LTRP Note: The following is an excerpt from Diet Eman’s autobiography, Things We Couldn’t Say. Diet was in her early 20s when Holland was invaded by Hitler. Soon, she became part of the Christian resistance movement with her fiance and other young people. In this excerpt, Diet crosses paths with Corrie and Betsy ten Boom on a train heading toward the Vught Concentration Camp.
“Barracks No. 4, Vught Concentration Camp”
by Diet Eman (author of Things We Couldn’t Say)
June 6, 1944, the day of the Normandy Invasion, came. That afternoon, all of the prisoners at Scheveningen, sixteen hundred of us, were told to gather all the belongings we had because we were going to be moved right away. We had no belongings, of course, so I was ready in a moment. We were called out, cell by cell, and we had to line up in long rows and be loaded onto those trucks, some of which were covered with canvas. The soldiers were standing all around us, bayonets on their rifles. They moved us first to a railroad station, and then they put us on a train.
Even while they moved us that night, the Germans were very nervous. The invasion had begun, and they were scared. None of us really knew about the invasion, but I suspected it because of what Trix had told me. And I heard the Germans, while they piled us on the buses and the trucks, talking about it themselves.
I knew this area, and I knew that if we left the Scheveningen prison through the side door, as we did, we would be on the street at the very end of the city of The Hague, the van Alkemadelaan. On the left were the dunes, with all those German fortifications that the Allied planes had been bombarding; then there was the coastal strip with its big, expensive hotels. But there was nothing else around the prison—nothing other than the strip of dunes where Hein and I had often biked together, the place I could never forget because the little trees had their peculiar honey smell in the spring—the meidoorn trees. The place was called Meyendel. I had even biked there as a child with my friends Rie and Jet, and played cops and robbers.
When we left the prison, therefore, I thought we would go to the right because the city had two railway stations: one to the south, the Hollandse spoor, and the other to Utrecht and the heart of the country, the Staats spoor. The stations were only twenty minutes from my parents’ house. I told myself that we should be going to the right because there was nothing to the left except the forbidden territory of the dunes.
Instead, the buses took a turn to the left. The only destination to the left would have been Waalsdorp, in the dunes, and everybody was scared stiff of Waalsdorp. It was the place of executions, so I was terribly afraid too. The Hague prisoners all believed that if they were being taken to Waalsdorp, there would be nothing but silence for all of us. At the same time, though we didn’t know where the invasion might have happened, we knew that there was an invasion somewhere. And an invasion represented, for us, the end of all our misery. The Allies had landed. Everyone expected it sometime, of course, like the coming of Christ: we all believed that at some point, somewhere, our Allied friends would come and we’d be free again.
But when those buses turned to the left, the prisoners from The Hague knew what was going to happen. The trucks followed a road where the dunes are high on both sides, an open area full of dry grass called helm, to Waalsdorp, the place of execution in the dunes. Some people on those trucks were so desperate that they were nearly out of their minds with fear. I think that God gave me a very logical mind; sometimes that is good and sometimes not. But in this case I had already thought that there was no point in jumping out of that truck: you couldn’t really run in the sand, and soldiers were all around, so where could you go? Even if you didn’t break your leg or get a concussion jumping off the train or truck, you couldn’t run very fast up steep hills of dry sand in forbidden territory full of land mines.
But some were so desperate that they were jumping out. The buses kept right on going, so I never knew exactly what happened to them; but there were other vehicles full of soldiers right behind us.
At two in the afternoon we came to a tiny railway station that I had never known about. There, all sixteen hundred of us were crammed onto the platform, arranged in blocks, and again surrounded by armed soldiers. We stood there in deadly silence for hours, except for the Germans who were talking to each other. And it was during those silent hours of standing there that Corrie and Betsy ten Boom (whose story was told in The Hiding Place) first saw each other. They hadn’t seen each other for months, and their father had already died in our prison…
As we were standing there, the two sisters started worming their way toward each other, which you could do very slowly without being spotted in that mass of people surrounded by the Germans. Finally they stood beside each other and could whisper a few words when no one was looking. After several hours a train pulled up, and we were herded in. Corrie and Betsy were able to stick together, and once they were on the train they could actually sit next to each other. It was a passenger train with seats, not a cattle train. I happened to end up in the same compartment with them, and that’s when someone who may have been in Betsy’s Scheveningen cell told me the story of Corrie and Betsy. When I saw them sitting there for the first time, they were holding hands, tears streaming down their cheeks from happiness—and sadness too because their father had already died.
As we were being loaded onto the train, the Germans walked up and down very menacingly. For all those months, we had talked only to our cellmates; but here, all of a sudden, were sixteen hundred people on that train. It was maybe six or seven o’ clock by now, and getting dark. Every train at that time was equipped with blackout curtains inside, so that the whole train would appear perfectly dark from the sky—thus the Allied planes could not see them. As the train lurched forward, I was praying that we wouldn’t go to Germany, because I knew that if we crossed that border our chances for survival were not good. I’d been initially overwhelmed by the fear that we would go to Waalsdorp and be executed; now that fear was removed, and the longer we stayed on the train, the more I believed we were going to Germany. …
All of a sudden, the sound of the steel wheels beneath us changed. We couldn’t see outside, and there were guards walking up and down through the aisles the whole time. But when I heard the sound of that train change, I peeked out quickly and saw water. I knew that we had to be at the Moerdijk Bridge, a very long bridge over a long waterway, the Hollandse Diep. Again, I felt a sense of relief. I knew then that we were not heading east toward Germany, but instead probably south to Vught, the big concentration camp in a wooded, sandy, and infertile area near Den Bosch. Actually, I had held out hope that we would go to Vught. Of all the evil places, I believed, it was probably less bad because at least we would stay in the Netherlands. Vught did have a bad name—there were many executions there—but Amersfoort also had a bad name, and every camp had a bad name of its own. I knew it was not going to be any fun.
