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Sobibor Interviews

Jetje and Sientje Veterman

"you didn’t see any people"
In November 1942 in Zwolle, nineteen-year-old Jetje Veterman, her sister Sientje, their younger brother and their parents were rounded up and taken to Westerbork. Because Jetje found an orderly job in the punishment barracks, she was not immediately put on a transport east. Neither was her sister, who worked in the kitchen, or her younger brother, who helped build barracks. Their mother found a job in the laundry, while their father was soon put on a transport. Jetje did not think much of the Jewish refugees from Germany, who were also imprisoned in Westerbork. ‘The German Jews there were generally as bad as the regular Germans,’ she stated in 1947.

In March 1943 Jetje and her sister were also taken away to go to Auschwitz. But when they arrived at the camp the train kept going. She never even caught a glimpse of this camp. ‘We just heard screaming and that was all.’ The train went on to Sobibor, where the camp SS separated the men and women as soon as they arrived. Jetje did not see what happened to the men. The women ‘were told to keep moving and they walked behind us armed with belts. We were asked whether we wanted to work and that we could apply for the laundry, the factory, etc.’ Subsequently the young women who were selected to work - Jetje and Sientje among them - were searched in the roll call area. ‘They took everything from us, luggage, jewellery, etc.’. The women were taken away on the same train that had brought them there. Jetje had not been able to get a clear picture of the camp. ‘We didn’t know what Sobibor actually was. You didn’t see any people, the barracks were completely empty, no beds, nothing.’

in the sorting barracks and the marmalade factory
The train’s destination turned out to be the Lublin-Flugplatz labour camp. In the past the large halls had been used to assemble aeroplanes. In these factory halls Jetje and her sister - together with other Dutch women, including Cato Polak, the sisters Suze and Surry Polak, Mirjam Penha-Blits, Sophie Huisman, Bertha Ensel and Judith Eliazer - had to sort clothes in that came from murdered Jews. From Lublin the clothes were taken by train to Germany. Hundreds of Polish Jewesses who were also put to work sorting clothes, simply could not believe that the Dutch women were Jewish too - they did not speak Yiddish.

In this labour camp also there were always selections and it was essential not to get sick. But living and working conditions deteriorated visibly and Jetje contracted typhoid fever. She ended up in the Revier, but she was not safe there either, because the weakest prisoners were regularly taken away. Once Jetje’s fever was gone and she returned to work in the nick of time just before one of these selections was to take place.

Not long after that she and other girls were put on a transport to a marmalade factory in Milejow that was run by the Wehrmacht. Conditions were relatively good there. The stable on the site served as a sleeping-place for both women and men. The food was much better and the women were not constantly yelled at by the guards. The male prisoners were from the Trawniki labour camp, but one day they were taken back to this camp. Jetje and the other women were also taken there later. ‘It was terrible, it smelled of gas and all the barracks were empty. We had to start by cleaning the barracks. We never saw the men again who had left there the day before.’ Those men, together with most of the other Jews in camps in and around Lublin were shot in early November during a massacre by the SS under the code name operation Erntefest. More than 42,000 Jews were killed during this orgy of violence. In Trawniki the number of dead was about 6,000.
 
"we could pick out all the clothes we wanted"
When she arrived in Trawniki Jetje had seen the male prisoners burn the bodies. As they themselves were shot shortly after that, Jetje feared the same fate awaited her and the other women. But ‘the Oberscharführer treated us very well and told us we would stay here and life would be good. And we were fed well and we could pick out all the clothes we wanted’. In Trawniki Jetje and the other Dutch women were put to work, among other places in the vegetable gardens and making clothes.

Eight months later the women returned to Lublin, where they worked in the camp’s vegetable garden. ‘I was like the Kapo of the estate. We had to work in a large garden, planting potatoes etc. Because we were outside all day we could organize a lot. Sometimes there were good posts. Through the Vorarbeiterinnen that came with me I was able smuggle a thing or two.’ Because the Red Army was advancing rapidly, the camp was evacuated post-haste in the summer of 1944. Escorted by SS and Wehrmacht the prisoners started on their death march to Auschwitz. As they left the camp the group was bombed by Soviet planes. The Germans used the prisoners as a shield by pulling them on top of them. They walked day and night, and many were close to exhaustion. ‘If you couldn’t keep up, you were shot.’ As the Germans were also completely worn out, the final leg of the journey was made by train.

"at the wire I spoke to him"
In Auschwitz-Birkenau the women were first disinfected and then registered in the Schreibstube. Jetje did not stay long in Auschwitz; she was put on transport again in September 1944. ‘There was a general selection,’ Jetje recounts. ‘All barracks were gathered. Dr. Mengele came to carry out the selection. Many people were gassed then.’ As she left the camp Jetje spotted her sister Sientje. She had contracted scabies and for all Jetje knew, her sister would disappear into the gas chamber too.

After a long journey Jetje and the other Dutch women ended up in Bergen-Belsen, north of Hannover, where they had to work very hard and were beaten frequently. There she contracted typhoid fever for the second time. In this camp she received a sign of life from her sister, who turned out to have been taken first to Buchenwald and later to Lippstadt. Eventually Sientje would see the end of the war in Kaunitz. In Bergen-Belsen Jetje learned that her cousin worked in the Diamantlager, which was going to be put on transport. ‘One time, at night at the wire I spoke to him.’ In Bergen-Belsen Jetje was liberated. Via Celle she and other people from the Netherlands were taken to Enschede.

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