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AMSTERDAM – They appear in the footage for less than three seconds, faces distorted through the window glass. Little angels staring in confusion at a chaotic scene on the platform. In a few moments the train will roll out and they will be on their way to a Nazi death camp.
For decades, these nameless children have been among the anonymous victims of hatred captured in rare footage showing the Nazis sending people in cattle cars to be murdered.
The footage is part of a compilation called Westerbork Film, named after the Nazi transit camp from which Dutch Jews were deported to death camps in occupied Poland and Germany. The footage, taken in 1944, was used in countless war documentaries, with the unknown passengers serving as the public faces of the millions who were sent to the “East”.
Now two Dutch researchers, authors of a new book about the film, have identified two of the children behind the glass, along with at least ten other people caught in the film, and offer a more detailed, personal view of life ravaged by the Holocaust.
The children were 3 year old Marc Degen and his 1 year old sister Stella Degen. The researchers believe that their cousin Marcus Simon Degen, who would soon be 4 years old, was also on the train with them. The children were deported with their parents to the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp in Germany on May 19, 1944. The scene was captured by Werner Rudolf Breslauer, a German-Jewish inmate who was hired to film aspects of the camp for propaganda purposes.
All three children would survive the war even after their parents were taken from them due to the efforts of another prisoner who hid them and looked after them. Two of them are still alive to testify of the horrors they suffered.
“Now I have the feeling that it can scream from the rooftops, I’m still here, the Nazis didn’t get me,” said Marc Degen, who recently turned 80, in an interview from his home in Amstelveen. a green suburb of Amsterdam. His sister, now Stella Ready, lives in Queens, NY. Her cousin Marcus Simon also survived the war, but he died in 2006.
Researchers Koert Broersma and Gerard Rossing will be filmed on Tuesday at the Remembrance Center Camp Westerbork, a museum and memorial that will reveal the additional identities of other people in the film in Drenthe, the Netherlands, as part of the release of their new book “Kamp Westerbork”.
The release of the book coincides with the release of a newly restored, cleaned up and digitized version of the Westerbork film created by the Dutch media archive Sound and Vision. The documentary, which was originally about 80 minutes long, is now 2.5 hours long and shows various aspects of life in the transit camp, including some recently discovered footage. The movie with the new footage was also set to the correct speed (so people would run at a normal pace), which increased the running time. It will be shown from Wednesday at Camp Westerbork Memorial Center in the Netherlands.
Before these recent re-identifications, only two of the nearly 1,000 passengers on board the transport had ever been named: A frightened Sinti girl peeking out between two cattle truck doors was recognized as Settela Steinbach by a Dutch journalist in 1992. Broersma and Rossing Frouwke Kroon, a 61-year-old from Appingedam, a small town in the northeast of the Netherlands, was killed three days later in Auschwitz.
“If you give a face a name, this monolithic tragedy is really understandable and understandable,” said Lindsay Zarwell, film archivist at the United States’ Holocaust Memorial Museum. “Having a first and last name and knowing a little bit about where the person came from and what happened to them makes it real. It gives me goosebumps sometimes. It literally changes what you see too. “
The restoration of the film and the study of its history were a joint effort by four Dutch historical organizations, Sound and Vision, Camp Westerbork, the NIOD Institute for War, Holocaust and Genocide Studies and the Jewish Cultural Quarter in Amsterdam.
“The four institutes that are making this film wanted to make sure the story and the whole story were told,” said Valentine Kuypers, curator at Sound and Vision.
With the same goal in mind, Broersma and Rossing decided to delve deeper into the story of the film made at the behest of the camp’s SS commandant Albert Konrad Gemmeker. He hoped to send it to Nazi officials who were planning to close the transit camp. By spring 1944, 90 percent of the Jews had been deported from the Netherlands.
“It was made as a PR movie,” Broersma said. “Gemmeker was afraid of being sent to the Eastern Front because Westerbork had lost its purpose as a transit camp.” The SS commander instructed Breslauer to take pictures of workers because he “wanted to show that Westerbork is still important as a labor camp”.
Breslauer filmed for months with materials bought by the SS. But he went beyond the limits of his assignment and documented not only the work, but also three transports of Jews, two arriving and one departing.
The departing transport that carried the degens was divided into two sections. Third-class passenger cars with windows and seats were brought to Bergen-Belsen in Germany, where some inmates were held as “commercial material” and exchanged for German prisoners.
The other half of the train, windowless cattle cars, drove to Auschwitz-Birkenau, where the vast majority of passengers were gassed on arrival.
Did Gemmeker, the camp commandant, instruct Breslauer to film the transport? Broersma doesn’t think so. He interviewed Breslauer’s daughter Chanita Moses in the 1990s and she said her father shot the transports without the commandant’s consent, which led to disputes.
“She told us that her father was determined to leave an eyewitness account on the film,” Broersma said. “He tried to take pictures of these transports because they were clear evidence of the Holocaust.”
The film contains about eight minutes of transport material. Travelers with yellow stars pinned to their coats, bags dangling from their shoulders, climb into open compartments. Some look confused, others look strangely cheerful – the source of much later scientific debate. Elderly and disabled people sit on a pulling floor between straw and luggage. When the commandant gives the signal, the massive train doors are closed.
Filming ended abruptly for unknown reasons. The raw material was never processed. Breslauer lost any freedom he had as a filmmaker, and he and his wife and three children were deported to Theresienstadt and then to Auschwitz in September, where his wife and two sons were gassed. He died in February 1945 in an unknown location; his daughter survived the war.
Some rolls of film have been smuggled out of the warehouse, Broersma said; After the war, they ended up in the NIOD, which is where historians first looked at them.
“The transport material was used in Alain Resnais’ famous” Night and Fog, “one of the most important Holocaust documentaries,” said Frank van Vree, director of the NIOD Institute, in an interview with So many documentaries, I don’t even know how lots. “
In 1988, the raw material was pieced together into an 80-minute roll in no particular order. This film became the most sought-after material from a million-film collection in the Dutch film archive, said the curator Kuypers. Last year, Dutch film director Robert Schinkel released a short film about the camp’s SS commander, Gemmeker, which contained two minutes of footage from the Westerbork film, which was colored by his production company The Media Brothers with a special effects partner, Planet XX
When Kuypers and her team at Sound and Vision requested all of the footage from the film archives in 2017 to begin restoration, they made a discovery: two original roles. These sharper and clearer images enabled Broersma and Rossing to read names and dates of birth on the luggage, thereby giving them the identity of other passengers.
They could also see three young children in Car 3 very clearly. They found out the identity of the children through an elimination process: The Degens were the only family with three children under the age of 6 on the Bergen-Belsen transport.
The children were separated from their parents in the camp; Their mothers were sent to work in salt mines and their fathers were deported to another camp, Sachsenhausen. The fathers both died in 1945; The mothers were sent to Sweden in exchange for German prisoners of war held there.
The toddlers who were left behind in the barracks with other orphans were given neither food nor supervision. A Polish Jewish nurse, Luba Tryszynska, took it upon herself to look after her, panting and begging for enough goodies to keep her from starving and to hide her under beds from the SS. The British liberated Bergen-Belsen on April 14, 1945; All three were eventually reunited with their mothers.
Stella Ready said she didn’t remember anything from the war years. “People say it’s better that you don’t know,” she 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 footage, he recognized himself and his mother in the right window of the train compartment.
“I was overwhelmed to see myself as a little boy being transported with my family,” he said. “I feel privileged that at 80 I feel healthy, in my head and in my body, and that I can talk about it today.”