At one point on that train ride a woman got up to use the bathroom, and she stayed inside so long that I didn’t know what she was up to. But when the train took a little curve, and I saw that she had opened the window in that bathroom, I guessed she was going to try to escape. If the train had been going straight, I wouldn’t have seen that. I thought immediately about how I could help her. I knew she was going to need time, so I tried to make sure that nobody would enter the bathroom right at that moment. Nobody else was in line right then, so I stood there as if waiting for my turn; meanwhile, I could be sure that nobody else would come and force the door open.
Then I saw her jump off the train. That woman must have known that territory like I knew the area around Barneveld—like the inside of my pocket. She knew there was going to be a sharp curve where the train had to really slow down. It was dark already, and I was keeping my eye on a little split in the door. And when I saw her jump, I said a prayer: Lord, protect her.
The rails there are situated mostly on the dike. German soldiers were sitting on the roof of the train with machine guns, but it was very late on the 6th or early on the morning of the 7th of June and quite dark. She knew that curve was coming, knew where there would be woods and shrubs, and she jumped at the right spot.
That escape gave me an indescribable feeling. There!—one got out. Thank you God! I said to myself.…
We arrived at Vught in the darkness of early morning, and there was roll call immediately. About eight had disappeared. So, apart from the woman I had seen jump, there were other escapees. I was very happy that eight had gotten away during the train trip alone. I heard that report because the guards often spoke to each other as if we weren’t even there; to them, we were just like cattle. Sometimes that was a good thing because when they discussed what was happening in the war, those of us who could understand German picked up a lot of information. When your life is at stake, your ears are like radar. Whenever I heard them discussing anything—such as how many had escaped—I listened very closely.
When the train stopped and we got out, we were in the middle of the woods. The step off the train seemed very high—we had to jump down—and all around us were woods. No paths really, just woods. Many German soldiers were stationed all around, still with their bayonets mounted, holding Doberman Pinschers on leashes. We were told to form rows and march into the darkness because the train couldn’t carry us any closer to the camp. If some fell—if they stepped in a hole in the pitch darkness, say—there was screaming and pushing and a couple of whacks. But people quickly got up and marched again on the uneven ground. After a while, we came to the front gate of Vught.
At the camp, we were all put in an enormous reception hall: it had no windows, except maybe a few very high up, and it was still quite dark. There was no place for us yet in that camp, and for a while they didn’t know where to put us. Suddenly and unexpectedly the officials at Vught had received sixteen hundred people from Scheveningen—and perhaps from other prisons as well. The leadership did a lot of running around there, and the Germans left us standing in that hall with no beds, no blankets, nothing. But I had a rain coat, and I put it over my head and got down on the concrete floor. I felt blessed: at least I had something. I was very tired, and I slept.
In the morning, someone high up said that the prisoners all had to undress—the men gave us the order—and so we stood there naked. If you tried to keep your bra and your panty on, they got mad and yelled, “Undress! Undress!” There we stood, while those officers were passing by, when suddenly a whole bunch of male soldiers came into that hall. I was scared, standing there naked. Those soldiers started walking back and forth, laughing and making remarks about what they saw. So many young women, and all of them undressed in front of those guards and the other officers walking back and forth. There were female guards too, so it was not as if we were at the total mercy of those men; but I’ll never forget the way they walked past and stared.
It was a very short time that we were absolutely naked because one woman guard came along and said, “Hey, get those people their prison dresses.” Our own clothes were bundled up, except our underwear, and we all got prison gowns. We still didn’t know what was going to happen to us. We finally got our underwear back, put it on again, and got into our prison gowns. They were the kind of gowns that could be opened a long way in the front: no buttons—only hooks and eyes, and very large pockets; no sizes, of course, just large and small; thick cotton, as heavy as denim, and gray with dark blue stripes. For a very long time after the war, I would never wear stripes—never….
When we came to our barracks, we found a big “4” painted on it. Around that group of barracks stood a tall barbed-wire fence, and outside lay a large open space, then another very high barbed-wire fence, just like you see in pictures of all the concentration camps. That fence was hot with electrical current. On the corners stood towers, and in the towers were guards with machine guns.
Right away they made a big announcement: “There is another fence with barbed wire, and there are mine fields between, and we have trained dogs. So don’t ever try to escape. You will be shot, or killed by the current, or ripped to pieces by the dogs, or else you’ll step on a mine.”
Nakedness in front of those soldiers, the prison gown, and that warning—that was our introduction to the concentration camp at Vught. (from chapter 13, Things We Couldn’t Say)