Archive NMKA Appelplaats Kamp Amersfoort
NOS Sport•vandaag, 06:34
Deportations, executions, hunger and cold: it was the miserable reality in the camps during the Second World War. Yet there was also a special, everyday distraction. They found prisoners in chess.
“Every night they played. And when the lights went out and everyone had to go to bed, the enthusiastic players disappeared into the laundry room, where a small burner burned all night. There they played or analyzed until late in the evening.”
This passage comes from the book ‘Lost game’ and makes it clear that the sport of chess was a major part of daily life in Camp Westerbork. But that was certainly not the case there. Chess was also played fanatically in Kamp Amersfoort, according to research by National Monument Kamp Amersfoort.
Chess games have been made in the camps by the prisoners with materials available in the camp.
Micha Bruinvels, director of National Monument Camp Amersfoort
Although that was not the case right at the start of the war, Micha Bruinvels, director of National Monument Kamp Amersfoort, says. “When you came in, you were shaved bald, put on a prison uniform and you had to hand in your personal belongings. So nobody could take things in.”
The camp prisoners therefore had to be inventive if they wanted to be able to play chess. “Chess games have been made in the camps by the prisoners with materials that were available in the camp.”
Chess pieces as phalanges
Bruinvels: “There are stories that chessboards and chess pieces were made of paper, but we have also discovered that real chess sets were made at that time. They were carved from wood with knives smuggled in, but probably also by prisoners who were worked in a crew where they had access to workbenches.”
One of those copies has been preserved, but then you should certainly not think of a chessboard of normal size. The playing surface is not much larger than twenty square centimeters. And the chess pieces that were played with are about the size of two phalanges.
NOS Chess game that was made in Kamp Amersfoort during the Second World War
The small plate, made by the Amsterdam window cleaner Johan Biesbrouck, could be folded in half and was therefore easy to hide. The camp management in Amersfoort did not allow chess to be played.
“But there were secret places everywhere where you could play chess at night.”
Also in Dachau
The game of chess was also popular in foreign camps, Bruinvels knows. During a visit to the former Dachau concentration camp, he came across chess pieces left over from the wartime.
Chess tournaments were also held there. Pieces were made by prisoners who had access to materials and tools. And even bread was used to play.
Chess allowed camp prisoners to ‘escape reality for a while’ during war
But chess was not only a pleasant pastime. There is a story known about a chess champion from Sliedrecht, Pieter Parel, who ended up in Camp Amersfoort in May 1944. “He survived the physical violence and humiliation by thinking about chess positions.”
The fact that you could forget the world around you helped several people to get through camp life.
That had a meditative effect, says Bruinvels. “That you were so busy in your head that you could forget the world around you. And that helped several people to get through camp life.”
And “closing yourself off from the misery” was necessary in Kamp Amersfoort. “It was a camp with a degrading regime of hunger, abuse, forced labor and executions.”
From Camp Westerbork, where a different regime prevailed than in the penal camp near Amersfoort, it is known that both the camp management and the prisoners played chess.
NIOD / Photographer R. Breslauer Camp Westerbork commander Gemmeker also played chess during the war
There was also a serious chess competition, which could never be completed due to the deportations of the players, as emerged during the investigation of National Monument Camp Amersfoort.
The chess competition in Westerbork is also written about in the book ‘Lost Party’. “How great the interest was, can be seen from the fact that of the approximately 200 men in the barracks, 50 took part in the competition.”
Hours of silence
“The entire barrack sympathized. At the extended table of the administration, where there was still the most light, games were played and during the four hours that the match lasted, it was completely silent.”
“What that means in a barrack, in which more than 350 people live, not only men but also women and children, is almost impossible to imagine. There were always groups of people standing at the games or looking at the results board, how the score was .”
“It was the pinnacle of chess life in Barrack 68. Because the transports dragged most of the chess players away.”
During the National Remembrance Day on May 4, all people who died or were killed in war situations and during peacekeeping operations will be remembered, with two minutes of silence at 8 p.m.
From 6.45 pm, the full ceremony, in which King Willem-Alexander and Queen Máxima lay a wreath on Dam Square, can be seen via NPO 1.
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