Herzogenbusch Main Camp (Vught)
Between 1933 and 1945, Nazi Germany and its allies established more than 44,000 camps and other incarceration sites (including ghettos). The perpetrators used these locations for a range of purposes, including forced labor, detention of people deemed to be "enemies of the state," and mass murder. Millions of people suffered and died or were killed. Among them was the Herzogenbusch main camp (also known as Vught).
In the summer of 1942, only a few weeks after the first deportation train had left the Jewish transit camp (Judendurchgangslager) at Westerbork for Auschwitz on June 15, Höherer-SS und Polizeiführer (HSSPF) Hanns Albin Rauter, in consultation with Reichskommissar Arthur Seyss-Inquart, decided to start construction of a new camp called Herzogenbusch (’s-Hertogenbosch). Because of its proximity to the municipality of Vught, the Dutch called it Vught.
The most probable reasons for this decision have to be found in Rauter’s concerns about the tempo and effectiveness of the deportation of the Jews from Westerbork—in principle, about 120,000 people eventually were deported—and the obvious malfunctioning of the already existing camp at Amersfoort, which proved to be too small and which had a notorious reputation for its harsh regime.
In the beginning of December 1942, Rauter’s superior, Reichsführer-SS Heinrich Himmler, following Rauter’s regular updates, ordered that Herzogenbusch had to be considered an “official” concentration camp, in other words, a camp under direct supervision of the Berlin offices of the SS-Business Administration Main Office (WVHA). He did not want it to be a police transit or extended police camp (Polizeiliches Durchgangslager or Erweitertes Polizeilager) like Amersfoort, or a Judendurchgangslager like Westerbork. To that end, Himmler charged WVHA head Oswald Pohl to have talks with Rauter, which would take place in the same month.1 For the time being (and until May 1944), Rauter did not obtain the final responsibility over the camp—by definition in the hands of the WVHA—but was responsible for its supervision (Dienstaufsicht). This made him responsible for the daily routine of the camp.
The camp itself, formally set up on January 5, 1943,2 started to function on January 13, 1943, with the arrival of about 250 male prisoners (including Jews) from the Amersfoort camp. A second transport—some 2,000 prisoners from Amersfoort—arrived three days later. The same day, about 450 Jews arrived from Amsterdam (mainly “armament Jews,” or Rustungsjuden).
Their former guards, all members of the Wachbatallion Nordwest, accompanied the Amersfoort prisoners. Most of the prisoners were in terrible shape. The prisoners’ first task was to build the barracks, which was, given the shape they were in, a very strenuous job. Moreover, hardly any facilities were provided in the beginning. The food provided was poor, and drinkable water was rare. It is not surprising at all that by April 1943 over 200 prisoners had perished. In the end, the camp took up 300,000 square meters (359,000 square yards) and consisted of 36 barracks for living, sleeping, and working. The complete construction of the site was financed from confiscated Jewish capital. The camp had a crematorium but not a gas chamber.
Herzogenbusch became known as one of the few concentration camps located outside the Reich territory (Reichsgebiet). Apart from the control issue, this status had some other implications. The camp was made up of several largely independent sections for different kinds of prisoners: the “protective custody” camp (Schutzhaftlager, including the women’s concentration camp, or Frauenkonzentrationslager); the Judendurchgangslager; the students’ camp (Studentenlager); the hostage camp (Geisellager); a Polizeiliches Durchgangslager; and a Security Service camp (Sicherheitsdienst-Lager, or SDLager).
Most of these sections did not exist through the full period when Herzogenbusch was active. Actually, some of them operated only for a couple of months. In these six sections, an estimated 30,000 people were imprisoned.
The main camp, the Schutzhaftlager, was in operation throughout Herzogenbusch’s existence. 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. In principle, Schutzhaft (protective custody in order to protect state security) could be imposed on all kinds of prisoners: Jews (i.e., those who violated one of the anti- Jewish measures; the so-called Jews qualified for punishment, or straffällige Juden); political prisoners; Jehovah’s Witnesses; “antisocials” (black marketeers, thieves, and others arrested for economic reasons); and criminals (some of them Kapos, coming from Germany). In the Schutzhaftlager, people imprisoned for purely political reasons made up only a minority. About 1,350 male prisoners came from abroad, mostly from Belgium and, to a lesser extent, from France. From May 1943 on, women were imprisoned in a separate barracks, called the Frauenkonzentrationslager.
