17 – Labour camps: first housing

Labour camps are inextricably linked to the reclamation and exploitation of the Noordoostpolder. When the polder was drained in 1942, it was the task of the Board to have the new grounds exploited and make them fit for agriculture. As mechanisation was still in its early stages, thousands of workers were brought to the polder. Connections were poor shortly after the war and for that reason, the Board had over thirty barracks camps built for temporary housing of the polder workers. As early as 1 September 1941, the first barracks camp was opened near Blokzijl. In some years a total of over four thousand workers stayed in the camps.

Three horses transport sacks with the harvest, behind them a cart with field workers, 1950.
Three horses transport sacks with the harvest, behind them a cart with field workers, 1950.

Residential barracks

Initially, a labour camp comprised three, later four residential barracks. Each residential barrack housed a hundred men. The camps had a specific floor plan. Usually, two residential barracks were placed next to each other in a diagonal, with a third barrack placed opposite the first two. Together with the fourth barrack they formed a diamond shape. A bike shed and toilet building were placed next to each barrack.

The camps in Emmeloord, 1947.
The camps in Emmeloord, 1947.

Camp Enservaart, 1944.
Camp Enservaart, 1944.

Labour camp "Dorp A" Emmeloord-Oost, canteen.
Labour camp "Dorp A" Emmeloord-Oost, canteen.

In the centre of the camp area a kitchen barrack plus camp office were placed. Next to the kitchen barrack was a room for peeling potatoes and a storage for coals. There was also a canteen on the premises. Some camps deviated from this ground pattern. The barracks of Camp Blokzijl, for instance, were placed one behind the other along the Steenwijkerweg. This was also the case with the barracks of Camp Ramspol, as this camp had been built on the ring dike.

Camp life

The residential barracks offered little luxury. A residential barrack consisted of ten rooms, each comprising a bedroom and a dining room. Eight or ten men lived in these rooms. Sleeping conditions were not very luxurious. In the small wooden bunks there were not mattresses but sacks of straw with often many fleas. The men did not eat in the canteen. It was not until the late 1950s that a dining hall was added to the camp kitchen, where the men could have breakfast and dinner.


Fragment from the film ‘Work camp Noordoostpolder’ from 1946. This instruction film shows life in the residential barracks. These barracks accommodated the many workers who worked on the exploitation of the Noordoostpolder. 

Boring

Camp life was relatively boring. The polder workers worked on the land all day. They left the camp around six in the morning, armed with their shovels, and did not return until 6 P.M., hungry. During the day only the camp manager, the canteen manager and the cook were in the camp.

Arrival at Ramspol, 1941.
Arrival at Ramspol, 1941.

The camp manager was in charge of the camp and ensured peace and order. The canteen manager was mainly in charge of the supply of foodstuffs and other things. Then there were men who were assigned daily chores like cleaning the barracks and making sure the camp looked tidy.

Kitchen in Camp Emmeloord East 1955.
Kitchen in Camp Emmeloord East 1955.

They also helped the cook prepare the evening meal. The cook was important. Especially in the beginning, when the polder workers were digging ditches, food was the engine that kept the entire operation going. When the workers were not satisfied with the food, the camp manager had a problem. Especially the cabbage soup, which was served in the early years of exploitation, was not very popular.

Barber H. van Eikenhorst in work camp Marknesse II, 1948.
Barber H. van Eikenhorst in work camp Marknesse II, 1948.

Films and performances

There was little entertainment in the barracks. After a long work day and a hot meal they could play cards or billiards in the canteen. Most went to bed around nine. Having a drink with the guys was not possible, even less because beer was prohibited in the camp. On evening each week something was organised by the Cultural Committee. A film was played and sometimes there was a performance by a cabaret group, theatre company or musicians. Among them Jules de Corte, who was to become well-known, and André Carrel, Rudi’s father. The audience was thankful. They were very happy with a cultural distraction. Members of the Cultural Committee also passed around books and portfolios with magazines. There was a library committee who decided on the content of the library and the portfolios. Most polder workers went home for the weekends. They got on their bikes or were taken to the railway station of Kampen or Steenwijk and picked up again by lorries of the Board.

The canteen of work camp Nagele, managed by the Smit family. On the wall above the bar and shop the motto 'Eens visch thans graan' (Once fish, now wheat).1942-1948.The canteen of work camp Nagele, managed by the Smit family. On the wall above the bar and shop the motto 'Eens visch thans graan' (Once fish, now wheat).1942-1948. 

Men’s culture

It is obvious that the labour camps had a genuine men’s culture. All kinds of pranks were played in the barracks. For instance, new men were ‘inspected’ by a ‘man in a white coat with glasses’. They were bombarded with questions, while others were listening in behind a wood wall. Innocent newcomers were sent out to fetch a ‘closed holes pan’ or ‘grup mop’. There was laughter and suffering. Many famer’s sons, who had been raised in a protected environment and in relative luxury, had a hard time. They were away from home for weeks and sometimes grew very homesick. It was a life full of hardships, heavy physical labour, no privacy, but also of new friendships and fun. Only the strongest and most motivated endured.

Women and children

Women and children also stayed in the polder. There were family barracks at some camps, such as Marknesse and Urkervaart. These were inhabited by families who lived in the polder permanently. The head of the family had a job in the camp or worked on one of the culture farms in the polder.

What happened after the war

One barrack still reminds of the barracks camp in the village of Marknesse in the Noordoostpolder. Barracks camps used to stand here. On the brick barrack that remained the old number W 35 is still visible.
One barrack still reminds of the barracks camp in the village of Marknesse in the Noordoostpolder. Barracks camps used to stand here. On the brick barrack that remained the old number W 35 is still visible.

Shortly after the war the barracks were used to detain arrested traitors. A total of around 2,800 people were detained in the work camps. After a year this form of detention was over. A less glorious chapter in the history of the Noordoostpolder could thus be closed.

In Vollenhove a barrack was turned into a temporary hospital. Some barracks were used for years as temporary facilities for schools. Nearly all these barracks and all labour camps in the Noordoostpolder have been dismantled, so few tangible memories of these camps can still be found. Exceptions are Marknesse and Tollebeek. In Marknesse a brick residential barrack serves as Social Cultural Centre ‘De Marke’ nowadays. One of the rooms has been restored to its original state by Historic Marknesse in Word and Image. In Eggestraat in Nagele a final remnant of Camp Nagele has been preserved as part of a shed. In Tollebeek is the so-called Pioneers’ barrack that used to be part of the local camp Urkervaart. The barrack was renovated in 2006. An initiative of the Friends of Schokland to mark the sites where the labour camps used to stand has not been successful so far.

On the Wildzang in Tollebeek is the only wooden barrack from the pioneer phase of the Noordoostpolder.
On the Wildzang in Tollebeek is the only wooden barrack from the pioneer phase of the Noordoostpolder.