In the realms of Holocaust scholarship, Austria and Germany have had to bear the legacy of not only having been home to hundreds of thousands of Holocaust victims, but also home to the perpetrators of this most horrendous crime against Europe's Jews. This position in history has necessarily affected the manner in which the Holocaust has been memorialized in these countries, in both places of commission as well as places of omission.
Below are displays and descriptions of places of commission - concentration camps Mauthausen, Dachau, Sachsenhausen, and Neuegamme. Other places of memorialization deal with sites of the Third Reich in Munich that have had their infamy preserved as a memory of warning, rather than as a memory of honor. I have also documented here sites of Holocaust commemoration at museums and memorials in Berlin and Hamburg, as well as restored buildings that were part of the Holocaust saga: Jewish Museum Berlin; Neue Synagogue Centrum Judaicum Berlin; Momument to the Murdered Jews of Europe in Berlin; the Altona Dstrict of Hamburg; Museum of Hamburg History; and the Stolpersteine Project.
On January 1, 1941, SS General Reinhard Heydrich established a rating system for the extensive Nazi concentration camp system throughout the Reich. It was intended to differentiate between the imprisonment conditions and working conditions of the prisoners by giving different designations to already existing Konzentrationlagern (KLs). The definitions of the ratings were as follows:
Rating I - pertained to all those "protective custody prisoners" who were least encumbered and had the definite possibility for improvement, except those who were special cases or were in solitary. The camps that received this rating were Dachau, Sachsenhausen, and the main camp at Auschwitz.
Rating Ia - was for those who were given consideration as being in need of more rest, senior citizens, and those who could hardly work, such as prominent politicians and clergymen. They would be put to work in the herb garden at Dachau.
Rating II - was given for those who were heavily encumbered protective custody prisoners but who still held the possibility of reeducation and improvement. This rating was given to Buchenwald, Flossenbürg, Neuengamme and Auschwitz - Birkenau that was then under construction.
Rating III - was the worst category and was given only to Mauthausen and its sub camp, Gusen. It was given to heavily encumbered protective custody prisoners who were incorrigible, as well as criminals who had previous sentences and asocials who were barely educable.
By creating these prisoner categories, the Nazis followed their goal of connecting forced labor with intentional death.
Following the end of WWII, soldiers of the Soviet Red Army were housed in the barracks of the former Mauthausen Concentration Camp well into 1946. The entire area was subsequently turned over to the Austrian Republic on June 20, 1947. The Supreme Commander of the Red Army in Austria, Wladimir W. Kurassow, expressed hope that the site become a place to remember those who became victims in the struggle against fascism in order to create a free and independent Austria. With that charge, the Austrian Federal Chancellor, Leopold Figl, vowed that the Federal Government of Austria would make this site a memorialized warning to everyone who might want to depart from the path of democratic freedom. From its very outset, the Mauthausen Concentration Camp Memorial and Museum projected the message of triumph over fascism first and memorialization for fascism's victims second. This order of priority, I believe, is evident in the lack of effective and protective preservation of certain areas of the former camp, as can be seen in some of the following photos.
Immediately after German troops occupied Austria in March 1938, SS officials inspected stone quarries in Mauthausen and Gusen in preparation for building new concentration camps. The vast and pretentious public building ambitions of Hitler's architects provided justification for new slave labor facilities being placed near these valuable stone quarries. All the Nazi concentration camps built between 1937 and 1940 were located close to quarries or brick works.
The initial batch of 1,030 prisoners began arriving in Mauthausen from August 8, 1938 onwards. The first prisoners were put to work building the camp and later on they worked in the stone quarries.The site was designed to resemble an old fortress, complete with stone guard towers. The first Jewish prisoner arrived in Mauthausen on September 29, 1939. He was recorded as "deceased" 6 months later.
One can see in this picture the remnants of the iron supports that held the Nazi Eagle in place above the entrance to the camp, as seen in the picture above. Mauthausen held the record for concentration camps (as opposed to extermination camps) for executions and deaths, some 36,000 from January 1939 through April 1945.
Accordingly, Mauthausen was given the worst of all Camp Ratings - III, no doubt because of the arduous and often times deadly work in the stone quarry. This rating decreed that Mauthausen was "for heavily encumbered protective custody prisoners who are incorrigible as well as criminals who have had previous sentences and asocials who are barely educable." This translated into German and Austrian political prisoners and Jewish internees, the intellegentsia from the Slav countries and other opponents of the Hitler regime. Only about 7% of all the camp's inmates were prisoners with criminal records. The remaining 93% were people arrested for their nationality, race, politics, or religion.
The surrounding walls and barbed wire fences of the camp have remained almost completely intact, as have several of the prisoners' huts around the assembly grounds, two crematorium furnaces, the gas chamber, the execution ground and the Wiener Graben quarry with the "Stairs of Death." Mauthausen's walls that once imprisoned nearly 200,000 victims from virtually every nation in Europe now hold numerous memorial plaques dedicated to the victims of fascism as well as to the heroes who helped liberate them. One such plaque reads: "In memory of those citizens of the United States of America, civilian and military, who suffered death here for their part in the fight against the Nazi regime."
This view is taken from the entrance looking onto the "Appellplatz," the roll call grounds in the center of the camp, where prisoners had to stand for roll call morning and evening. The building in the foreground on the left is a reconstruction of prisoner barracks, which included a brothel for the privileged prisoners.
The majority of the barracks for the prisoners were formerly located in the area behind the buildings to the left and have all been torn down. There were 5 barracks to a row and there were 5 rows. Camp facilities such as the kitchen, hospital ward, steam room, gas chamber and crematorium were found in the buildings to the right. A memorial chapel and museum exhibits are now housed in many of those converted buildings.
Every set of barracks had its own common wash basins, as seen here, and their own latrines, of which none are extant today to see. These basins are nearly identical to ones that can be seen in the concentration camp of Sachsenhausen, whose latrines (which are pictured on this webpage) are probably also the same.
The exhibit rooms of the reconstructed barracks are fashioned in such a way that several groups of tourists can meet with guides or teachers at the same time in different rooms. The barrack exhibit rooms have bunks arrayed in no particular order, but are in the open, allowing visitors to touch them and walk around them.
This unrestricted freedom that visitors enjoy in almost all of the camp areas has an obvious drawback - seen here as graffiti on the walls of rooms that victims had at one time inhabited on their way to their deaths in the gas chambers. This violation of the site was very disturbing, mostly because those who are responsible for its preservation are doing nothing to prevent the desecration and eventual destruction of this memorial site.
The gas chamber at Mauthausen began operating on May 9, 1942, when its first victims, 208 Soviet prisoners, were gassed. The gas chamber was last used on April 28, 1945 with the gassing of 33 Austrians. In April 1945 alone about 1800 men and women were killed in this chamber. Altogether about 10,200 prisoners of Mauthausen were gassed either here or at the gas chambers at Gusen, Hartheim, or in Gaswagens (gassing trucks).
Bodies of victims were kept "refrigerated" here until they could be burned in the furnaces of the crematorium. About 4600 prisoners were shot who were incapable of working in the quarry any longer and another 2300 died either from beatings, drowning, or torture. Hundreds froze to death in the quarry during the winter of 1941/42 and at least 4700 prisoners were killed by lethal injections.
Until the end of April 1940, the corpses emanating from Mauthausen were cremated in the crematorium in the city of Steyr, totaling about 1900 victims. The three ovens in Mauthausen were activated on May 4, 1940 and over the next 5 years nearly 30,000 bodies were cremated in these crematoria. In these coal fed furnaces 7 to 8 corpses could be burned at the same time. While in its beginning single cremations were the standard, later on multiple corpses would be cremated at the same time. When in 1945 the capacity of the 3 ovens in Mauthausen could no longer handle the number of bodies being "produced," a number of mass graves for nearly 15,000 victims were dug in various areas of the region.
