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The Girl In The White Headscarf

Updated: Sep 26

On Tuesday 16 May 1944, a roundup took place in Eindhoven and a young girl was arrested. Three days later, she was loaded onto a train's freight car and deported together with her family from Camp Westerbork to Auschwitz-Birkenau.

When the train in Westerbork was ready for departure, the girl carefully stuck her head out between the doors of the freight wagon. By order of the camp commander, the Jewish prisoner Rudolf Breslauer was shooting a film about the transport that day. The girl’s curiosity was triggered by the camera and Breslauer captured her on film. ‘Get away from that door, your head will get stuck’, shouted her mother and the girl disappeared back into the wagon. Not much later the train left for Poland.

Rudolf Breslauer

White headscarf

Breslauer’s film footage reappeared after the end of the Second World War. The image of the Jewish girl carefully sticking her head out of the train stood out. The shot lasted seven seconds. She was young, wore a white headscarf, but her name was unknown.

Her portrait was used many times and over the years she was named: ‘The girl with the headscarf’. Journalist Aad Wagenaar also saw the footage. He became intrigued by the girl and decided to start a search for her true identity. Wagenaar looked into the wagon number, which showed in the footage, and discovered that, in contrast to what people thought, it wasn’t a wagon full of Jews. The girl was one of the 245 Sinti and Roma who were deported from Westerbork to Auschwitz on 19 May. For years, the image of the unidentified girl had represented the Dutch persecution of the Jews.

Born under the caravan

Her name was Settela Anna Maria Steinbach and she was born under a caravan on 23 December 1934 in Buchten, South Limburg. Her father was a merchant and played the violin at fairs and village parties. On 16 May 1944, she was arrested in Eindhoven and at Camp Westerbork her hair was shaved off. She was ashamed of this and that was the reason for the white headscarf. Settela died in Auschwitz at the young age of nine, without realising that she would live on in a remarkable way.

Documenting deportations

Films of deportations are a rare form of evidence about the Holocaust. Usually made under orders from German officials, such films typically can only show the perspective of the perpetrators of the Holocaust. Perpetrator footage was usually created for internal purposes, or it might be made into propaganda for the German public. No matter what is being recorded, all films are shaped by the camera's gaze—and the perspective of the person behind it. Because perpetrator films can only show perpetrators' perspectives, many postwar documentaries have been criticized for relying on them.

This film is a complex source. It was commissioned by perpetrators and created by a Jewish prisoner in order to document the deportation of Romani people. Is this tension and complexity evident in the perspective of the film itself? Breslauer's camera lingers briefly on individual people, but it also seems to be an impersonal record of the deportation process. How do we understand this footage? Is it simply a perpetrator film, or is it a primary source created by a fellow target of Nazi persecution? Is it possible for a source to be both things at once?

In the end, 245 gypsies were deported. Settela’s mother, two brothers, two sisters, aunt and three cousins were also part of this group. None of them survived. Settela’s father died shortly after the war. It is unclear how many gypsies were persecuted in Europe. The estimates vary from 200,000 to 1.5 million.

This is the raw footage of that day. We meet Settela at around the 2:16 mark.


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