They appear less than three seconds in the film, their faces distorted through the glass. Little cherubs, looking in confusion at the chaotic scene on the railway platform. In a few moments the train will start running and they will be on their way to a Nazi concentration camp.
For decades, these children have been among the anonymous victims of hatred, captured in rare footage of Nazis sending people into cattle cars to be murdered.
The recording is part of a compilation known as “Westerbork Film”, the name of the Nazi transfer camp from which Dutch Jews were deported to concentration camps in occupied Poland and Germany. Made in 1944, the footage has been used in countless war documentaries, with unknown passengers serving as public faces to millions sent “east.”
Today, two Dutch researchers, authors of a new book on the film, have identified two of the children behind the glass, along with at least ten other individuals captured in the film, providing a personal and more detailed view of the lives destroyed. by the Holocaust.
The children were Marc Degen, 3, and his sister Stella Degen, 1. Researchers believe her cousin, Marcus Simon Degen, who would soon be 4, was also on the train. The children were deported with their parents on May 19, 1944 to the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp in Germany. The scene was recorded by Werner Rudolf Breslauer, a German Jewish prisoner who was tasked with filming aspects of the camp for propaganda purposes.
The three children survived the war even after their parents were taken away from them, thanks to the efforts of another prisoner who hid and protected them. Two are alive and bear witness to the horrors they suffered.
“Now I feel like I can scream from the rooftops, ‘I’m still here. The Nazis didn’t catch me, “” Marc Degen, who recently turned 80, said in an interview at his home in Amstelveen, a wooded suburb. from Amsterdam.
Her sister, now Stella Fertig, lives in New York. Her cousin also survived the war, but died in 2006.
The researchers, Koert Broersma and Gerard Rossing, revealed the identities of other people who appear in the film in connection with the release of their new book, “Kamp Westerbork Gefilmd”, on Tuesday (18) at the Westerbork Field Memories Center, a museum and memorial in Drenthe, the Netherlands.
The publication of the book coincides with the launch of a recently restored and digitized version of the “Westerbork Film”, created by the media archive Instituto Holanda de Som e Visão. The documentary, originally around 80 minutes long, is now two and a half hours long, showing various aspects of life in the transit camp, including a few recently discovered recordings. The movie with the new scenes has also been adjusted to correct the speed (so that people walk at a normal pace), which makes their projection longer.
Before these recent identifications, only two passengers out of nearly a thousand on the train had been named: a gypsy woman who spies with terror between two doors of the cattle car was recognized as Settela Steinbach by a Dutch journalist in 1992. Broersma and Rossing had previously discovered that a woman being pushed into some sort of cart was Frouwke Kroon, 61, from Appingedam, a small town in northeast Holland, who was killed in Auschwitz three days later.
“Putting a name on a face makes this huge monolithic tragedy really understandable and noticeable,” said Lindsay Zarwell, film archivist at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington. “Having a first name and last name, and knowing a little bit about where the person is from and what happened to them makes it real. Sometimes it makes me shiver. And it literally changes what you see as well.”
The restoration of the film and the investigation of its history was a joint effort of four historic Dutch organizations: Sound and Vision, Camp Westerbork, the NIOD Institute for War, Holocaust and Genocide Studies and the Jewish cultural quarter of Amsterdam.
“The four institutes that are doing this film wanted to make sure that the story, and the whole story, was told,” said Valentine Kuypers, curator of Sound and Vision.
With the same goal in mind, Broersma and Rossing decided to dig deeper into the story of the film, which was done at the behest of SS Field Commander Albert Konrad Gemmeker. He intended to send it to the Nazi authorities who wanted to close the transit camp. By the spring of 1944, 90% of the Jews in the Netherlands had been expelled.
“It was made like a propaganda film,” Broersma said. “Gemmeker was afraid of being sent to the Eastern Front because Westerbork had lost its vocation as a transit camp.” The captain instructed Breslauer to take pictures of people at work because “he wanted to show that Westerbork was still important as a work area”.
Breslauer filmed for months with material purchased by the SS. But he went beyond the limits of his task, documenting not only the work, but also three shipments of Jews, two arrivals and one departed.
The outward train which took the Degens was divided into two parts. Third-class passenger cars, complete with windows and seats, were driven to Bergen-Belsen, Germany, where some prisoners were held as “negotiating material” and exchanged for German prisoners.
The other half of the train, windowless cattle cars, went to Auschwitz-Birkenau, where the vast majority of passengers were killed in gas chambers upon arrival.
Did Gemmeker, the camp commander, ask Breslauer to film the transport? Broersma doesn’t believe it. He interviewed Breslauer’s daughter Chanita Moses in the 1990s, and she said her father filmed the trains without the commander’s permission, which sparked discussions.
“She told us her father was determined to leave eyewitness testimony on film,” Broersma said. “He wanted to record footage of these transports because they were definitive proof of the Holocaust.”
The film contains approximately 8 minutes of transport footage. Travelers with yellow stars sewn to their coats, shoulder bags, climb into the open compartments. Some are stunned, but others look strangely happy – which sparked much academic debate later. The elderly and disabled are seen sitting on the floor of the train, among the straw and luggage. When the captain gives the signal, the huge doors of the car are closed.
Filming ended abruptly, for reasons unknown. The raw material has never been edited. Breslauer lost any advantage he might have had as a cameraman, and he, his wife and three children were deported to Theresienstadt in September and then to Auschwitz, where the woman and her two children were killed with gas. He died in an unknown location in February 1945; her daughter survived the war.
Stella Fertig said she can’t remember anything from the war years.
“People say, ‘You better not know’,” he said. “But I would like to know a little more.”
She and Marc Degen were unaware of the film, or their role in it, until the writers contacted them. When Marc saw the recording, he recognized himself and his mother in the right window of the train compartment.
“I was delighted to see myself as a boy, to be transported with my family,” he said. “I feel privileged to be able, at 80, to feel in good health, in my head and my body, and to be able to speak about it today”.