This exhibit, erected in the former kitchen of the camp, is one of six displays honoring Austria's victims imprisoned in other Nazi concentration camps. I couldn't help but notice the traditional basic black and white display scheme, punctuated with the color red for visual emphasis. Other camps portrayed are Auschwitz, Buchenwald, Sachsenhausen, Ravensbrück, and Theresienstadt.
The area where the SS once lived is today a monument park located on the terrain between the camp and the quarry steps. Here sculptures designated as Memorials to the Nations include 22 monuments and more than 30 inscribed plaques and stones. This memorial at the beginning of the monument park from the former Soviet Union typifies a predominant political theme seen here. Numerous countries chose to memorialize the resistance of their survivors rather than to honor their dead, which seems to comply to the original intent of memorialization at Mauthausen. Monuments were erected by the following countries and associations, some placing more than one memorial: Albania, Austria, Belgium, Bulgaria, Czechoslovakia, France, German Democratic Republic, German Federal Republic, Great Britain, Greece, Hungary, Italy, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Poland, Soviet Union, Yugoslavia, and Committee for Jewish victims of Mauthausen, Jewish Youth of Austria, and Spanish Republican Deportees.
Figures are portrayed strong and firm with fists raised in defiance, or, as seen here, as a strong Herculean figure breaking out of his chains to rescue another victim. It is as if it says “see how WE, the vanquishers of fascism, have saved the world.” This message of conquest over fascism permeates memorials raised by communist influenced nations. This message can also be seen in the GDR monument at Sachsenhausen.
The roadway visitors take through the monument park leads them to the infamous stone quarry of Mauthausen. The quarry received its name, Wiener Graben because the streets of Wien, Vienna, were paved with stones cut from the quarry at Mauthausen The ledge where Mauthausen prisoners were pushed to their deaths by the SS guards rises above a pool of water at its base.
The stairway of death, Todesstiege, was 186 granite steps that led down to the quarry. It was the scene of horrific, torturous labor as emaciated prisoners carried huge quarried blocks on their backs up the steps for transport. Without knowing the history of the site, one would think it looked very idyllic, as thick foliage has over grown the quarry walls shrouding the site with a deceptive pristine blanket of flora.
The Jewish memorial, seen here, was placed in a prominent spot on the south edge of the quarry in 1976. I appreciate this abstracted Shabbat Menorah as a memorial to the Jewish victims at Mauthausen. The menorah symbolizes the Tree of Life and speaks a more positive message for the future, as well as being highly recognizable as a Jewish icon marking Jewish memory.
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Dachau, once the site of a munitions factory during WWI, is more than 9 miles northwest of Munich. It is here, in March 1933 just days after the Nazi Party seized power in Germany, that Heinrich Himmler, Commissioner of Police for the city of Munich, ordered a concentration camp to be erected in the abandoned munitions factory at Dachau. This inaugurated a system of terror that cannot be compared with any other state mandated persecution or penal system. In June 1933, Theodor Eicke was appointed commandant of the Dachau Concentration Camp. He organized camp rules with stipulations that later became valid for all concentration camps. Eicke also divided the model concentration camp into two areas: the prisoners' camp surrounded by a variety of security measures and guard towers; and the so-called camp command area with administrative buildings and barracks for the SS.
Eicke established the infamous Dachau Concentration Camp as the prototype for all other camps. Dachau also became the training school for the SS, who carried their skills for torture and murder to work in other camps and prisons of incarceration. Eicke was awarded for his training and leadership skills by being appointed Inspector for all Concentration Camps.
The Dachau Concentration Camp complex encompassed both the actual main camp in Dachau itself as well as a number of subsidiary camps (approx. 170) of various sizes spread across the entire area of southern Germany and extending into Austria. The main camp comprised the actual prisoners' camp, the SS area as well as other places, such as the so-called plantation, the shooting range at Hebertshausen, and the burial grounds for concentration camp . . .
. . . prisoners, now the Concentration Camp Memorial Cemetery Dachau-Leitenberg. There is much about the entrance guard house of Dachau, Jourhaus, seen in these first pictures, that was duplicated at other sites. The infamous sign Arbeit Macht Frei, "work makes you free," has been seen at Auschwitz, Sachsenhausen, Theresienstadt, to name a few.
After entering the camp, the camp jail, known as the bunker, as well as buildings for workshops, kitchen and laundry facilities, were on the right. In front of this long row of buildings lay the roll-call square, seen here, where morning and evening roll-calls brought about corporal punishments and tortures.
Directly opposite the center of the buildlings above, is the camp street, which runs down the center of the prisoner barracks and is demarcated by the tall trees seen to the far left of this picture. On either side of the street was a long row of 17 barracks each, 30 of which were prisoner barracks numbered 1-30. The first 4 barracks were the canteen, library, schoolroom, and infirmary.
Taken from the street area, this picture shows how the memorialization of the sites of the barracks has been demarcated with rows of dark stones and a numbered marker showing where each barrack sat. Placed at intervals along the back side of the barracks, along the wired fences, were watch towers with armed guards.
The barracks were divided into 2 blocks, each of which was 330 feet long and 33 feet wide with its own entrance. Each block was divided into 2 parts. The main entrance of each block gave access to two apartments, each containing a living-room, 45 wardrobe closets lining the wall with the same amount of chairs and 4 tables. Each dormitory had 45 beds, stacked on top of each other. The bunks were arranged so that they could accommodate 90 persons, the number of prisoners for two apartments, comprising one block. The 2 block barracks were supposed to house 180 prisoners, yielding accommodations for 5400 prisoners at one time. After 1942, the number of prisoners at Dachau was never less than 12,000.
The 2 block barracks were supposed to house 180 prisoners, yielding accommodations for 5400 prisoners at one time. After 1942, the number of prisoners at Dachau was never less than 12,000. Each block of 90+ prisoners shared community wash basins and an adjacent room of toilets, pictured below. On April 26, 1945, the number of prisoners at Dachau at any one time amounted to about 30,000 men in the main camp of Dachau itself. An average of 1000 prisoners were crammed into each barrack that was designed to house 180.
No doubt these are similar to the latrines that were installed at Mauthausen and ones we can still see at Sachsenhausen. Most of the time they were overfilled with human sewage, which is why disease epidemics were a big killer in the later years when overcrowding was at its height.
This picture is taken from the entrance to the site of the crematorium, whose pathway crossed over a ditch at the end of the camp street, off to the left behind the last barrack #30. Here we see the fence, the neutral "no mans-land" zone, and one of the guard towers. In the far distant left of the picture you can barely see the reconstructed row of barracks where exhibits show the materials objects of imprisoned life at Dachau, seen in pictures above.
This memorial to the Jewish victims of Dachau is inscribed, "Do Not Forget." The presence of Jews at Dachau is rather downplayed, as this nearby information plaque reveals, speaking volumes by what it does not say: "The ashes of the bodies cremated in the ovens were shoveled into pits. After liberation, these places were marked as graves and memorial plaques erected later. Executions through shots in the back of the neck were carried out at an earthen wall or in a ditch. In the fall of 1944, the SS shot 92 Soviet officers, members of a resistance organization." I cannot help but wonder if a certain amount of justification for executions at Dachau was intended in the verbiage with the selection of "Soviet officers" and "resistance organizations, " as if to say, "a nation has a right to eliminate its real enemies," while avoiding any mention of murdered civilians whose only "crime" was being "racially impure."
Behind the wire fence was the camp crematorium, at first housed in wooden barracks and then reconstructed in brick with a gas chamber, undressing room, shower bath, and a mortuary in 1943. The prevailing wind was from the west and consequently the smell of burning corpses filled the camp, no doubt reminding prisoners of a dreaded fate.
Although part of the new reconstruction in 1943, the gas chamber at Dachau was never put into operation. Only the dead were brought to the crematorium for incineration - no living were brought for gassing. And yet, thousands of inmates from Dachau were gassed, in the chambers at Hartheim Castle, near Linz, Austria.
Of the more than 200,000 registered prisoners who went through the concentration camp at Dachau, 31,951 cases of death were recorded. The actual number of deaths at the Dachau Camp can no longer be ascertained as figures on deaths resulting from such causes as mass shootings and forced death marches were not registered.
