Rotterdam, Quarantine Beneden Heijplaat

Address: Quarantaineweg 1, Rotterdam

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Opened in 1934, it was the most modern quarantine facility in the world. But because penicillin was just invented it was never really used as a quarantine facility.

In December 1938 the first refugees were housed here. It was used for adults and children. In September 1939 there were many children here, which the staff did not think was a good idea, even though officially only children older then 15 were allowed to be here. In November a large group was transferred to the Hoogstraat/Achterklooster in Rotterdam.

The facility closed down in November 1939.

All in all there was room for about 275 people.

The place still exists, it now houses a local artists community. Though some of the buildings have been demolished, it is possible to get a sense of the atmosphere of the quarantine station.

Erna Rechnitz and her sister were transferred from Zeeburg to Rotterdam on December 21, 1938. Erna writes:

“We only saw a complex surrounded by barbed wire with police and dog security and the river Maas with fantastically lit very big ships. We were taken to a small agreeable brick house were we got a light and friendly room with eight other girls. We were happy, because everything we had missed at Zeeburg we had here: closets, three basins with running water, a beautiful recreation room with magazines, decent china and nice adults.

Everything we had neglected in Zeeburg we made up for: we started dressing nicely and took care of our possessions. ………..

The next day the high snow came to the brim of our boots and we went exploring. The camp is completely outside the city: far away one can see the cranes and docks of the harbour. It involves nine houses: five of those are barracks where interns live, one is the house for the commander and the other Dutch staff, then there’s the bath- and kettle house and the kitchen building.

The first two weeks we lived from one day to the next except that we helped to clean our barracks. Sometimes transports arrived of people who were to travel on to England the next day and then we helped to take care of those people.

On December 23, in the afternoon, one of those transports from Vienna came in with the most pious of the pious and next to them the poorest of the poorest. Real galyut and Talmud Jews.

Boys of about sixteen, seventeen years old who said they couldn’t work because they were “workers of the mind”. This transport was to travel on the next day after Shabbat ended.

But that was the evening before Christmas. The chief rabbi of Rotterdam thus gave permission to leave Friday night despite the beginning of the Shabbat because one had to take into account the Christian holidays. You cannot imagine how those children were resisting this, how they were refusing to come along.

Those eyes – I will never forget those eyes, those big sad eyes, that was the only living thing about these people. That night I wept for the first time since our emigration about the fate of our people, understood our misery so clearly, our helplessness.

The next day everything was different again because the others were laughing and living and we were preparing a cabaret night…………” (55)

Harry Jacobi is short about his 6 weeks in Beneden Heijplaat:

“Rotterdam was awful. We were behind barbed wire. We could only see the big ships coming along the river. Nothing to do, very Spartan food, it was terrible”. (56)

“Esther” has better memories of Rotterdam:

“It was a very big barrack camp, and we were well taken care of. We got good food and drinks, but I had never washed my own hair at home for example. And of course there it was not done for us, so I did all those kind of things for the first time. There was a big barrack with single children. There were all separate barracks. There were adults as well. In my memory those barracks were very large, I think here were 30 children in one barrack. I don’t remember if there were bunk beds, I don’t think so. I had a lot of contact with one girl, we would walk along the Rhine together, that was all we could do. I do not remember her name. I was in Rotterdam for only 5 weeks, and I don’t remember much. We did not get any education. The food was not bad. When we arrived it was late and dark and we got bread with liverwurst and tea. We were received very well, but everyone was in bed already. There was barbed wire around the whole place, and big fences. But you were allowed to have visitors: my future foster parents came to visit me once. (57)

This is how Frederic Zeller describes the place in his book:

“It was dark by the time we got into Rotterdam, and the driver kept having to stop to ask the way before he finally set us down. I was disappointed. We were way out of the city, in the middle of nowhere, far from the harbor and ships. We stood in front of a tall fence with barbed wire, gate and guard-house. The guard, accompanied by a German shepherd on a leash, looked at the documents offered by our driver, opened the gate and admitted us, counting heads as we entered. We stood in the strong, icy, cutting wind until someone arrived and marched us through the dark towards the lights of the commander’s office. After a lot of questioning and entries in a big book, we were assigned to our barracks: Norbert and I being quartered together in a boys enclave. Susi was sent off in a different direction.

Our barracks had two huge bedrooms, one at either end, each with its own washrooms, small kitchen and day-room/dining room. They could be operated as two independent units, or as ours was now, as one giant unit. Our “bedroom” alone contained over eighty bunks, and I immediately commandeered an upper one. There were girls quartered at the other end of the barracks, in the women’s section. We all met and mingled in the central common rooms. [………]

I had met big Piet and little Piet. Within a day of arriving at the camp my stick-your-nose-into-everything personality had reasserted itself. Formerly the explorer of darkest Berlin, now discoverer of the exotic, mysterious Rotterdam Heyplaat Camp. I followed trails in the snow leading to the kitchen, laundry, mortuary, watch-room, electrical distribution center.. and boiler plant. Right from the start I became most curious about the boiler plant, that stubby, steamy, tall-chimneyed building in the middle of the camp. It rumbled the way I thought a whale should rumble. It sang the siren song of an oversized mermaid. I was forever hanging around the door trying to take a peek inside. It was best at night when the interior was lit. Then you saw two monstrously big, round, silver shapes, whales definitely, spouting streams of gleaming copper tubing. [….]

