the edge of the Jewish quarter, with its spacious window-free auditorium was, the Nazis felt, just the place.

In fact, the Hollandsche Schouwburg was not at all suitable to hold large numbers of people over a long period. One of the child carers from the nearby nursery, who regularly went to the Hollandsche Schouwburg, compared it to the city of ' Naples when it was overrun by plague. An ever-present stench coming from far too many terrified people crowded together in too little space. Far and away most of the prisoners just sat in the auditorium, on the stairs, in the balconies and theatre boxes. Some paced up and down through the theatre. What had once been a theatre restaurant was now equipped as a hospital ward, for those requiring medical attention. Meals were dished up by members of the Jewish Council.

On 25 March 1943 Willy Alexander, a Jew, wrote in his wartime diary, There are at present 1,300 people in that little 'Hollandse Schouwburg'. It gets so hot and oppressive (and of course smelly) that everyone just begs for drink after drink. Only the old women are permitted to sleep on mattresses- others just occasionally. For all these 1,300 people there are just two men's toilets and three women's toilets, and one or two washbasins. Inside the auditorium the people going to Westerbork are waiting and upstairs are those to be sent to Vught. But it all seems to be so haphazard that it depends on the mood of the gentlemen in power whether you go to Vught or Westerbork. On a couple of occasions something didn't quite suit a.d.F [ed. Aus der Fünten] and then just like that half the theatre-full was sent to Westerbork.'

In the Umschlagplatz (Assembly Place) Plantage Middenlaan , as the German occupiers sometimes called the Hollandsche Schouwburg, everyone was registered upon arrival. The prisoners were brought there after an official summon or a round-up razzia. Round-ups were held increasingly after September 1942 as a means of hunting down Jews. Once arrived, for many the long wait began in the theatre. It could last hours, days or even weeks. Many prisoners in the Hollandsche Schouwburg made frantic efforts to secure their release with the help of people working for the Jewish Council. Some of them attempted to escape. Usually these efforts ended in failure.

Not only Amsterdam Jews, also those from the provinces were imprisoned in the Hollandsche Schouwburg. Some of the prisoners had a stamp in their Identity Card granting them temporary exemption from deportation; there were adults, children and non-Dutch Jews. The latter had fled to the Netherlands before 1940, mainly from Germany and Austria. Now they were once more ensnared by the Nazis. After October 1942 the Germans decreed that the nursery across the street from the theatre should be an annexe of the Hollandsche Schouwburg. Children up to the age of twelve, separated from their parents, had to wait there to be deported.

The Hollandsche Schouwburg was guarded by German SS-troops assisted by members of the Dutch Nazi Party, the NSB Dutch collaborators. who had been detailed in 1943 to track down Jews in hiding were also involved in the theatre's security. The Dutch NSB members would generally deliver to the theatre the Jews they had hunted down. Prisoners weren't allowed to speak to the prison guards. If they had any questions, they were to address them to the Jewish Council.

Transport

Willy Alexander's wartime diary describes the experience of Jewish prisoners. There was an appalling atmosphere in the place, also the Germans wore your nerves to shreds. You would be on each list for transport to Westerbork or Vught that set off during those sixteen days, but then each time you would be spared - züruck gestellt - just in the nick of time.

Sometimes there would be a transport from the theatre three times a week. The Jews were herded into trams, trucks or buses and driven to the trains that stood waiting for them at Muiderpoort Station or Amsterdam's Central Station. Sometimes groups of prisoners were marched to Muiderpoort Station, under armed guard. The Hollandsche Schouwburg was their final address in Amsterdam; most of the Jews were deported to the transit camp at Westerbork. After 16 January 1943 young Jewish prisoners in particular were deported from the theatre to the Dutch Camp Vught Jews were sent to 'the East' from both these camps.

After 29 September 1943, when the Jewish Council was dissolved, there were officially no more Jews in the Netherlands. All Jews had been deported to camps, excepting a group of Jews of mixed marriage. These Jews had married a non-Jew. Besides this, there were Jews who had gone 'underground' and tried to escape persecution by going into hiding. If they were discovered at their 'underground' address they were arrested and taken to the Hollandsche Schouwburg. The theatre was closed as a place of deportation after the final transport had taken place on Friday 19 November 1943. The transports from Amsterdam that took place after that date were from one of the city prisons, on Amstelveenseweg.

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