After the prisoners had all left Dachau after the war, a refugee camp was established in the barracks for the displaced Jews. After 10 years, former prisoners met for a memorial event in Dachau and angrily discovered disgraceful conditions on the grounds. Work immediately ensued to convert the site into a fitting memorial. Another 10 years later, the memorial site included a documentary display, seen here, as well as a library and archives
This International Monument, now a renown memorial icon for Dachau, was erected in the roll-call square in 1968. The memorial, sculpted by Glid Nandor, intertwines abstracted portrayals of the suffering of prisoners until their deaths. At one side the monument is inscribed in French, English, German, and Russian and reads: "May the example of those who were exterminated here between 1933 -1945 because they resisted Nazism help to unite the living for the defense of peace and freedom and in respect for their fellow men." In the same languages the words "never again" are written on the other side. The Catholic Church, the Protestant Church, and the Jewish Community each set up a religious memorial on the camp grounds.
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No other German city has been so closely associated with National Socialism as Munich. It was here, supported by a number of private individuals, organizations and institutions that corporal Adolf Hitler rose from the ranks of army reject and informant to the position of "Führer" of Germany's largest party. It was here that the NSDAP, SA and SS were founded. And it was in the murky political subculture of Munich that decisive elements of Nazi doctrine were allowed to take shape. The reference to Munich in 1935 as the "leading city of the Nazi Movement" bears testimony to the political significance of the Bavarian capital - which is why important party headquarters and the administration of the members and finances of the party were established here.
In an exhibition titled "Ort und Erinnerung", organized jointly by the Architekturmuseum der TU München (Architecture Museum of the TU Munich) and the City Archives of Munich, the most important sites associated with National Socialism are made visible and explained within the context of the city's structure. The aim is to expose the topography of terror and the network of crimes that cast their shadow over Munich. The exhibition and catalogue provide a further stimulus to the long-running discussion surrounding the proposal to build a NS-Documentation Center in Munich. This first exhibition board tells about Feldherrnhalle at Odeonsplatz that marks the place where Hitler led his "putsch" followers, his SA. . . . .
"Sturm-Abteilung" in an effort to gain power by a coup directed against the Bavarian government on November 9, 1923. That attempt culminated in the "March to Feldherrnhalle" where many were killed. The march ended in Hitler being incarcerated for a few months, in which he wrote his infamous Mein Kampf. The most prominent structure on the Odeonsplatz, the Feldherrnhalle or Field Marshal's Hall, consists of three arches, with two Bayern lions at the entrance.
The building was designed in 1841 by Friedrich von Gärtner after the Loggia dei Lanzi in Florence, Italy on request of Ludwig I in honor of Bayern generals. With the death of HItler's fellow rebels, the Feldherrnhalle became a cult center of the Nazi movement. In 1933, a memorial designed by Paul Ludwig Troost was installed to commemorate the dead and an annual celebration was held there.
Today a small bronze plaque set into the walkway in front of the hall memorializes instead the 4 policemen killed in the putsch. This is a perfect example of how the memory of place can be affected by the politics of the current caretakers of the site. Once memorialized by the Nazis, it is now honored as a place resistance to the Nazis.
The putsch, attempted on November 8 - 9, 1923 by Hitler and his anti-democratic forces, festered seeds of dissent at beer halls such as the Hofbräuhaus, a brewery in Munich. Beer halls were huge taverns that existed in most larger southern German towns, where hundreds or even thousands of people were able to gather during the evenings, drink beer out of large stone jugs and sing rousing drinking songs. They are also places where political rallies can be held, a tradition still alive today.
One of the largest in Munich was the Bürgerbräu Keller, where the putsch was launched. The Bürgerbräu Keller, which could seat over 2,000 persons, was the place where Hitler, Göring and a few hundred Nazi storm troopers launched the failed Munich putsch, discussed above. In November 1939, on the 16th anniversary of the putsch, a bomb was planted inside the beer hall and exploded shortly after Hitler left the building. The impact was so severe that it caused the roof to cave in. The hall was later rebuilt and used as a service club for American troops after the war but was demolished in 1958.
The Hofbräuhaus was the second beer hall in Munich frequently used as a meeting place by Hitler and his followers. This is where Hitler outlined the 25 Points of the Nazi Party program in 1920. This building was heavily damaged during World War II but was restored and today serves as a popular tourist destination. Today's establishment tries to minimize its historic ties to the Nazi party by deliberately omitting that . . .
. . . . part of their history from their website timeline. But as long as symbolic imagery of the Nazi Party remains imbedded in its architecture and interior design, such as this ceiling decoration that clearly displays the Nazi Swastika on the ceiling of the entrance into the beer hall, they can expect nothing else. Do such physical memories of the Nazi Party undermine a community's efforts to distant itself from its past?
After he had been appointed Chancellor on January 30, 1933, the National Socialist German Worker's Party (NSDAP), or Nazi Party (founded 1920) succeeded in taking control of the state machinery, public administration, the judicial authorities and a major part of the society within a short time. The Party Headquarters did not move to Berlin in 1933, however, but remained in Munich. Berlin, capital of the Reich, had its party political counterpart in Munich, seat of the Nazi Party Headquarters. Munich as "capital of the Nazi movement" was the main emotional reference point of National Socialism.
The Palais Barlow on Brienner Strasse was used as party headquarters from the time it was bought in 1930. With this "Braune Haus" as the central building, a party quarter grew up from 1933, centered on an axis running from Königsplatz to Karolinenplatz. A policy of puchase and expropriation, demolition and re-building resulted in more than 50 buildings in the vicinity of Königsplatz coming under control of the Nazi Party by 1939.
The party buildings formed a self-sufficient complex. It had its own power station to provide energy and heating, central air-conditioning, warehouses for storing food, mass kitchens and canteens, its own post and telegraph office and several high security bunkers with underground corridors. The head office of the Gestapo was located in Munich to implement the inhumane instructions of the Nazi regime on the spot.
The Königsplatz was to become the architectural expression of Nazi Party ideology. The infamous burning of books took place here on May 10th, 1933. Two years later, March 1935, it was transformed into the parading grounds of the uniformed masses of the Nazi movement. The classicist buildings of the 19th Century had been reduced to picturesque backgrounds for military performances. The center of attention was drawn to the “Pantheons” adjacent to the Führer Buildings. These provided the historical framework for the mystical cult of the Nazi movement. The cult centered around those who were killed in Hitler’s failed putsch attempt of 1923, who were stylized as martyrs and “blood witnesses of the movement.” The cult illustrates the Nazi Party’s populist mystification of their own ideology.
After the war, May 1945, Munich lay largely in ruins but most of the buildings at Königsplatz survived almost intact, especially the Führer buildings and the pantheons. The religious icons of Nazi cult worship, the two pantheons, were destroyed by the Allies as part of their denazification measures. Other buildings were either demolished or allowed to be overrun by nature.
The Führer Buildings became the American Armed Forces first headquarters. The administration building of the NCDAP became the central collecting point for securing stolen works of art from all over Europe. Today the Führer Buildings house the Academy of Music and Theater. In 1987/88 the Königsplatz was returned to its former state of a neo-classical pattern.
Exhibitions and artistic installations have stimulated public debate about the legacy of the Nazi Party Headquarters for several years. Until now there hve been no permanent explanations on the sites to the history of the square and its surroundings, a place of mass rallies honoring the cult of a death dealing regime of terror that had no respect for human life. For a long time, there had been no reference on buildings that had been the architectural expression of the capital of Nazism. This one lone memorial "To the Victims of National Socialist Tyranny" situated in Platz der Opfer des National-sozialismus, is the last in a series of temporary memorials on the site, which abstractly spoke more against fascism than it did as an effective memorial to the victims. The eternal flame that was supposed to burn in perpetuity has long been dark.
