Sometimes, badass storytelling means talking about something difficult. Many Amsterdammers don’t know that key parts of the city were built or repaired by Jewish people during the Nazi occupation. One major example is the Amsterdamse Bos, a sprawling recreational area that Amsterdammers flock to all summer. Another is the quay at the end of the Kattengat. It was reinforced and repaired by Jewish men who were forced by the Nazi occupiers to work on it.
During the beginning of the occupation, Nazis took over what the Dutch government had been doing during the economic crises of the 1930s: creating civic work projects for the unemployed. The Nazis, however, twisted it to lay the groundwork for the eventual deportation of the Jewish population. The occupiers passed laws banning Jewish people from most trades, creating a large unemployed Jewish population. Then, they set up work projects for the Jewish unemployed.
Some Amsterdammers were sent to remote areas across the Netherlands. Initially, conditions in these remote camps were okay and workers were allowed to go home on weekends. Then, they stopped being allowed to travel and conditions worsened. Back in Amsterdam, some families were tricked into joining their husbands/sons at the remote camps. From there, the workers and the families were sent to Westerbork transit camp and on to concentration camps in Germany.
Some men, however, were assigned work in Amsterdam. Due to lack of documentation, there are still many questions about the Amsterdam workcamps and the people who lived there. We know that some survived by escaping from the work camps and going into hiding or being smuggled out of the country. We also know that there were longer-running projects for men who were married to non-Jewish women. Many of these men were kept at workcamps near Amsterdamse Bos. They escaped en masse near the end of the war.
It’s a story that is just beginning to be uncovered and talked about, however. In the winter of 2022, the Amsterdamse Bos had an exhibit about the work camp that was there. Hopefully, there will someday be a marker here on the Kattengat to help the city remember. It’s a dark and difficult part of Amsterdam’s history, but it’s one that needs to be discussed.
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