With so much news coming out of Hamburg this week I decided it was time to repost what I’d written about my visit to Neuengamme, a concentration camp not far from the city. I had spent several months in Hamburg as a law student, and this was a field trip organized by the law school. The following, a combination of two posts originally written in October 2005, joins other items I’ve reposted from the blog I kept back then that reflected on my time there, particularly with respect to what it was like being Jewish in Germany and learning about the history of Jews in Germany.
Keeping the holidays around here is challenging. My days are particularly packed, with more classes than usual as two of them wrap up this week. Yesterday began with Conflict of Laws, followed by Comparative Torts. Then almost immediately thereafter many of us boarded a bus for a field trip to the Neuengamme Concentration Camp.
It was one of those gorgeous fall days the holiday often falls on, sunny and pleasant. But we spent it in an environment whose modern serenity belied its past. Although this camp wasn’t dedicated to the extermination of Jews, per se, many did perish there (along with many, many others). On an occasion of contemplation, it was quite the place to spend the afternoon.
The concentration camp is just a few kilometers outside of Hamburg. In fact, it was established in 1939 as a result of a partnership between the city and the Nazis. Back then the city was in the middle of a building boom and needed lots and lots of bricks for all the construction. The Nazis, meanwhile, wanted to find a place to put all the people it deemed incompatible with society. So the city gave the Nazis the land it owned outside the city, land rich with clay deposits, and the Nazis used it to build its Neuengamme camp. In exchange it then gave back to the city all the bricks the camp’s prisoners produced.
The Neuengamme camp was one of the many such camps built across Germany. Like Dachau, whose use began in the early 1930s, it served as a place for Hitler to isolate his political adversaries. But whereas most of the Dachau prisoners initially were German, Neuengamme contained people pulled from societies all over Europe. It also housed POWs from the Soviet front. Unlike Auschwitz it wasn’t designed to summarily execute its prisoners, but they were often summarily worked to death anyway.
(There was also at least one instance when Soviet POWs were locked in a building and gassed with Xyclon B. Survivors from Neuengamme who were there at the time remember this occasion vividly. They’d all been assembled in the adjacent main square for roll call and could hear the screams of the dying soldiers.)
As a work camp, Neuengamme contained two main production facilities: a small munitions factory, and a brick manufacturing plant. One of the better jobs prisoners could have was in the munitions factory because the work was indoors and could be done while seated. However, if prisoners were even slightly suspected of slow or bad work, or sabotage, the omnipresent SS guards would kill them.
Meanwhile the production of bricks involved digging up the clay and hauling it to the factory, where it would be pressed into molds, cut, and baked, and then loaded onto barges for shipment down the river to Hamburg. Again, one of the better jobs at the camp was one on the inside of the brick factory, although the people who had to remove the bricks from the ovens had to do so without any protective gear. The outside jobs were the hardest: exposed and physically grueling. With poor clothing, meager rations, and forced effort at gunpoint, prisoners rapidly wasted away. In the summer they might last 2-3 months; in the winter, 2-3 weeks. The barracks were also overcrowded and unhygienic, and provided prisoners little ability to wash. Disease therefore also claimed many lives, either directly or as a result of Nazi euthanasia of unproductive prisoners.
The camp itself was also a product of prisoners’ labors, and the brick factory and canal they built can still be seen today. Hamburg sits on the Elbe, a river whose natural flow runs about 600 meters away from the camp. The Nazis decided it would be great to float the bricks to Hamburg, so they made the prisoners dig a canal connecting the factory to the river. A huge undertaking, requiring the manual digging through hundreds of meters of clay, it claimed many more lives than the SS’s propagandist photos would suggest. Most of the pictures from the camp at that time show able-bodied men working without any coercion, but this depiction was far from accurate.
On the other hand, while the Nazis tried to keep the local citizenry in the dark about what was going on at Dachau, obscuring it with a large wall, they were not similarly surreptitious about Neuengamme, which was merely bordered by a fence. Although the area is fairly rural, people could easily see what was going on inside it. Or at least smell the stench from the crematorium eventually built. Or see the prisoners who were lead out on urban details, like ordinance recovery after the bombs started falling on the city. The prisoners would be made to dig through the rubble and disarm any unexploded bombs. One advantage to the job was that prisoners could sometimes scavenge food, but at the same time it was also extremely dangerous. The thing is, though, everyone in the city could see these haggard people pass through their midst, sometimes even riding the streetcars. Although today people who lived through that time maintain they didn’t know what was going on, it’s a dubious claim.