About 60 percent of the prisoners were released; the rest were transported to different concentration camps in Germany. Worth mentioning are the transport of about 90 prisoners, including some very well known resistance fighters, to the concentration camp Natzweiler at the beginning of July 1943 and the transport of about 800 prisoners to Dachau in May 1944.
The Judendurchgangslager opened on January 16, 1943. In the camouflaged language of the Germans it was at that time “appropriately” called the Jewish collection camp (Judenauffanglager), suggesting the possibility of a longer stay than in Westerbork, as a Judendurchgangslager. About two months afterward, however, it was renamed according to its basic function. The first group of prisoners sent to the Judenauffanglager was about 450 Jews from Amsterdam. Because their work (with diamonds and textiles) was important for German interests, they believed themselves protected against deportation and thus remained under the illusion that they would stay in the camp. In April and May, thousands more people would arrive, mostly Dutch provincial Jews, or mediene. In May 1943, the prisoner population reached its maximum of 9,000 people.
Like the other prisoners, the Jews were put to work in different internal and external detachments (Innen-und Aussenkommandos). However, apart from the usual harassment, working conditions for them were much harder. This explains why they tried to get assigned to the Philips-Kommando, where life remained relatively acceptable because of the protection of the Philips company management. Even more important, they hoped that this protection would safeguard them against deportation. It did not stop them from being transported, but actually did protect them during their deportation to Auschwitz. After their registration there, almost all the prisoners of this so-called Philips-Transport were transferred to the Gross-Rosen Aussenkommando Langenbielau [aka Reichenbach], where they had to work in a Deutsche Telefunken factory. About one-third of the Philips-Transport prisoners survived.
In all, about 12,000 people—men, women, and children—were imprisoned in Herzogenbusch, all of whom were eventually deported to Sobibor and Auschwitz. Usually, the transports to Poland went through Westerbork. By the beginning of October 1943, this was the fate of more than 10,000 people. Two transports, on November 15, 1943, and June 3, 1944, went straight to Auschwitz. After the last, the above-mentioned Philips-Transport, the camp was closed.
The Studentenlager existed only in February and March 1943. It came into being because of the attempts by the resistance on the lives of high-placed Dutch Nazis. Investigations of the German police indicated that students and people from better-off circles took part in these actions. In reprisal, about 600 students and 1,200 sons of upper- class families (Plutokraten-Söhnchen) were arrested at the beginning of February and transferred to Herzogenbusch. After a couple of weeks, almost all of them were released. A small group of students, however, were transported to Germany for forced labor.
In February 1943, the Geisellager was set up. It remained active until the larger camp was dissolved. A few hundred hostages were locked up, generally for not longer than a couple of months. Two groups existed: people imprisoned in reprisal for certain actions of the re sis tance (Strafgeiseln) and family members of resistance fi ghters or other people wanted by the German police (Sippengeiseln). The second group did not enter the camp before October 1943. The women and children stayed in the Frauenkonzentrationslager.
In August 1943, as a result of deportations from the Judendurchgangslager, space became vacant for a new camp: the Polizeiliches Durchgangslager, which thus mirrored the original function of the Amersfoort camp. The immediate cause for this change was the massive overflow of prisoners under investigation (Untersuchungshäftlinge), whose number was far too large to be put up in the prisons of the German police. In total, about 2,000 men and 300 women were imprisoned in this camp.
A special group of Untersuchungshaftlinge consisted of about 1,500 men who, at the time, were imprisoned in the major political prison in the Netherlands, the “Oranjehotel” in Scheveningen. This group was transported to Herzogenbusch in June 1944, because of the Allied invasion in Normandy, and was placed in a special camp, the SD- Lager. Most of the prisoners were considered to be important enough for the Germans that they were put in the so-called Bunker, the camp prison. People from this group of prisoners were executed in August and September 1944.
Like all the other concentration camps, Herzogenbusch is to be considered as a camp complex, that is, a main camp (Hauptlager) with internal sections and several external detachments or subcamps, some of them located in the immediate vicinity of the main camp, others at a distance of over 96 kilometers (60 miles). In general, it can be stated that because of the food supply and working conditions, life in the Hauptlager was less difficult than in the subcamps. On the other hand, escape from these subcamps appeared to be easier than from the main camp.
