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Cycling from Auschwitz to Westerbork: ‘I finally fully understand the scope of the Holocaust’

ROB VAN DER WAL

The three UG students have experience biking long distance, but they’d never done 850 kilometres, and certainly not past painful historical sites. ‘I finally fully understand the scope of the Holocaust’, says Nanette Vellekoop.

The three twenty-two-year-old students of psychology and international relations Wendelien Barkema, Roseanne Trijsburg, and Nanette participated in the ‘Back to Westerbork’ cycling tour. Together with fifty other students, they cycled past historical locations from the Second World War.

The route started at former concentration camp Auschwitz in Poland to former transit camp Westerbork in the Dutch province of Drenthe. It took them past locations such as the House of the Wannsee Conference, where the Nazis discussed how to exterminate the Jews, as well as submarine bunker, the construction of which cost thousands of labourers their lives.

Guilt

One thing they learned during the tour is how history can look different through the eyes of ‘winners’ and ‘losers’. Some of the students participating in the tour were German and Polish. ‘The talks I had with the German students were really interesting’, says Wendelien. ‘They’d been taught to feel guilty from a very young age.’ Besides: ‘This part of history is much more alive for them than it is for us. It’s very much a part of their identity as Germans.’

‘That’s something that came up during a presentation on Sobibor’, says Roseanne. ‘The presenter was saying how the Germans did this and that. One German student piped up and asked them to please says Nazis instead of Germans. I now make sure to do that as well.’

Police escort

Roseanne: ‘We really formed a bond. There were so many amazing things: all these awe-inspiring stories that we talked about, but also the police escort we got in large cities so we could cycle through them quickly.’

At the finish in Westerbork the students barely had time to rest; they were immediately swept away for a tour of the site. Roseanne: ‘It’s an intense experience, because it’s such a change in atmosphere. When you’re cycling, you’re full of adrenaline, but during a tour you need to really pay attention.’

Death penalty

Once the adrenaline has ebbed away, the history leaves an impression. ‘In Auschwitz, we got a tour past the part that used to house the political prisoners’, says Wendelien. ‘They’d get a trial, but they always received the death penalty.’ 

Roseanne: ‘They were the people who helped others, who sheltered refugees. They had good intentions and they were punished even more for that.’ It’s made her wonder: ‘You’d hope to be the person that helps others in times of war. But now I realise that I don’t know what I would do. It was so dangerous.’

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