The first information plaque on buildings of the Nazi Party's past was erected in 1996. Exhortations and commemorations of the Nazi terror must also bear reference to the criminal sites of the perpetrators. This is the only way to ensure that the sufferings of the victims remain permanently in the public awareness.
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On March 21, 1933 SA Stormtroopers took over a vacant factory building in the town center of Oranienburg, just north of Berlin, and set up the first concentration camp in the state of Prussia. Oranienburg Camp was a key site in the persecution of political opponents during the first months after the Nazi Party seized power in 1933. In the aftermath of the Röhm Putsch and the suppression of the SA, the camp was taken over by the SS in July 1934 and closed down. Up to its closure on July 13, 1934, more than 3,000 people were imprisoned in Oranienburg Concentration Camp. At least 16 prisoners were murdered by guards.
Sachsenhausen Concentration Camp was built during the summer of 1936 by prisoners from other camps. It was the first new camp to be established after the appointment of Reichführer Heinrich Himmler as Chief of the German Police in July 1936. The complex was designed and laid out as a model for other concentration camps. As a prototype camp used for training, Sachsenhausen had a special status in the Nazi Camp System. This was reinforced in 1938 when the Concentration Camps Inspectorate, the administrative headquarters for all camps under Nazi control, was transferred from Berlin to Oranienburg. This map shows the triangular layout of the camp.
More than 200,000 people walked through this front gatehouse to become prisoners in Sachsenhausen between 1936 and 1945. At first, the Nazi Regime imprisoned its political opponents here, but soon they were joined by ever increasing numbers of groups defined as racially or biologically inferior by Nazi policy.
During Sachsenhausen's nearly 10 years as a Nazi Concentration Camp, unknown tens of thousands of prisoners died of starvation, disease, forced labor, maltreatment, and systematic murder. Thousands of others died on death marches after the evacuation of the camp by the SS at the end of April 1945. About 3,000 sick prisoners, with doctors and assistants, were liberated by Russian and Polish troops of the Red Army on the 22nd and 23rd of April, 1945. The hands of this clock in the tower of the entrance gate forever marks the time of the day when the camp was liberated and Nazi terrorism at this site ended.
Sachsenhausen also bears the infamous sign at its entrance, "Arbeit Macht Frei" - work makes you free. Set above this gate in the upper rooms of the tower was a guard with a machine gun pointed down at the center of the camp, able to sweep the entire semi-circular area with gun fire if desired.
After the closure of most of the earlier camps, Sachsenhausen marked a new phase in the development of the Nazi camp system. The number of Jewish prisoners remained relatively small until 1938, when mass arrests and the state sponsored pogrom of Kristallnacht marked a drastic jump in the numbers of Jewish victims being incarcerated.
After entering through the gate, visitors walk onto the roll call grounds in the center of the camp and see an abstract portrayal of prisoner barracks, which are represented on a semi-circular stone wall that demarcates where the prisoner barracks were situated.
This closer view shows how the prisoner barracks were laid out in a fan-like pattern, erected in four rows around the semi-circular roll call area, going further back in declining rows of barracks to the narrowing point of the triangular site. The roll call area was used from 1939 onward as a place for hangings and executions by firing squads. Prisoners were executed in front of their assembled comrades in the roll call area, to serve as intimidation.
The camp security system consisted of a death-strip, a demarcated area forbidden for prisoners to trespass, an electric fence and a camp wall, all of which was reconstructed as part of the GDR National Memorial in 1961.
The complex of barracks known as the Small Camp was to the far right of the entrance and was erected in 1938 as a special camp for Jewish prisoners. Barracks 38 and 39, part of the Small Camp, was where the SS guards incarcerated Sachsenhausen’s Jewish prisoners from November 1938 to October 1942, when the Jews at Sachsenhausen were deported to Birkenau in Poland.
After that, these barracks were used for political prisoners from Poland and other countries. In the Spring of 1945, just before Sachsenhausen was liberated, the Small Camp was used for women prisoners. The barrack was of central importance to the prisoners. The chance of survival depended greatly on which block a prisoner was assigned to, as all barracks did not have the same accoutrements or population numbers. Guided by racist ideology, the SS sent mainly Eastern Europeans, Jews, and Gypsies to the barracks with the worst living conditions. They slept crammed into 3-tiered bunks or on straw sacks on the bare floor. Political prisoners from Germany or northern Europe had a better chance of survival with better living conditions in barracks where they had one metal frame bed per prisoner.
An exhibit display in Barrack 38 tells the story of Jewish prisoners' everyday life at Sachsenhausen through preserved artifacts, such as bunks, wash basins, latrines, as seen here, prisoner lockers, and mess hall tables.
In late 1992, right wing extremists destroyed parts of both Barracks 38 and 39 in an arson attack. Barrack 38 still shows the evidence of that firebombing, as visitors can see the remnants of the scorching on the ceiling of the Jewish mess hall. From 1961 onwards, an exhibition on the Nazi persecution of the Jews, seen from a communist perspective, was shown here. After the arson attack, Barracks 38 and 39 were again reconstructed in 1997, five years after the attack. The new 'Barrack 38' Museum was designed and realized by the Frankfurt architects, Braun, Voigt & Partner.
The exterior of the museum conforms to the basic barrack design. From the outside no one would suspect that the interior has been expanded to house the museum exhibit, which now includes a basement level. Sky lights allow for day light to reach the new, lower level.
Next to the Small Camp was Der Zellenbau, the Special Prison. This was the jail block especially reserved for prisoners of the Gestapo and the Sachsenhausen camp guards. This jail block was one of the very first buildings in the Sachsenhausen Camp, which prisoners had to build in 1936, according to plans drawn up by the SS.
It was a three wing block of cells held for those punished by the SS for infringements of camp discipline as well as prominent figures arrested by the Gestapo. At the end of the war in 1945, the building was used as a camp jail for isolation purposes and then was later abandoned and decayed into ruins. As part of the plans for the GDR Memorial in 1961, the jail's south-west wing was rebuilt.
An exhibition is housed in five original cells of the one remaining wing of the prison. It was created in 1999 and provides information about the use of the site from 1936 to 1961, with documentation on the personal stories of prisoners held at one time in the jail block.
Hidden from view by a wall completely surrounding it from the rest of the camp, the Special Prison was a secretive place where gruesome murders and many other forms of abuses were carried out. These stocks were used for tortures and hangings within the confines of the Special Gestapo Prison.
On January 31th, 1942, the SS announced plans to build the so-called "Station Z". This new installation was built for the sole purpose of extermination of prisoners. On May 29th, 1942, the SS invited dozens of high ranking Nazi officials for the inauguration of the new facility. To demonstrate its efficiency, 96 Jews were killed by shooting. In March 1943, a gas chamber was added to the "Station Z". This gas chamber was used until the end of the war. The number of gassed victims is unknown because the transports for gassings were not recorded in the entry registers of the camp.
At the end of Sept. 1939, there were 8,384 prisoners at Sachsenhausen. By Nov. 1939, this number had increased dramatically to 11,311 prisoners. At this time, the first Typhus epidemic began. Because the SS refused to give any medical care and due to the incredible lack of food, hundreds of inmates died in the following weeks. Up until April 1940, the dead were sent to the crematoria installed in Berlin. In April 1940, the first crematorium was built in on site.
In 1956, after Sachsenhausen had been used for many years by the Soviet Army, the People's Police, and the People's National Army of the G.D.R. to house their own prisoners, plans were made for the establishment of the Sachsenhausen National Memorial, which was inaugurated on April 22, 1961. The planners decided on a memorial site that would symbolize the "victory of anti-fascism over fascism," a theme common for post WWII memorialization in communist oriented countries. Titled "The Tower of Nations," the rows of inverted orange triangles symbolize only camp inmates who wore the orange triangle to denote their communist origins from Soviet block countries. This, in essence, failed to recognize any other victims at Sachsenhausen, either by nationality or by racial and/or religious connotation or political affiliation. It is as if it says only Soviets were victims here.
