(Photos shot Sep. 24, 2011)
When Crawford & I left the castle we set out to visit the concentration camp, but didn’t quite know how to get there. We walked to a nearby refreshment stand to seek directions. Despite our lack of German and the sales ladies’ lack of English we came to understand that a quick drive down a certain street & the first right turn would us take us there in short order.
The parking was free. The first thing we saw was the Commandant’s building, now used as the administrative center for the museum, the grounds, and the memorials. This was actually my last photo of the day, but it belongs near the beginning.
The building, which used to be near the center of the camp, is now off at a side. Most of the buildings that existed have been demolished and part of the town now covers part of the camp. Where there were once close to 60 buildings only 13 remain with another 3 built since the war. What is left standing is more than sobering, more than disturbing.
Apparently there were close to 1000 concentration camps throughout Germany and German occupied Central Europe at the height of the war. The infamous ones are mostly the large death camps set up for the processing of prisoners into gas chambers then crematoriums.
Flossenburg, founded in 1938, was a work camp to quarry granite. The intention was to be a profitable enterprise for the SS. It also had remote satellite camps. Later in the war the camp was also used to make armaments and airplane parts.
Its first inmates were “criminals” and citizens the regime declared as “asocial” with political prisoners arriving in late 1938. As the camp grew more and more people were sent. The first Jews arrived in 1940.
The work camps existed to exploit slave labor in support of the war effort. They worked you 12 or more hours a day, rain or shine, hot or cold. Rations were meager, clothing was thin. Despite being a work camp, death was still common either from the conditions or from the guards.
The sick bay was apparently its own self contained house of horrors. The inmates quickly learned to avoid it. Sick bay was most often used to conduct human experiments, speed people to the crematorium, or both.
Example executions were also common, sometimes happening as daily demonstrations for the benefit of the inmates. The common method earlier in the war was apparently firing squad. Later in the war hanging became cheaper than using ammunition. Once the museum even mentions a semi-automatic killing machine. An unfortunate soul would sit in it and it would shoot you in the head, but there was no further mention of this macabre device.
The dreadful working conditions had a monetary benefit for the SS. Once fixed costs were taken care of the major cost of the camp was to cover the paid help. The workers were expendable; overhead on them was, after all minimal. Flossenburg became one of the few profitable operations for the SS. It had a side benefit of helping the local economy that sold goods and services to the camp. I’m not trying to be tongue in cheek here. I am pretty sure this was the business plan behind the politics.
Inmates were treated as inventory or perhaps as a depreciating assets. They were given a number. Once numbered the system made every effort to keep very close track of them. All official contact was through the number. Names were used as little as possible to dehumanize the inmates. This made sense in the Nazi philosophy. If you were not a pure German or Aryan you were sub human. If you were sub human why did you need dignity? If you didn’t deserve dignity while alive then you certainly didn’t deserve any dignity at death. So the rationale for industrialized death and death most obscene was set in motion.
All prisoners got the same work outfit, blue & white striped jacket & trousers. Badges indicated your original civilian status as social outcast, political prisoner, soviet origin, immigrant, or Jew, etc. These badges were sewn on the jacket.
Prisoner roll calls were before and after the shift, but often multiple roll calls were conducted in the dead of night to further weaken and dishearten the inmates.
The museum displays seem to be uncertain of how many people actually passed through Flossenburg. At the height of operations there were at least 19 prisoner’s barracks with as many as 1000 souls crowded into each barrack. Transfers of prisoners in and out by the hundreds or more happened monthly. Deaths could have passed 1000 a month at times.
Just before the liberation by the 93rd infantry of the US Third Army many inmates were forcibly marched to the south. Many of these were murdered in the forest and buried there. This was done in an effort to hide the crimes of the concentration camp authorities & their superiors.
Some prisoners stayed briefly, some for months or years. The mortality rate seems to have been about 30% overall. The numbers of dead souls commemorated elsewhere on the grounds indicate some 75-80 thousand deaths by murder, disease, malnutrition, etc. Death came in many forms, some subtle, some most foul. All of this happened in this very small place. One memorial shown in the next email is to 26,430 Soviet POWs & citizens alone. There is no number for Jewish deaths, and 2 unnamed American airmen are also memorialized.