Four different kinds of detachments or subcamps can be distinguished:
- Detachments where prisoners constructed and repaired airfields (Arnheim, Eindhoven, GilzeRijen [aka Breda], Leeuwarden, and Venlo);
- Detachments where prisoners worked on coastal defenses (Moerdijk and Roosendaal);
- Detachments where prisoners performed administrativework on behalf of the Befehlshaber der Sicherheitspolizei und des SD (’s-Gravenhage, Haaren, and St. Michielsgestel);
- One detachment where prisoners were deployed for industrial labor (Herzogenbusch).
The camp leadership and part of the guard staff were recruited from people who had already worked in other camps, notably at Sachsenhausen and Mauthausen. German camp inmates were transferred with them, in order to be prominently placed as Kapos in the prisoner hierarchy.
The first camp commandant was SS-Hauptsturmfuhrer Karl Walter Chmielewski, who previously served in Sachsenhausen. Although his conspicuously rude behavior initially did not seem to have raised Rauter’s objections, he was sacked in October 1943 because of misconduct (and even sentenced by an SS court in Berlin to 15 years’ imprisonment).
His replacement was SS-Hauptsturmfuhrer Adam Grunewald, who worked previously in Dachau and Sachsenhausen. Under his regime, a punishment company (Strafkompanie) was set up; partly because of this, the practice of beating up prisoners increased. Although the sources do not indicate tensions between Grunewald and Rauter, the second commandant was arrested, together with his adjutant, in January 1944, because of his responsibility for the so-called Bunker tragedy (Bunkerdrama). This incident took place on the night of January 15–16, 1944. A German female prisoner betrayed some of her fellow prisoners, as a result of which she was punished by some of them. Interrogated by the commandant, no one reported who was responsible for this. Consequently, 74 women were collectively punished by putting them in one cell in the bunker for 14 hours; 10 women did not survive. Grunewald was arrested and sentenced by an SS court in the Netherlands to three and a half years’ imprisonment.
The dismissal of two camp commandants, a responsibility usually reserved for the WVHA, led to a conflict between Pohl and Rauter. Pohl was clearly disappointed with, in his eyes, the lack of appropriate action taken by his Berlin superiors. Pohl thereupon requested Himmler to take Herzogenbusch away from the WVHA and to charge Rauter with final responsibility for the camp. Rauter refused, claiming that the staff at his disposal was inadequate for this transfer.3
Grunewald’s successor was SS- Sturmbannfuhrer Hans Huttig, whose formative career experience came in Natzweiler. He appears not to have come into conflict with Rauter. Although certainly not as tough as his predecessors, Huttig was said to have exerted power from behind his desk. Among other things, he was responsible for the massive shootings of prisoners in August and September 1944 and for the evacuation transports afterward.
Because of the advance of the Allied forces through France and Belgium, the prisoners of the Schutzhaftlager, the Polizeiliches Durchgangslager, the SD- Lager, and the Frauenkonzentrationslager were transported, on September 5 and 6, 1944, to camps in Germany. About 2,900 men went to Sachsenhausen, while about 650 women were sent to Ravensbruck. The remaining prisoners, all hostages, were set free or transferred to the Amersfoort camp. The Herzogenbusch camp in fact ceased to exist. Afterward, the Wehrmacht took over the facility and used it as a prisoner-of-war (POW) camp before handing it over to the Dutch Red Cross. The camp premises were liberated on October 26, 1944.
In the late 1960s, a survey, by no means representative, was conducted of the inhabitants of the municipality of Vught, aged around 65 years, concerning their state of knowledge of the neighboring camp. People had to answer questions about its function, the number and types of prisoners, personal contacts with the guards or prisoners, and so on. The general conclusion of the survey was that the local population had a basic knowledge of the camp and that the people of Vught were apparently involved in the fate of the prisoners. People claimed to have supplied illegal food and smuggled in notes.
Two women stood out in the neighborhood for their efforts to get to know the names of the prisoners, in order to pass this information to the prisoners’ family members. In this way they clearly facilitated the sending of food parcels, which were of course of great help and comfort for the prisoners. From May 1943 on, the supply of food parcels was taken over by the Dutch Red Cross.
