Tiny creatures of great importance: how Emmanuel Speijer did entomological research in the concentration camps
Emmanuel Arnold Maurice Speijer was born on 16 May 1904 in The Hague. After taking his doctorate in biology with a thesis on leaf-miner flies, he went on to work as a lecturer. In the months before his deportation he worked at the Joods Lyceum, a school that was founded in 1941 to teach Jewish children who were banned from attending regular schools from that year.
De Schaffelaar internment camp
On 19 December 1942, Speijer and his family were deported to De Schaffelaar internment camp near Barneveld in the Netherlands. More than 600 ‘socially prominent’ Dutch Jews were interned in the camp, which was housed in a castle, between 1942 and 1943. Due to their positions or connections, they were initially exempt from deportation to the East, but they too faced increasingly strict rules.
It is not entirely clear why Speijer ended up in this camp. He had to teach geography and biology, as well as do all kinds of chores. When he had a little free time, to take his mind off things, he and the children interned in the camp would go and look for insects to collect. He found ladybirds, wood mites and butterflies in the gardens and in the castle tower on the estate. Speijer’s chores included having to remove a wasps’ nest. While others might have viewed this as an unpleasant task, he took advantage of the opportunity to make a close study of the colony.
Collaboration with the National Museum of Natural History
Throughout this time, he kept in touch with professors at the National Museum of Natural History in Leiden, the predecessor to today’s Naturalis. They sent him items such as pins and alcohol for specimens, in return for observations and insects for their own collection. After a few months, Speijer was even relieved of his teaching duties so that he could do research on the estate of the internment camp for the museum.
Speijer’s stay in De Schaffelaar did not last long. After nine months, he was deported to Westerbork in the Northeastern Netherlands. He felt that it was important to preserve his collection, even if this meant giving it to the Germans, and he therefore asked them to keep it safe. It is partly thanks to these efforts that some of his collection can still be admired in Naturalis today.
‘Entomologist in Quarantine’
‘In the beginning, it didn’t seem that my stay in this camp would be interesting from an entomological perspective,’ wrote Speijer of his first days in Westerbork. It wasn’t long, though, before the camp’s Medical Service made him the ‘entomologist in the quarantine department.’ Instead of the caterpillars that he’d studied in De Schaffelaar, he now had to examine new camp prisoners for lice and mites. These creatures had to be removed with the utmost care, or diseases would spread quickly in the camp.
Despite the careful checks in the quarantine department, there were various outbreaks of disease in Westerbork. Speijer wrote about one of them – the mysterious ‘disease 7’ – at length. Could this disease have been caused by lice? Or was the culprit a mite that had been brought from Greece on rags distributed by the Germans? Speijer began a study to find an answer to this question. He sent specimens of infected skin to Leiden, to no avail.
Insects among the beans
In addition to his work for the Medical Service, Speijer started to collect insects once more. Before doing this, though, he first needed to convince the SS Commanders of the usefulness of his research. Speijer discovered that his fellow prisoners were secretly adding insects to the beans and peas they had to pick, to reduce the value of the produce sold by the occupying forces.
He played along, pretending to the commanders that he was setting up a large-scale experiment to identify the cause of the plague. He distributed jars containing beetles and beans throughout the camp, ostensibly to map out the conditions under which the beetles damaged the beans. Although the experiments did not produce any new information – as Speijer had expected – this did give him a chance to move freely in the camp.
Almost a year after his arrival, Speijer had to leave again. Although the deputy commander had shown an interest in Speijer’s research and offered to allow him to stay in Westerbork, Speijer nevertheless decided to join his parents on the transport to Theresienstadt.
Typhus fever in Theresienstadt
Speijer spent the final, and perhaps the most turbulent, year of his imprisonment in the Czech concentration camp of Theresienstadt. Nowadays, the typhus outbreak there in the first half of 1945 is one of the most discussed outbreaks of the Second World War. Fearing the Allied advance, the Germans took large groups of prisoners to Theresienstadt in the last months of the war. It soon became impossible to check all new prisoners for lice and to ‘disinfect’ them. As a result, the body louse – the main spreader of typhus – was able to move rapidly through the camp.
Due to his close contact with patients, Speijer also became infected with typhus. After two days, he had such a high fever that he was unable to keep working. One day later, the camp was liberated by the Red Cross and he left Theresienstadt on a stretcher. As a result, he was unable to take with him the hundreds of insects that he had caught, as well as several dozen microscopic specimens, and they remained behind in the camp.
When Speijer returned to the Netherlands after the war, his ‘first task was to inquire about the collection.’ Unfortunately, little remains of his collections from Westerbork and Theresienstadt. According to him, though, entomology had shown that ‘it can help to give meaning to our lives, even in the most difficult circumstances.’ Doing research had given him a goal and had prevented the occupying forces from breaking his spirit. The tiny creatures had thus been of the utmost importance.