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Czech scandal of pig farm on Holocaust site has a precedent - in Germany

15.8.2015 19:28
The former concentration camp at Neuengamme, part of the City of Hamburg, today. (PHOTO:  Fumaro, Wikimedia Commons)
The former concentration camp at Neuengamme, part of the City of Hamburg, today. (PHOTO: Fumaro, Wikimedia Commons)

For 20 years, domestic and foreign organizations have been protesting against the operation of an industrial pig farm on the territory of the former concentration camp at Lety by Písek, Czech Republic. Few in the Czech Republic know, however, that a similar problem existed for decades in Germany.

It also took German society a long time before it managed to come to grips with a very similar scenario. Desperate, vehement protests lasting for decades were aimed against the existence of a prison on the site of the former concentration camp in Neuengamme, part of the city of Hamburg.  

The prison was in operation from 1948-2003, and this year marks the 10th anniversary of a dignified memorial being opened at the site instead. Why did it take 60 years after the end of WWII to solve this problem?

In postwar Germany, efforts to preserve the memory of Nazi crimes were weak. Hamburg lay literally in ruins after the Allied bombing of German cities.

Right after the war's end, the surviving prisoners of the concentration camps had too many other worries to be able to go demonstrate for the establishment of memorials at the sites of their suffering during Nazism. The majority of them had to build a new life - frequently abroad, in the places to which they emigrated after the war - and therefore reconciled themselves to the fact that the German "Nazi nation" would remain the way it was.

What happened in Neuengamme

The Neuengamme camp was established in 1938 as a branch of the Sachsenhausen concentration camp on the site of a former brick works and an extensive deposit of clay. The prisoners were forced to construct the building of the new camp, to fire the bricks for Nazi homes on the banks of the Elbe River in Hamburg, and later to work in munitions factories for wartime purposes.  

According to official numbers, the Nazis murdered at least half of the 100 000 prisoners in the camp, including hundreds of Romani people. Other prisoners were deported to other camps where most of them perished.

Toward the end of the war, more than 6 000 prisoners of the Neuengamme camp drowned when the British Air Force accidentally bombed a boat in which they were supposed to be deported. At the end of April 1945, the personnel partially dismantled the camp, destroyed all its written documentation, and evacuated the last prisoners.

When the British troops arrived at the camp at the beginning of May 1945 to liberate the prisoners, they just discovered buildings, empty of people. Because of the lack of documentary materials and the fact that only a fraction of the prisoners survived, there was initially silence after the war about the camp.  

A German Sinti woman, Sulejka Klein, was born on 17 October 1926 in Hamburgm and deported at age 17 to Auschwitz and from there to the Neuengamme concentration camp, where she died in 1944. Another Sinti prisoner of the Neuengamme camp was former German boxing champion Johann Wilhelm Trollmann, one of the most famous figures in the history of Romani sport.

From 1946 - 1948, 120 former employees of the camp ended up before the British military courts in Hamburg. A total of 23 of them were sentenced to death and executed, but many others evaded justice.

The camp doctor and SS member Kurt Heißmeyer, who supervised medical experiments on the prisoners and, for that purpose, ordered the relocation of 20 Jewish children from Auschwitz, continued to work in Germany after the war under his own name. Even though he had been on a list of wanted war criminals he was not arrested until 1963, when he was tried and condemned to life in prison three years later, dying in prison in 1967.

A model prison as a memorial to former concentration camp prisoners

From 1945 -1948 the Allies interned Germans suspected of war crimes or of active collaboration with the Nazis at the former Neuengamme camp, including the camp's former guards. Prior to the end of the internment camp operations and the creation of the Federal Republic of Germany, the Senate of the newly-created federal Free State of Hamburg decided to build a modern prison on the site of the former concentration camp.  

The aim of the new prison was to demonstrate that the new, democratic state was now capable of providing humane living conditions to convicts. During the construction of the prison the remaining buildings and infrastructure of the camp were used.  

During the next few decades, however, increasingly strong protests began to be heard about the prison's location. The "Amicale Internationale" union of former prisoners of Nazi camps found support from the governments of other states, as during WWII there had been thousands of prisoners in the camp from France, Latvia, the Netherlands and the Scandinavian states.

While the Hamburg Senate continued to insist that the prison stay open, in 1953 it did build a memorial column to the Neuengamme camp, followed by a small monument in 1965 and, at the beginning of the 1980s, a documentation center - all of which were located adjacent to the existing prison. It was not until 1989 that the Hamburg Senate found the necessary majority of votes to decide to move the prison to a more appropriate location.  

It still took another 10 years, however, before the necessary financing was released for the relocation. In 2005 a grand opening of the expanded memorial was held on the site of the former camp and former prison, attended by surviving concentration camp prisoners who had waited 60 years for that moment.  

Nazi past linked to Germany's approach toward refugees

The main share of the credit for the success of the campaign for a dignified memorial at Neuengamme goes to international organizations of former concentration camp prisoners and Jewish people. Nevertheless, protests by local Roma and Sinti contributed to that success too.  

At the end of August 1989, for example, hundreds of Romani people occupied the Neuengamme Documentation Center to protest against the deportation, approved by the Hamburg Senate, of thousands of Romani refugees from Yugoslavia. Police arrested the demonstrators and charged them with trespassing.  

One year later, Romani people from all over Germany organized a cross-border march from Germany to Switzerland, the headquarters of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, to ask him to aid the refugees in Hamburg and other German cities. Rudko Kawczynski, then the chair of the Union of Roma and Sinti, was later convicted of having organized the mass border crossing, which blocked traffic.  

Kawczynski was sentenced to serve his 50-day sentence in the still-functioning Neuengamme prison. Now recently hundreds of Romani people in Hamburg have once again found the courage to publicly stand up for Romani refugees at risk of being deported back to their home countries.  

Markus Pape, translated by Gwendolyn Albert
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Germany, Holocaust, Lety u Písku, refugee



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