Two of the three commandants were tried after the war, but not by Dutch courts. 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 was never tried; he died in combat in 1945 in Hungary. Herzogenbusch was a transit camp; people were not supposed to stay in it for a long time. For Jews in particular, but also for po liti cal prisoners, the regime intended to send them to other destinations.
Imprisonment in Herzogenbusch distinguished itself not only in quantitative but also in qualitative terms. It is important to note that Herzogenbusch was deliberately designed by the Reich Security Main Office (RSHA) as a Level (Stufe) I and II camp, in terms of the severity of its regime. This level implied, among other things, that the non-Jewish prisoners were permitted (censored) correspondence and the receipt of food parcels.
For political reasons—the Dutch had to be won over in the battle of the Germanic peoples—it was of great importance to Himmler and Rauter to make Herzogenbusch a “perfect” camp. Amersfoort got an extremely negative reputation, and the scarce reports about people imprisoned in camps abroad, notably in Germany, suggested even worse conditions. A few days before Himmler’s visit to Herzogenbusch (on February 3, 1944), Rauter addressed an audience of leading SS officials. In this speech, about the specificc qualities of the SS, he did not refrain from calling the camp “an exemplary SS operation” (Musterbetrieb der SS).4
Rauter was very keen on maintaining this so-called high level quality and is said to have inspected the site three or four times. The treatment of the prisoners would be, as Rauter put it in his trial after the war, “severe, but fair” (streng, aber gerecht).
On a theoretical level, Rauter’s last statement can be qualified as highly contradictory. Nevertheless, some examples illustrate what he tried to bring forward in his defense. Hygienic conditions were poor, most notably in the Judendurchgangslager, suggesting that the physical condition of these prisoners was not a matter of concern for the camp leadership. Nevertheless, a fairly well equipped hospital, run by imprisoned doctors, functioned from July 1943 on. The quality of this hospital was incomparably better than the ones in other concentration camps.
Moreover, the regime in Herzogenbusch obviously did not show itself as cruel as was the case elsewhere. To some extent, the camp leadership kept the violent behavior of the Kapos in check and did not punish escapees who were caught afterward with hanging. About 8,000 people, more than a quarter of the total number of prisoners, were released.
However, these examples are not convincing enough for the acceptance of Rauter’s statement. Although it can well be argued that the Herzogenbusch regime did not match the level of cruelty of the other concentration camps, this does not take away from the camp’s notorious record, notably during the first half-year of its existence. A substantial food shortage, the prisoners’ poor condition, hard working conditions, and systematic battering of a certain group of Jewish inmates caused the death of 400 prisoners. At some points, the camp showed an even more deadly face. For example, in September and October 1943, 27 Belgian resistance fighters, sentenced to death in Belgium, were hanged outside the camp, and in the last two months of its existence, about 450 political prisoners were shot.
It was not before 1978 that scholarly attention was publicly paid to the camp. At that time, Louis de Jong, the former NIOD director who published a 14- volume series about the general history of the Kingdom of the Netherlands in World War II, devoted one of his volumes completely to the Nazi prisons and camps. In this publication some 70 pages are dedicated to Herzogenbusch. See his Het Koninkrijk der Nederlanden in de Tweede Wereldoorlog, vol. 8 (’s-Gravenhage, 1978). After the publication of de Jong, it took another de cade before Coenraad Stuldreher, a former NIOD staff member, published a general article, “Deutsche Konzentrationslager in den Niederlanden: Amersfoort, Westerbork, Herzogenbusch,” DaHe 5 (1989):141–173, the first publication not in the Dutch language. Later he enlarged this article into “Das Konzentrationslager Herzogenbusch—Ein ‘Musterbetrieb der SS?’ ” in Die nationalsozialistischen Konzentrationslager—Entwicklung und Struktur, ed. Ulrich Herbert, Karin Orth, and Christoph Dieckmann (Gottingen, 1998), 1: 327–348. Apart from these general publications, the last decade has witnessed books published with attention to special features of the camp: Example, on the Jewish child prisoners, Janneke de Moei, Joodse kinderen in het kamp Vught (Vught, 1999); on the Bunkerdrama, Hans Olink, Vrouwen van Vught: Een nacht in een concentratiekamp (Amsterdam, 1995); and on the Philips- Kommando, P.W. Klein and Justus van de Kamp, Het Philips- Kommando in Kamp Vught (Amsterdam, 2003). See also Tineke Wibaut- Guilonard and Ed Mager, Kamp Vught 1943–1944: Eindpunt . . . of tussenstation (Amsterdam, 1994). Information about the opening and closing dates of the main camp and subcamps, the type of prisoners, and prisoner labor can be found in the ITS, Verzeichnis der Haftstätten unter dem Reichsführer- SS (1933–1945), 2 vols. (Arolsen, 1979), 1:154–157.