The conditions in the camp did not exactly help to dispel anxiety. There were practically no medical services, dentists, pharmacies, nurses or barbers. We had to rely on amateur self-help and aspirin. Food was not the main attraction either, and it seemed to get worse every day. We lived on potatoes and fish. Clean, healthy, monotonous food but barely enough to keep the hunger away. There were very few other vegetables, little bread, no butter, hardly any milk, no fruit. Just fish, fish and fish. [………]

Our guards with their police dogs and barbed wire, the regimentation of all our activities, eating, sleeping, cleaning, none of it was inspiring. We weren’t even allowed to approach the fence closely. Since we had only ‘temporary” status, the authorities feared that some of us might try to escape, mingle and disappear in the population. Not a bad idea, actually. […….]

I felt the lack of food, clothing or barbers less trying than the lack of books, or having something interesting to do with my head or hands. But now, just about all we had was our conversation, soccer in the snowy fields and occasional table-tennis games when some kind outside donor supplied the too, too fragile balls.

Later, in the spring, when people found themselves still behind barbed wire, some self-help was organized by the grown-ups. In response to our appeals, the camp commander put an unoccupied barracks at our disposal. It became the Cultural Center, with a makeshift theater/concert hall, table tennis room, photographer’s corner and barber shop. A man from Vienna had joined us recently, bringing with him a pair of barber’s scissors and thus civilization.

In the mortuary, the only vacant small room in the camp, there were classes for the very young. Older children, like me, were considered smart enough already.

Local talent was recruited: anyone who played fiddle, piano or could sing, who could juggle, dance or do magic tricks. Local talent fixed and tuned the battered piano, made stage lights out of tin foil, and once a week there was a Gala Night for all who wished to attend. Life was definitely looking up,

A kind Rotterdam movie house owner invited the entire camp, guards and all, to his theater. We traveled in a fleet of buses to a special showing of Disney’s “Snow White”. (58)

Norbert Ripp remembers:

“In any case, after two or three days permission arrived for me to stay in the country and I was taken together with a busload of others to the quarantine in Rotterdam. We arrived there at dusk and then we were immediately surrounded by a group of people with scarves on their heads, they almost looked like gypsies to me. You were more conscious of how people dressed then than we are now. And they were all hoping to find friends or relatives of theirs, arriving in the camp. But nobody found a relative. I was taken with other kids to an area where they took care of children, and I was put in a room with several others. I don’t remember much. I know the next morning when I got up my first job was to make 10 beds of kids who were younger then I was. That was my daily job. The food I think left something to be desired. I don’t remember anything about the food. It was brought in from an outside kitchen. Every Wednesday night we had something called Hungarian goulash. The pieces of meat in there were just tiny crumbs. We were forced to eat it and I got sick from the stuff whenever I ate it.

Another thing I remember about food in the quarantine was that there were many professionals amongst the people who were interned there and they had gotten together and approached the administration and suggested that each child should get one candy a day to supplement their diet. I believe that’s what we got.

They decided to start classes for us. The classes were held in the quarantine, it was originally used for sailors who came into the port with communal (?) diseases. And they had a place where they do autopsies…. Or perhaps it was a mortuary. So the desk I used as school desk was a slab of cement, desk high, with a depression of a human in the middle where they used to do the autopsies. That was my school desk. I don’t know if I learned anything there, probably not very much. But after ten weeks I was sent to Gouda, to the orphanage in Gouda.

Once in Rotterdam I was sick, and they bundled me up and carried me to the hospital or whatever, and for a day or two or three…. I remember another thing…. shortly thereafter I wasn’t feeling well, I was in the room and they gave me my first “aspirientje”, my first aspirin. There were two rooms children were in. And this hardly deserves to be mentioned here. It was dissolving in my mouth, and this is some string acid and you shouldn’t let it dissolve. And the little kid next to me had to spit out the aspirientje because he couldn’t take it. Of course, if that kid spat it out it follows that I also had to spit it out, so that is one recollection.

At the entrance of the camp were three wired cages for police dogs, without a roof. And supposedly the dogs were trained to go out of the cages, to go after anybody who tried to escape. I do not know if that is true or not, but that is what they told us. Another policeman had a bloodhound, a beautiful animal. And he gave us a demonstration of how they work. He gave him something to snuff, and somebody hid, and the dog found him: after he found him of course he wagged his tail.

Another thing I remember, it must have been around the time Germany occupied Czechoslovakia, and somebody pointed out somebody who was supposed to be a famous composer. I never caught the name, so I do not know who it was, but there were many professionals in the camp.

The children were kept in separate groups. We were not locked apart, but we usually functioned separately. I do not remember playing soccer there. I do remember playing soccer in Gouda: Rudi Geller got me into it. I don’t remember playing soccer in Rotterdam. We probably did that: that was just about the only game we really all played.” (59)


Aerial picture of Beneden Heijplaat, taken in 1937: the quarantine facility is in the red oval


55.  Berkhout-Rechnitz, Erna, Alsnog een grafsteen (Bussum no year)
56.  Interview Harry Jacobi, Amsterdam, 23 February 2009
57.  Interview Esther, 19 January 2009
58.  Zeller, Frederic, When time ran out, New York 1989, 175-182
59.  Interview Norbert Ripp, May 1, 2011