As you pass the Commandant’s headquarters you come to the entrance proper. The information sign shows a photo of the camp shortly after liberation in late April, 1945. The building at right can be seen in the sign’s photo. This building is the former laundry and currently houses the excellent museum. We spent much of our time on the top floor then worked our way down to the basement display.
Entry is free and pamphlets in English and German are available. Donations are accepted. Crawford and I were happy to donate. One of the first things I saw was a 3D layout of the camp at its height. The brown & yellow areas at left are the quarry and work areas. The white area at right is where the barracks & existing buildings are. The Commandant’s headquarters are shown at about 9 o’clock in the white portion. Less most of its buildings the white portion is the part that exists today.
Once past this model you get into the day-to-day displays of the concentration camp. For Crawford and I they were sobering and disturbing. By the end of our tour I was shaken and had trouble talking in a normal voice.
Prisoners working at the Flossenburg quarry.
This is the death certificate of Zygmundt Sierakowski, a Polish National. It is signed by the SS Camp physician Dr. Oscar Dienstbach & dated June 13, 1941. Zygmundt was 16 years old and was shot along with 5 other Poles.
To heighten the drama of this photo I’ve broken a photographic rule by including my shadow. To me it symbolizes that 70 years later someone is still a witness to this crime.
Another graphic display shows the hanging of a Polish Soldier in uniform.
The original photos of the hanging were found sometime after the war by a U.S. Soldier named Charlie Hollenbeck.
These photo shows some prisoners personal effects. The round tags were used as a numbering system. #502, the round tag at right was none too lucky. 5 different inmates used the number over the years of the camp’s operation.
This a photo of the crematorium just after liberation. From mid 1944 until the camp was captured by the Allies, the crematorium began to work overtime. A ramp with rails was built from the barracks above to the crematorium to more efficiently handle the dead bodies.
As the allied forces got closer and closer to Germany the SS realized their camps would be discovered. They began forced marches of prisoners away from the U.S. advance. Sometimes, however, the soldiers advanced faster than expected and captured or interrupted these forced marches. Often, bodies of the prisoners were found, exhumed and tagged before reburial as this photo shows.
This photo is of a death train. It was shot in secret by a Czech national in Kralupy, Czechoslovakia, April 29, 1945.
These are stacked bodies awaiting burning in the camp crematorium. They are photos taken after the liberation on 30 April, 1945.
Arbeit macht frei. “Work will set you free” was still on the gates following the liberation of the camp. After liberation many prisoners continued to die from their ordeal. Allied authorities insisted town folk give dignified funerals to all dead prisoners of the camp.
After the first floor we made our way down to the displays in the basement. Along the way was this legend of the status triangles used in the camp. It appears to be taken from an original drawing.
One of the displays in the basement is small, but everyone goes to it. It is a giant book of the names of Flossenburg prisoners. It is alphabetical by last name, then first name. After that is listed the birthday and date of death if one is recorded. This is Crawford looking at the name book.
This is a close up of one of the pages. I didn’t pick it by random.
Not far from this book along a wall are very large backlit photos of people, couples and families. They form the a single line stretching over 100 feet. The portraits are, I would guess, from before the war. Photos such as these displayed so prominently in a concentration camp museum immediately leads one to the assumption that these people, so peaceful in repose, were caught up in the maelstrom, became camp prisoners, and perhaps even met their deaths at Flossenburg. Photo 1 at the beginning of this email is one of these photos.
Photo 2 is of another very large backlit photo, this one from the main display on the first floor. It shows a guard, the SS flag, a stylized skull flag, and Flossenburg castle (subject of my last email) in the distance.
The main museum floor is laid out so you can walk among the exhibits at will, but you must exit in only one place. The last exhibit as you exit is this quote, photo 3.
The next email will be of the outside grounds & memorials, the crematorium, the cemetery, the pyramid of ashes, the Square of Nations, and the Valley of Death.