Its stone sculpture, Liberation, by Rene Graetz, depicts multiple heros: the Soviet Red Army soldier who liberated the camp; and the Soviet prisoners who, at their liberation, walked out on their own strength -tall, healthy and really quite "buff." This sent the intended message that Soviets were not victims of fascism, but rather were strong opponents and victors over fascism. This theme predominated at Sachsenhausen until 1990 when, after the reunification of Germany realized after the fall of the Soviet Union Sachsenhausen, formerly in the GDR, now became part of the new Germany.
The Sachsenhausen Museum now comprises a total of 13 new, smaller-scale permanent exhibitions that have replaced the GDR exhibitions. During its reorganization, the memorial site was expanded to include areas that had been ignored by the GDR in an effort to hide the existence of the Soviet Camp at Sachsenhausen, which had its own dark history of abuse and death. This Camp Wall Exhibition, near Station Z titled . . .
. . . Murder and Mass Murder in the Concentration Camp 1936-1945, is the most recent new exhibit to open at the Museum of Sachsenhausen. Photographs and documents have been digitally reproduced and imprinted on outdoor display boards placed on newly resurfaced walls, with some kind of protective coating to shield them from deterioration by the elements. Here visitors can read about different groups and individuals who were imprisoned at Sachsenhausen and see documentary evidence of their lives and deaths.
I believe it is important to preserve the Soviet "spin" implied in its memorialization at Sachsenhausen that perpetuated a communist agenda if for no other reason than to show how political ideologies can and do project intended interpretations on sites of memorialization, especially Holocaust Memorialization, for an intended future audience. It would be a terrible loss if all of the GDR memorialization messages were replaced and that history of Sachsenhausen Memorialization lost.
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The Jewish Museum Berlin opened on September 9th 2001 amid great controversy that debated whether Daniel Libeskind’s architecture for housing a museum was suitable or not. Originally intended as an extension of the existing Berlin Museum (seen to the left of the Libeskind structure) and its Jewish department, the project eventually became a Jewish Museum in its own right. Libeskind had won the design competition only months before the fall of the Berlin wall in 1989, after which the project had been delayed by a variety of political and financial difficulties.
This placard in front of the old museum shows the orientation of the new structure, the zigzag building, to the older, more traditional structure, laid out in the square shaped design. Arrows show the visitor where to enter in order to obtain entrance to the exhibit.
The building was completed in 1999 and between February of that year and February 2001 over 350,000 people visited the empty structure, paying 8 marks for the privilege of viewing a museum that had no exhibits in it yet. Even empty, it became one of the most popular tourist attractions in Berlin.
Many argued that the building should be left empty, as a memorial to those killed in the Holocaust although the Holocaust memorial in Berlin on Hannah Arendt Strasse was also in the process of being built. But a museum, by definition, includes a collection or an exhibition. Although the architecture of the Libeskind structure has been described by some as “a built horror,” it won the German national architecture prize. The public popularity of the building attests to an appeal that cuts across social and international boundaries. One of the major problems faced by staff at the Jewish Museum Berlin was overcoming the difficulties in the building’s orientation, which caused confusion for its visitors, thereby tainting their overall experience at the site. The building was always intended to be confusing and even somewhat threatening, as Libeskind felt that this was appropriate to the history of the German Jews.
Visitors enter the new structure by first entering the older original Berlin Museum, where they then walk down steep stairs to an underground level, passing through multiple corridors with sloping floors that appear to go nowhere. These “paths” each lead to a different conclusion, both literally and metaphorically, showing the different ways in which the Jewish population of Germany was lost during the 20th century. Along the walls of these paths are exhibit cases set into the walls that display personal items donated or on loan from individuals offered as memorials to their lost families and friends. Visitors are able to choose their own paths, ending up either at the garden, at an empty tower, a memorial to the Holocaust, or to more stairs, this time leading up to the main exhibits on the second and third floors.
This was quite confusing, because I remember passing the same underground displays multiple times, wondering how to get off the circular path I was on and how to get to the main museum exhibit, or was this it!! Visitors have to back track several times in order to see all that the building offers, as well as to visit the main exhibition. I should have preferred going directly to the main exhibition first, and then going down to the lower level Axis of Holocaust and ending up at the garden at the end of the Axis of Exile. As it was, I felt disoriented the entire time I was there. I believe this was also due to the fact that I had sprained my foot slightly and wanted to use the elevator rather than the stairs up to the main exhibit, and finding the elevators was problematic, as well as where I exited the elevators into the exhibition. I had no idea where I was, which way to go and if I was at the beginning or if I had entered the exhibit half way through.
Each floor of the main exhibit is long and narrow, with several zigzagging turns. The exhibition is displayed along a set route, ordered both chronologically and thematically. Titled areas include: Beginnings, Religious Life, Families and Middle Class Life, the Modern Age and Urbanity, Completion and Collapse of Emancipation, and After 1945. The exhibition layout denies visitors the possibility of picking and choosing what they wish to see on their museum visit – they have to walk through the entire exhibition areas. Critics have noted that Libeskind appeared to be more concerned with the overall design scheme of the architecture rather than in the museological requirements needed to enhance the visitors’ experiences in the architecture.
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The New Synagogue Berlin, on Oranienburger Strasse, was consecrated September 5, 1866. Prior to its construction, the Great Synagogue on Heidereutergasse, the only synagogue of the Jewish Community in Berlin since 1714, had been considered insufficient for the rapidly growing Jewish population for a long time. The 3,200-seat New Synagogue became the largest Jewish house of worship in Germany. The building's architect, the renowned Eduard Knoblauch, fashioned its design in the Moorish style of Islamic Spain. The dome, more than 50 meters high, was covered with gilded buttresses and acclaimed worldwide for its use of modern construction technology. The New Synagogue became one of the most famous sites of Berlin.
In the Kristallnacht Pogrom of November 1938, the New Synagogue escaped major damage through the good graces of a sympathetic German official named Wilhelm Krützfeld, the chief of the district police, who personally protected the synagogue from total destruction. But during WWII, it was severely damaged by Allied bombing in November 1943. When Berlin was liberated by the Red Army in 1945, only a small fraction of the former Jewish population of Berlin still lived there. The struggling Jewish Community of Berlin was then split in 1952-1953 by the effects of the Cold War into an East Berlin community and a West Berlin community. The ruins of the New Synagogue were in the eastern part of the city. In 1958 the main room of the synagogue had to be demolished, being thought structurally unsound. Those parts of the building closest to the street were the only remaining parts of the synagogue left.
Over the next 40 years, futile efforts were made by Jewish leaders to obtain permission to construct a museum in the still existing structures of the synagogue, but city officials wanted its complete demolition. To counteract this proposal, a memorial plaque was placed on the facade of the eastern tower in September 1966, the 100th anniversary of the dedication of the synagogue, in an effort to preserve some remains of the once magnificent structure. From 1971 until the reunification of the two Berlin communities in 1991, the leaders of the East Berlin Jewish Community sought over and over in vain to create a Jewish museum in the ruins of the New Synagogue. Not until 1988, in connection with the 50th anniversary of Kristallnacht and the politically motivated plans of commemoration, did the community achieve any success with city officials. In July of that year the foundation for the redevelopment of The New Synagogue Berlin – Centrum Judaicum was established. Its mission was to rebuild the New Synagogue on Oranienburger Strasse in Berlin as a permanent memorial for present and future generations and to create a center for the promotion and preservation of Jewish culture. In May 1995 the building was reopened with the permanent exhibition, "Open ye the Gates".
The new permanent exhibition of the New Synagogue Berlin - Centrum Judaicum, titled “Foundation” traces the century-long history of the building and the Jewish lives connected with it. Although very little of the original building had survived, some architectural fragments and remnants of the interior furnishings were recovered from the ruins of the historical building prior to its restoration. These form the main part of the exhibition. The various displays and documents give an impression of how diverse Jewish life was in this part of Berlin. Visitors on a guided tour are permitted to enter the open space behind the restored parts of the building. Here one can gain an impression of the immensity of the former main room of the synagogue.
