Devries, Robert

Devries, Robert

Nordhorn (Germany), Westerbork

Devries was born in 1924 in Germany in a little town called Nordhorn, the older of two sons of Jewish parents who owned a clothing shop. The Jewish community in Nordhorn counted only twelve families and Devries was the only Jew in his class during his time in “gymnasium,” a combined junior and senior high school. Devries had many Christian friends and he does not recall any anti-Semitism during his childhood.

This changed after the Nazis took power in Germany in 1933. The Gentile population of Nordhorn avoided contact with Jews and anti-Semitism became overt. Devries remembers that the members of his family kept to themselves and started to study English to be prepared for emigration. The situation for Jews became even worse when in November, 1938, anti-Jewish riots took place all over Germany. This pogrom came to be known as “Kristallnacht.” Devries states that Nazis burned down the synagogue in his hometown and smashed the windows of Jewish homes. The police arrested all Jewish men, including his father, and sent them to the Oranienburg concentration camp. Devries’ mother lied about her son’s age to keep him from being arrested. After a few weeks, Devries’ father returned to his family with his head shaved but would not talk about what happened in the camp. Immediately afterward, the family sold their home and tried to immigrate to the United States. They travelled by train to Rotterdam, Netherlands, where the local authorities interned them in a Jewish refugee camp for almost a year.

In May 1940 Germany invaded the Netherlands and a few days later the Dutch army surrendered. The Nazis arrested all inmates of the refugee camp in Rotterdam and transferred them to the Westerbork camp. Devries states that his family was among the first prisoners shipped to the Westerbork camp. He describes the living conditions as tolerable. Some of the inmates were used as forced labor. Devries worked as a locksmith and as a mechanic. There was no Jewish resistance within the camp because there was no torturing or killing of prisoners as in other camps.

In February 1942 the Nazis started to deport inmates of the Westerbork camp by the hundreds at least once a week, but new prisoners continued to arrive at the camp. At its peak the camp had about 20,000 prisoners. Devries states that nobody knew that prisoners were being taken to the extermination camps in the east and, therefore, there was hardly any resistance. The Jewish administration within the camp had to compile the list for the deportations as demanded by the Nazis. In February 1943 Devries’ parents were deported. Devries learned after the war that they were sent to Auschwitz where they perished.

In April 1945 Devries was liberated by the Canadian army. He believes that there were about 800 prisoners still in the camp. Devries attributes the fact that he was not deported to his job as a locksmith in the camp. A total of 102,000 Jews were deported from Westerbork to extermination camps.

In 1946 Devries emigrated to the United States. He says that he cannot forgive or forget what human beings did to other human beings during the Holocaust.

Interview Information:

Date: January 7, 1993
Interviewer: Rabbi Charles Rosenzveig
Length: 1 hour 1 minute
Format: Video recording