Because Herzogenbusch was not liberated by Allied forces—it was evacuated before their arrival—its prisoners were not in the position to get hold of camp records and take them home. On the contrary, testimonies clearly indicate that members of the guard force started to destroy the archives shortly before the final evacuation of the prisoners. Fortunately, not everything went into the flames. Immediately after the liberation in May 1945, RIOD (later NIOD) was founded and started to collect documents about the occupation, among them of course documents concerning the different camps in the Netherlands. Until the present day, the NIOD collection of Herzogenbusch documents, although fragmentary, is to be considered the main source for serious research into the history of the camp complex. Through the decades, the original collection has been enriched with various reports of former prisoners and other documents. As far as the archival situation is concerned, a serious drawback is the fact that none of the three camp commandants was tried in the Netherlands. Consequently, their penal records are absent. Grunewald died in action. Chmielewski and Huttig were tried outside the Netherlands. The only penal records are available for minor perpetrators. They are found in the NAN. The only penal record of a leading personality is Rauter’s trial. Because of the trial’s importance, its complete text was published in 1952. Portions of Rauter’s correspondence with Himmler and Pohl are to be found in the collection of the former BDC (later BADH) and published by former NIOD staff member N.K.C.A. in’t Veld, ed., De SS en Nederland (’s Gravenhage, 1979). The following collections in NIOD contain information about this camp: Coll. 77- 85, HSSPF; Coll. 210, BDC; Coll. 250b (Gevangenissen en Concentratiekampen; algemene verslagen); Coll. 250g (Vught I); Coll. 250gg (Vught II). Until 1978, only memoirs of former prisoners, usually of a highly personal character, had been published. Although informative, these publications cannot serve as a solid basis for scholarly research, as they are devoid of fact- checking or source references. Furthermore, some attention from the (mostly local) press has to be noted. However, the most impressive and touching publication about Herzogenbusch is a diary kept by prisoner David Koker, a 22-year-old student. This diary runs from February 11, 1943, through February 8, 1944. Koker was deported to Auschwitz on June 2, 1944. He did not survive the war. His diary is published as Dagboek geschreven in Vught (Amsterdam, 1977). On the bunker and the crematorium, see the testimony of former prisoner Wibaut- Guilonard, Kamp Vught 1943–1944: Bunker en krematorium (Amsterdam, 1992).
Critical Thinking Questions
- To what degree was the local population aware of this camp, its purpose, and the conditions within? How would you begin to research this question?
- Where were camps located?
- Did the outside world have any knowledge about these camps? If so, what, if any, actions were taken by other governments and their officials?
- What choices do countries have to prevent, mediate, or end the mistreatment of imprisoned civilians in other nations?
The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum Encyclopedia of Camps and Ghettos, 1933-1945. Vol 1, Early Camps, Youth Camps, and Concentration Camps and Subcamps under the SS-Business Administration Main Office (WVHA), ed. Geoffrey Megargee. Bloomington: Indiana University Press in association with the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, 2009.
Himmler’s order has not been preserved but is referred to in a letter from Pohl to Himmler on December 17, 1942, BDC H540: 3654, copied at NIOD.
RSHA Circular, January 18, 1943, NIOD [C61.01], Collection 250g.
On February 16, 1944, Himmler endorsed Pohl’s request and transferred Herzogenbusch from Pohl’s responsibility to Rauter’s. Pohl is referring to this decision in a letter to Rauter, March 29, 1944 (BDC H540: 3649, copied at NIOD), in which he suggests to hand over the camp to Rauter from May 1, 1944.
Doc.I, 1380- b, 14, NIOD.