The inner wall and the remnants of the masonry of the actual synagogue have been secured by a glass and steel structure. The ground plan of the former synagogue has been laid out in stone in the open space, marking the dimensions of the destroyed section. Thus the scars left by history remain clearly visible. Centrum Judaicum’s goal is to assemble and address the history of the Jews in and around Berlin. It seeks to recall the achievements of the Jewish people and preserve the memory of the Jews who were murdered in the Holocaust.
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After visiting the new Monument to the Murdered Jews of Europe in Berlin, I wrote the following personal perspective, which I have quoted here in its entirety:
"As a PhD candidate in Public History at the University of California, Santa Barbara, I recently completed a month-long tour of Holocaust sites in Poland, The Czech Republic, Austria, and Germany while performing archival research into the Polenaktion of October 28, 1938. . . .
. . . During my research trip to Berlin, I took the occasion to visit the new Holocaust Memorial in the center of the city. I had read several reviews about the memorial just after it had been constructed in 2005 so I was prepared to see a massive field of stone pillars meant to convey and incite emotions in the viewers about the Holocaust through an abstract artistic approach. As I came upon the memorial from the corner of Ebertstrasse and Hannah-Arendtstrasse, my initial reaction as I looked across the entire area was one of disappointment. . . .
. . . The field of stele first appeared small and insignificant and I did not see how this city block of rectangular concrete slabs could possibly impress me. But as I entered the memorial my perception began to change. At first the stele were barely inches in height, but as I continued to walk the concrete paths between the slabs, suddenly the ground plunged down and the stele were soon well over my head – a fact I could not know or see from where I first stood when I looked over the site. . . .
. . . As I continued to walk paths without any forethought as to where I would end up, the ground rose and fell in a random undulation, and the stele towered above me and cut off my vision of the horizon and the sounds of life in the city. One path looked very much like another and a sense of direction was impossible to maintain. Even as I saw other people pass in and out of my vision as they trespassed the paths of the memorial just as I did, I had this unnatural feeling of being alone and disconnected from all others. I emerged from the forest of concrete on the opposite side of where I had entered and as I looked back on the field of stele, I saw a completely different visual portrayal of the site. I now saw shadows that demarcated height and depth to the field, with variations in angles and slopes. And I could barely see those who still wandered among the stone giants, only catching glimpses as they walked in and out of my field of site. I realized that what I had just experienced taught me an important lesson about the Holocaust. . .
. . . Those of us, who only approach the experience of the Holocaust from the peripheral historical facts, will never be able to fully understand the perceptions and sufferings of those who actually lived through it – who actually walked its paths. And even those of us who do all that we can to try to learn about the Holocaust through the testimonies of those who survived, we will never be able to walk the same path and feel exactly what they felt, because each experience is as individual as each stone slab in the field of 2711. Even though they may appear the same from the outside, as the Nazis tried to strip all individuality from their victims, the stones are of varying heights, with varying degrees of slant, shading, color, and reflection. Individualities still existed among the Holocaust victims and to a great degree it was the randomness of individuality that allowed some to survive and a great many to die.
I also learned that once you have immersed yourself in Holocaust education by trying to internalize the testimonies of the witnesses and by becoming a witness yourself by seeing the camps, the gas chambers, the ovens, the burial sites and other places of death and torture that can now only be memorialized, your perception forever changes and you now have a clearer understanding of what the Holocaust really was and how it impacted personal lives and family dynamics, as well as an entire cultures’ identity and international societal ethics."
There is another part to this memorial site that is underground. I have scanned pictures from its brochure to share here and to discuss this memorial's educational exhibit that is built under this memorial site.
The architecture of the Information Center beneath the field of concrete stele was designed by Peter Eisenman, while the exhibition it houses was compiled by Dagmar von Wilcken from Berlin. The stairwells of its entrance and exit lead directly into the field of stele above. The exhibition rooms lie underneath the memorial, like catacombs of the first 3 centuries of the common era, where pilgrims came to commune with their honored dead. This subterranean exhibition is reminiscent of the construction of the New Museum at Yad Vashem that is also underground.
Upon entrance, visitors encounter an anteroom and a corridor-like foyer where verbiage and photographs document the historical backround of the Holocaust, a traditional timeline beginning to Holocaust memorialization. After this, four exhibition rooms take a rather non-traditional approach to Holocaust commemoration.
The first room, the Room of Dimensions, displays the number of Jews mass murdered in each European country, which is screen-printed onto the light gray walls. Encased in glass panels on the floor are letters and diary entries from individual victims of the murders. These panels in the floors are meant to pattern the placement of the stele above ground. The ceiling also reflects the undulation of the memorial pathways above.
In the next room, the Room of Families, display cases hang from the ceiling directly beneath the above-ground stele, and reflect light onto the floor to mimic the unseen pillars. These cases display stories and pictures of individuals and families from different parts of Europe, showing the diversity of Jewish life and culture that was lost.
In the Room of Names, the names and biographical data of known victims are read out loud and projected onto the walls. Here visitors see the continuation of the stele design in the ceiling and modified stele as places of seating. The final room, the Room of Sites, has 8 display cases containing texts and photos pertaining to the death camps with 4 other cases relating to another 200 other places where victims died. This underground exhibition hall gives the above ground memorial another dimension of understanding.
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Neuengamme was used by the Nazis as a forced labor camp from December 13, 1938 to May 4, 1945, when it was liberated by British troops. After the war, the camp was used by the British as Civil Internment Camp Number 6 for suspected German war criminals of the SS, the NSDAP, and officials of the Wehrmacht from 1945 to 1948. The camp was returned to the City of Hamburg by the British in 1948 when it became the Vierlande Correction Center for German criminals. The former Neuengamme Concentration Camp, located in the Neuengamme District of Hamburg, Germany, was converted into a Memorial Site in 1965. This model shows the parade ground for roll call in the center of the picture with the first row of prisoner barracks just to its left. The two buildings in red represent restored buildings standing at the site today. The buildings at the center top of the picture are the factory workshops and the Metallwerke foundry lies just to its right.
The Neuengamme Concentration Camp was established by the SS in 1938 when 100 inmates from Sachsenhausen were moved to an abandoned brickwork factory, pictured here) near Hamburg Germany, for the purpose of constructing a forced slave labor camp. The foundry belonged to the Metallwerke Neuengamme and was also known as the Walther-Werke.
Pictured here during its operation on an exhibit plaque in front of the factory, the Metallwerke forges and foundry were meant to manufacture wrought iron components in the production of munitions. However, it never went into operation. 350 prisoners were employed in carpentry, metal work, and foundry workshops. About 1000 old and sick inmates made up the weaving detail, producing camouflage netting, mats, etc., from camp materials looted from the prisoners.
Neuengamme remained a sub camp of Sachsenhausen until June 1940, when it became an independent concentration camp of 18 barracks built in 9 rows. These rows of barracks are demarcated today by slightly raised gravel beds showing the place where the barracks once stood. This picture is taken from the back of the camp looking towards the entrance.
The entry into the camp, as in all areas of the site, has exhibit plaques displayed with historical verbiage accompanying large reproductions of original photographs that record and explain all aspects of the camp's history. This allows visitors to be self guided and to meander the grounds at their own pace. This manner of memorialization, which has been very recently produced, shows how technological advancements in photographic reproductions has brought these documents out of the archive into a highly visible public domain. The explanatory exhibit plaque at the entrance explains why this camp entrance does not have the "Arbeit Macht Frei" gatehouse entrance.
The verbiage, in German, French and English, displayed with this photo document reads: "Camp Entrance - Built in 1940/41 (at first only as an interim solution), the camp entrance signaled to the prisoners from the moment they pased through it, that they were stripped of all human dignity and the right of self-determination. As the labor gangs left and returned to the camp, their numbers were checked by the SS guards, who also arbitrarily beat and kicked many prisoners failing to march in line in the prescribed manner. Following the model of other concentration camps, a representative gatehouse was planned to be built here in 1942, but the war ended before it could happen. The buildings belonging to the entrance area were demolished in 1953. Parts of the foundations of the bridge across the drainage ditch still remain."
