WESTERBORK, Netherlands — With almost nothing remaining of the former Nazi transit camp Westerbork, visitors are turning to a simulation that “recreates” the site of Holocaust-era incarceration using virtual reality.
During World War II, Westerbork was used by the Nazis to imprison Dutch Jews on their way to “resettlement” in the east — the regime’s euphemism for genocide. Nearly every Tuesday for two years, a train with hundreds of Jews left Westerbork. Of the more than 100,000 Jews deported from the remote facility, only 5,000 survived the Holocaust.
Beginning in the 1960s, the Dutch government dismantled Westerbork, including the inmate barracks and almost every structure from the war era. Massive, highly sensitive radio telescopes were built on-site in 1970, and their operation still prevents cars from approaching the grounds. With little more to see than the former camp commander’s house preserved in a glass enclosure, visitors typically rely on tour guides and Westerbork’s up-to-date museum, located 2 miles away.
Last month, museum staff began piloting a virtual reality (VR) simulation with tour groups, in part to help visitors envision what took place at Westerbork. Inside a dimmed room with wrap-around screens, volunteers have begun using a console to explore the camp as it appeared between 1942 and the end of deportations in 1944, when Anne Frank and her family were held at Westerbork on the way to Auschwitz-Birkenau.
By zooming in and out of the GPS-based model, users can focus on dozens of barracks, several guard towers, and all kinds of camp facilities. Unlike the Nazi-built death camps in occupied Poland, many photographs were taken at Westerbork during its operation. The images helped build a simulation with details including individual bricks, strands of barbed wire, and imperfections on wooden shingles.
According to Westerbork historian and guide Bas Kortholt, the VR model appeals to museum visitors who enjoy shaping their own experience, as opposed to people who prefer being presented with personal stories or artifacts.
“I believe in virtual reality for some part of the visit,” said Kortholt, whose research has included tracking down Westerbork barracks sold to Dutch farmers in the 1960s, and the role of soccer matches played among the camp inmates.
According to Kortholt, the main reaction of visitors to the VR simulation has been “surprise” with regard to the camp’s size. The forest long ago encroached onto the grounds, so it’s not readily apparent that Westerbork was a vast complex where 20,000 people were imprisoned by the end of 1942. Designed to lull inmates into confusion and passivity about their ultimate fate, the camp included a well-functioning hospital and building for cabaret performances.
The VR simulation was designed by Paul Verschure, a professor of cognitive science at Barcelona’s Pompeu Fabra University. Two years ago, Verschure and his team launched a VR app for the former Nazi concentration camp Bergen-Belsen, in Germany, where liberating soldiers encountered mounds of corpses in the spring of 1945. Based on electronic tablets, the app uses photos taken of those atrocities to show visitors what occurred in each part of the camp, beneath their own feet.
‘The feeling of being gripped was lost’
In 2015, Germany’s Public Prosecution Service ordered the creation of a “virtual reality Auschwitz-Birkenau” to assist in prosecuting Nazi war criminals. The model was needed to “prove” — for instance — that an accused guard would have been able to see the killing operations from where he was posted inside the camp.
Using laser scans, archival photos, and testimony, the simulation’s makers dubbed VR Auschwitz “much, much more precise than Google Earth” in its level of detail. Not long after its creation, the model was used by German prosecutors to convict former Auschwitz camp guard Reinhold Hanning. By connecting his known role at the camp to vantage points in the model, prosecutors argued that he was fully aware of what happened to victims escorted from the trains. Hanning was found guilty of accessory to the murder of “at least” 170,000 people.
Although the Auschwitz simulation was created for legal purposes, the educational potential of VR to teach about Nazi atrocities became apparent. Since last fall, VR fans have been able to “experience” the Holocaust with a simulation called, “Witness: Auschwitz.” There are no atrocities portrayed in the immersive experience, as designers chose to focus on “everyday life” at the death camp where one million Jews were murdered.
As the creator of both the Bergen-Belsen Memorial App and the new VR installation at Westerbork, Paul Verschure has called his team’s projects, “completely grounded in being active.” Although VR technology requires an upgrade every few years to remain cutting-edge, the improvements will ultimately yield “a completely immersive topographical overview” of the site.
According to Westerbork researcher Bas Kortholt, VR simulations have their limits. Specifically, “the feeling of bring gripped was lost,” said Kortholt of his experience using the Bergen-Belsen Memorial App on-site. “I thought to myself, I could have done this at home,” he said.
Still, admitted Kortholt, the 180,000 visitors to Westerbork each year are increasingly detached from the history of the war, and VR is one tool to help educate them. In terms of the Holocaust, most visitors have heard of Anne Frank and Auschwitz, but little else, said Kortholt. The question most commonly asked, he said, is “where were the gas chambers?” (There were none at Westerbork, as it was a transit camp.)
“You have to give different types of ways to tell the story of the Holocaust. This is not the only way,” said Kortholt, whose tours are based on the accounts of Westerbork victims.
Along with the emerging role of simulation technology, efforts are being made to restore some physical aspects of Holocaust sites. At Westerbork, for instance, symbolic sleepers will soon be added to where deportation train tracks once crossed the camp, according to Kortholt. In Poland, at the former Nazi death camp Sobibor, the foundations of the gas chambers were excavated and preserved in recent years, and visitors will be able to view them by next year.
The track record of “recreations” at Westerbork has been checkered, included a short-lived reconstruction of part of the barracks where Anne Frank slept, met by protest from survivors. Some additions to the grounds were generally accepted, however, including a symbolic deportation train and 20 sloping mounds where barracks once stood.