After the camp was liberated by the British they used it temporarily as a facility to house displaced persons. In 1948 the then-mayor of Hamburg razed the wooden barracks and built a “conventional” prison where they’d stood. In retrospect doing so looks like an incredibly insensitive act, although at the time it may have seemed more reasonable. The mayor himself, a Social Democrat, had fled the Nazi state. His thinking behind razing the camp seemed to be based on the impulse to remove reminders of this dark period in order to be able to move on.
However the survivors couldn’t forget and didn’t want others to either. And so began a decades-long process to try to preserve what remained of it and its dark memories. Which was a hard task: the Cold War had set in, and Germany was preoccupied and divided by that. Meanwhile, in the 1970s another prison was built on the grounds, this time over the clay pits. But finally in 2003 the camp became a monument. The staff tore down the 1948 prison (which itself had been made by bricks earlier produced in the camp) and turned some of the remaining original brick buildings into museums. They also excavated the foundation of the building where the Soviet POWs had been killed. The staff decided not to rebuild the wood barracks, fearing that whatever they built would be far too sterile, and instead outlined the foundations where they had once stood with the bricks from the dismantled prison. The staff also decided not to restore the camp leader’s house.
In this quaint wooden house adjacent to the grounds, Max Pauli, the prison commander, lived with his wife and 5 children (or at least 4 of them — the wife died delivering the 5th, at which point her sister moved in). After the war he was tried and executed. The children went to live in other parts of Germany, changed their names, and have had no contact with the museum staff. The house, however, was subsequently occupied by whomever was heading the post-war prison. (One of these people had a questionable sense of “humor,” however, and had a new front gate installed at the end of his driveway. One side of the gate includes an icon of a ladder, referring to “leader.” The other contained the silhouette of the main buildings at concentration camps like Auschwitz. So his gate could be read as “camp leader,” just as Max Pauli’s front gate had decades earlier.) The museum staff has chosen not to show the comfortable life Pauli had lived out of concern that it would further encourage the neo-Nazis, who already like to come there and celebrate this dark history, by making the Holocaust seem like a good, cushy situation they should try to recreate.
These neo-Nazis may be the exception (although the tour guide fears they are a growing exception) to modern German attitudes towards the Holocaust. But even in the mainstream there is resistance to effective Holocaust memorialization. The museum is well-done and excellent, yet surprisingly new. And due to limited funding it had only limited hours. Also, the second prison is still there and still operational. With its light gray concrete walls it looms there in eerie silence. Although still occupied, hardly a sound escapes from behind its walls. In 1990 the Hamburg major acknowledge that it had probably been a mistake to have built any prisons there at all, but it is a slow process to have it decommissioned.
It’s hard to feel though, with a prison still there, that the trouble from the past has yet taken its proper place in history. The camp was built to isolate people from society, and that’s what the prison continues to do. It does so more humanely, of course, and with due process protections unavailable during the Nazi reign. In fact, many German legal codifications and instruments exist as they do today in response to what had happened before, in order to guarantee that it never be repeated. However, to look at a modern incarnation of a prison on the site of an earlier, horrific one, does not give one much hope that as much was learned from the past as there ought to have been.
We got back to school from our field trip at about sunset. I tried to pretend that sunset hadn’t quite happened yet and had one more meal in preparation for the next day’s fast. I had four classes that day so missing school really wasn’t a viable option, but I wanted to do something to not glibly ignore the day.
I had also discovered that a legal colleague, himself a descendant of Holocaust victims, had commented on my “Elephant in the Room” post. I read his comments in the morning, and was particularly pensive throughout the rest of the day and camp tour. It was all a lot to digest and hard to claim any sort of clarity.
Of course, how can there be any clarity? At the camp we faced the abject horrors inflicted by Germans. And back at school, I faced my 19 year old German friend who kindly stayed behind, even though he’d long since finished, to keep me company while I finished my meal.
Still, later in the evening some of us gathered to watch a soccer game: the German national team versus China. And one of my friends leaned over and asked, “Which one are you rooting for?”
Somewhat surprised at the question (I suppose I was tacitly rooting for Germany, in support of my friends) I cryptically responded, “You know, it’s a bad day to ask me that question. I’m finding it hard right now to say, ‘Rah rah, go Germany.'”
The thing is, Germans themselves don’t say that so much themselves anymore. In fact, those who do are immediately regarded as extremists. Even at political rallies there is vastly less pageantry than there would be at similar American events, where everything would be draped with red white and blue, with brass bands belting out Irving Berlin songs. Here, the only color motifs are those of the party, and only on the stage and some literature. There would be tremendous discomfort, my friends have explained, with having it any other way.