Neuengamme’s prisoner population in 1940 was over 1,100. By July 1941, the number of prisoners increased to over 5,000. Due to chronic overcrowding and unsanitary conditions, typhus became an ongoing problem. Over 1,000 prisoners died during an outbreak of typhus that began in December 1941. At the parade ground, pictured here, prisoners lined up twice every day in rows 5 deep for roll call inspection. Originally the parade ground was not surfaced, only compacted superficially by a heavy roller drawn by the prisoners, who often stood on wet muddy ground. In Spring 1941, the parade ground was concreted over and remnants of the original ground are preserved today alongside reconstructed parts of the parade grounds.
The camp’s fence consisted of several parts. In addition to the electrically charged barbed wire that was held in place by the bent concrete pillars, there was also a diagonal wire fence, which was constructed with the intention of preventing prisoners from committing suicide by throwing themselves onto the charged barbed wire. There were paths on both sides of the fence, along which SS guards patrolled. On the inside, the path was bordered by an area of raked sand, in which foot prints could be instantly seen. The watchtowers were manned with guards that had machine guns and search lights. This picture shows the manner in which the historical exhibit plaques are displayed throughout the camp's site, explaining each component reconstructed and preserved.
In the early days of the concentration camp, bodies were cremated at a crematorium in Ohlsdorf cemetery. In autumn 1942 when the number of victims increased, the SS had a "provisional cremation facility" erected near the sewage plant. As the number of fatalities continued to grow, the SS started construction on a new crematorium on the camp grounds in autumn 1944. By the end of that year, the first two furnaces were finished and put into operation. The bodies of prisoners who died in the camp were cremated and the ashes spread in the camp gardens. This picture, which is displayed at Neuengamme today, shows how the crematorium once looked.
The crematoriums were demolished in late 1946, early 1947. After a campaign by Neuengamme survivors, a memorial plaque was placed in the location of the first crematorium in 1970. This is all that is visible to visitor today. The accompanying exhibit plaque with the picture seen above helps guests envision how the site looked before.
In order to facilitate the expansion of the camp, work began on bringing railroad tracks to the camp in early 1942. These tracks were used both to transport production goods out of the camp and prisoners into the camp on the company goods wagons. During an international youth camp in 1994, the historic goods wagon pictured here was installed on the site of the camp rail station and the tracks were partially reconstructed.
So as to demonstrate how tightly packed prisoners were in the railway cars, a concrete surface the exact size of the interior of the railcar bears the imprint of 80 sets of footprints, showing how cramped conditions were during transportation when prisoners had to stand or crouch for days.
As the war progressed and the shortage of labor increased, the SS expanded the use of slave labor from concentration camps in the armament factories. By mid-January 1945, the Neuengamme Camp system consisted of about 60 satellite camps with an inmate population of approximately 50,000 prisoners. This picture shows the factory shops, which were next to the foundry.
Of the 106,000 inmates held at Neuengamme, approximately 55,000 died from starvation, disease, abuse, experimentations, and executions. As the end of the war neared, the SS forced the evacuation of the camp with a death march toward Luebeck of about 10,000 prisoners. Thousands had already been sent to Bergen-Belsen and another 6500 prisoners had been forced onto ships in the North Sea that were sunk by British fighter-bombers. The complete history of the camp is told in an exceptional museum exhibit on the top floors of this former camp administration building at the back of the camp.
The exhibits are mostly testimonial displays where personal stories of witnesses can be read by museum visitors and artifacts from the story made visible as well. The museum houses large artifacts such as bunks, concrete fence posts, barb wired gates, and worker wagons, along with smaller artifacts such as clothing, utensils, and photographs. As can be seen in this picture, the exhibit rooms extend the full length of the building, going on from one hallway to another. The history of the camp is meticulously portrayed in such a manner as to allow visitors to spend as much time as they want in reviewing witnesses testimonies.
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Altona is a port city adjoining Hamburg and was founded on the Elbe at the beginning of the 16th century. The Altona Jewish community originated shortly after the founding of Altona itself. The city and the Altona Jewish community flourished together. The earliest tombstone in the old Jewish cemetery bears the date 1621. In 1671 the Hamburg, Altona and Wandsbek Jewish communities united in a "triple community," Altona being the seat of the chief rabbi and he exercised jurisdiction over the whole German-Jewish population of those communities as well as over that of the duchy of Holstein.
The economic conditions of Altona were highly influenced by the settlement of Jews, on whom royalty bestowed the privilege of engaging in shipbuilding. The Hamburg Jews, who had no such privilege, turned their activities to Altona and the growth of the Altona whale-fishery in the 18th century was due largely to their efforts. The port city with its thriving Jewish-led industry became home and business to an ever growing Jewish community. These conditions continued until 1811, when, under the French occupation, Hamburg was ordered to form its own Jewish community. The triple union was dissolved and the Altona community has since then been officially known as Hochdeutsche Israeliten-Gemeinde zu Altona (High-German Jewish Community of Altona).
From the beginning of the 18th century until 1885, a Sephardic Portuguese-Jewish community also existed, known as Bet Jacob ha-Katan, and later as Neweh Shalom, which was a branch of the Portuguese congregation of Hamburg. In 1900 the Jewish community was enlarged by the influx of families from Eastern Europe. This diversity has given the Altona Jewish District of Hamburg both an Ashkenazi and a Sephardic heritage.
In 1926, Altona had a population of 200,000 of whom more than 2,000 were Jews. Following the coming to power by the National Socialists in 1933 a boycott and riots were instigated against Jewish owned businesses. In 1937, as a result of the "Greater Hamburg Act", the Altona Jewish community was formally dissolved and became incorporated into the "Hamburg Jewish Religious Association". Due to Nazi repression and persecution the community began to disintegrate through emigration and flight. In 1938 the community school closed. One of the earliest Jewish institutions founded in 1630, the Jewish school (pictured here) had existed for nearly 300 years until October 1938, when the "Polenaktion" of October 28,1938, expelled hundreds of Jewish families of Polish extraction suddenly and unexpectedly from German towns and cities to Poland. 800 men, women, and children of Hamburg, primarily from the Altona District, were deported as part of this action.
On November 9, 1938 the "Great Synagogue" was heavily damaged in the "Kristallnacht" pogrom and fully demolished shortly thereafter. In the autumn of 1941 the methodical deportation and murder of Jews began. In 1943 there were no Jews left in Hamburg. In July 1943 an air-raid destroyed the "Great Synagogue" and the surrounding neighborhood of the old town of Altona.
Memorialization of the Jewish history of Altona has been the express mission of the local Stadtsteilarchiv Ottensen, which has undertaken to educate Hamburg and its visitors of its Jewish heritage through exhibits and memorials that have been constructed and situated on street corners and nearby memorial sites within the old Altona community confines. This signage can be seen on exhibit plaques throughout the area.
This display is situated on the corner of Ottenser Marktplatz and Betty Levi Passage, near the Altonaer Rathaus that used to be the main Altona Train Station, where mass deportations transpired. This display chronicles an important and influential Jewish family in Altona, dating back to the family’s first Altonaer citizen, David Cohn, the first rabbi in Altona, to Elizabeth Levi, who had been deported in the Polenaktion of October 1938 and who eventually escaped to Denmark and then to Sweden in 1943. These plaques can be seen throughout the Old Altona district.
Here another exhibit by the Stadtsarchiv Ottensen stands next to the “Black Form – Dedicated to the Missing Jews” Memorial – also near the Altona Rathaus. The American artist Sol LeWitt initially created the Black Form for the 1987 Münster "Sculpture Project." Following the project, Münster declined to purchase the work. Hamburg-Altona had for years considered erecting a memorial to the Jewish communities devastated by the Nazi Tyranny. So in November 1989 Sol LeWitt presented Hamburg's Department of Culture the sculpture "Black Form - Dedicated to the Missing Jews". He donated his fee for the "most important piece I have yet created" to the Foundation for the History of the German Jews.
Sol LeWitt had conceived the "Black Form" explicitly to be positioned in front of a prestigious building like the Palace of Münster. Today it is positioned in front of the impressive Altona Rathous at one end of Der Platz der Republik. The simplistic form, in direct contrast to the impressive building, shows signs of neglect and misuse as its surrounding area is unkempt and when I was there, an abandoned construction ladder was laying atop the memorial.
The Altona Rathaus, (Town Hall), is in the restored former Altona Bahnhof, which had been the site of the many deportations of Jews from Hamburg, starting with the Polenaktion of October 1938. Information brochures and books on the history of the Rathaus are available for visitors. I was given a quick tour by the receptionist.
Much of the interior of the Old Altona Bahnhof still has the beautiful materials and craftsmanship of its former days, which have been restored by its new tenants. I was given the freedom to roam the building and take pictures but I did not find any mention, display, exhibit, or picture of any kind on the premises that memorialized its past in any way.
In Der Platz der Republik, the park area between the New Bahnhof and the Old Bahnhof, now the Altona Rathaus, stands a well hidden memorial, erected in 1987, to commemorate the Polenaktion of October 28, 1938, when 800 of Hamburg's Polish Jews, mostly from the Altona District, were deported to Poland and incarcerated in the Polish border-town of Zbaszyn. The memorial marks the area where the masses of Altona's Jews were assembled after their arrests and held prior to their forced deportation. This memorial site is a good example of how memorial from the past become forgotten icons that are have little or no impact any longer on its environment.
The translation of the plaque reads: "From here, at the Altoner Bahnhof, more than 800 Polish Jews from Hamburg - men, women and children - were expelled by the Gestapo to the Polish Border. On the same day, they were arrested in the early morning and brought to a common jail. From there they were transported by trucks to the Altoner Bahnhof. By special trains in the same evening, they had to abandon Hamburg. Many of them later perished."
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It was in Hamburg that Reform Judaism was born. The first Reform congregation, the Israelitischer Templeverein, dates from 1818. The founding of the New Israelite Temple Society followed prior unsuccessful attempts made in the Netherlands, Berlin, and Westphalia. In 1868 the Israelitsche Tempelverein became the Israelitsche Tempelverband. Many Reform communities, including New York and Baltimore, adopted the Hamburg Temple's new prayer book. Today Reform Judaism, with its origins in the Hamburg Temple, has about 2 million members in the US alone. Hamburg’s 3rd Reform Temple was opened in Oberstrasse in 1931, pictured here.
The congregation's Bauhaus- style synagogue was the only Hamburg Synagogue to survive the Nazis and WWII. But with the decimation of Hamburg's Jewry, the temple no longer had a Jewish community to utilize it. It is now one of the studios of the North German Radio Network. Erected in front of the former Templeverband is this sculpted depiction of an Ark, with its veil torn and its Torah Scrolls spilling out from the front of the Ark, testifying to the desecration of holy space. This was one of the most beautiful and poignant depictions of the terrible loss Judaism suffered in the Holocaust, not only in its loss of life, but the tremendous loss of its sacred possessions and holy places.
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Housed within the Museum of Hamburg History is an exhibit titled “Jews in Hamburg,” which depicts the life of Hamburg’s Jews since their first arrival in the town, towards the end of the 16th century, up to the expulsion and extermination of the city’s Jewish population in the Holocaust of WWII. It is noteworthy that the mission statement of the museum, in regards to its Jewish history exhibit, expresses the desire to convey to future generations, through this exhibition, an important chapter in Hamburg’s overall history, which bears a strong and indelible imprint from its Jewish citizens from all ages. We are already familiar with Jewish history museums rendering a strong exhibition of the rich cultural past of Europe’s Jews in an effort to better understand the enormity of the losses suffered in the Holocaust, such as in the Jewish Heritage Museum in NYC and the Diaspora Museum in Tel Aviv.
This permanent exhibit, which opened in March 1997, was preceded by several temporary exhibits about Jewish life in Hamburg that were first conceived in the mid 1970s. This new exhibition is arranged chronologically displaying the history of Jews in Hamburg from their first immigration up to their persecution and extermination by the Nazis. In addition, other selected subjects on display are arranged according to special themes, such as Jewish schools, Jews in Hamburg’s business life, Jewish living conditions and residential areas, the Jewish religion and their annual ceremonial events.
And while I found the exhibition at the Museum of Hamburg History contextually and artistically well done, I was also disappointed that, according to this exhibit, the history of Jewry in Hamburg appeared to end with the Holocaust. There were no displays dealing with post Holocaust life of Jews in Hamburg, as if to say that the post WWII imprint of Jews on Hamburg is not as noteworthy. I hope that future museum plans will consider documenting Jews in Hamburg in the post-Holocaust age in order to offer a more complete history of Jews in Hamburg.
Depicted in this exhibit is a living room of a Jewish family in Hamburg, circa 1908.
This exhibit room portrays replicated furnishings of the synagogue in the Heinrich-Barth-Strasse, circa 1885.
Each section of the exhibit is numbered and accompanied by verbiage panels, both in German and English, which give a historical summary of a particular era of Judaism in Hamburg. Here the entry into the last exhibit room, #9 Persecution and the Holocaust, tells of the 12 year reign of terror of Fascism in Germany in general, and Hamburg in particular.
Once I had finished viewing the final exhibit room on the Holocaust, the exiting path took me into this room, a stark white space, empty except for one lone, brown suitcase and this quote, in German, on the wall: "With a sigh of relief, we took our suitcases and went with hurried step to meet our end goal, the looming 27 ton boat that towered before us." The author, Betty Rabin, had escaped to Great Britain in 1939 with her family.
Upon leaving the room above and retracing my steps to exit the exhibit, this sign was the only post-Holocaust display I saw. Dated when the exhibit opened, it compares Jewish populations in Europe, Germany, and Hamburg before the Holocaust with the miniscule populations that existed in 1997.
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The Stolpersteine Project is the creation of sculptor Gunter Demnig of Cologne, Germany. Born in Berlin in 1947, Demnig has studied and practiced his artistic craft throughout Germany his entire life. The conceptualization of his personal commemoration project to the victims of Nazism came about in 1993 and he set his first memorial “Stumbling Blocks” in Berlin in 1997. Crafted by him personally, Demnig’s Stolpersteine are bronze plaques stamped with the name of a Holocaust victim under the phrase “Here lived . . .” Also etched into the metal is the birth date of the victim, when known, when and where they were deported, and when and where they died. These plaques are then set into the mortar of the sidewalk in front of the residence where the victim last lived. In this manner, Demnig has sought to preserve a memory of every known victim of Nazi Fascism, whether Jew, intellectual, political prisoner, Gypsy, Jehovah Witness, or Homosexual. By the end of 2006, Demnig will have set about 9000 Stolpersteine throughout neighborhoods in over 190 German communities.
As I read up on the Stolpersteine Project, I discovered that not all communities have embraced the project. Some disapproved of victims’ names being walked on, or being covered by snow in the winter and not seen. Building owners objected to the plaques being set into the sides of their buildings, so the sidewalk became the next choice. Demnig responded that the more the bronze plaques were walked on, the more they shone. I couldn’t argue with that!
I had the pleasure of viewing his commemorative work while I was in Hamburg, in the once heavily Jewish populated area around Isestrasse. I was there locating the address of Cantor Cysner, the subject of my dissertation research, and I was thrilled to see the evidence of Demnig’s work. In front of nearly every apartment complex on Isestrasse, set into the walkways in front of the entrances, were several of these shiny plaques. I took pictures of many, especially in front of the address where Cantor Cysner lived when he was deported to Zbaszyn. I envisioned the day when his name would be memorialized there as well. I watched as people walked along the sidewalks, noticing that no one but me looked down to read the plaques. But as I looked back along the walkway, the setting sun glinted off the bronze stones and it was impossible not to notice them. Whether all who passed read them or not, the names of the victims are being memorialized in a manner that is both unique and controversial.