Wednesday, May 4, 2016


Although yesterday marks 71 years since Hamburg surrendered to the British in World War II, I thought it more fitting to post the final entry in my war series today, in honor of Holocaust Remembrance Day.

About 25 km southeast of downtown Hamburg sits the former site of Neuengamme, the largest concentration camp in northern Germany.

Neuengamme operated from 1938 to 1945. It began as a satellite of Sachsenhausen, then become an independent camp with more than 80 satellite camps of its own.

After the war, Neuengamme was used by the British, then turned into a succession of prisons, until politicians finally listened to complaints that the site’s history was being dishonored and deliberately overlooked.

I strongly debated visiting the Neuengamme memorial, but feel it’s one thing to encounter the horrors of the Holocaust through books and pictures and movies; it’s another thing to stand on the soil where tens of thousands of people lost their lives.

Many of the original buildings were destroyed, but the rubble
from the demolished prison that later sat on the camp grounds
has been arranged to show where the wooden 
inmate housing blocks once stood.

Closeup of the rubble from one
of the rows of barracks.

I expected my visit to make me sad. Instead, in the beginning, I was angry. 

I was angry at the teenagers on a field trip who were laughing and pretending they were researching the camp's rail system just to get away from the main group. 

I was angry at the man who wanted his smiling photo taken among the ruins of one of the infirmaries. 

I was angry at the kids running up the ramps of the brickworks building.

Then I was angry at myself, for being angry and judgmental. 

I didn't know why these other people were here and what they were thinking, any more than they knew why I was typing notes and taking pictures and constantly checking my phone (turns out there is a Neuengamme app that provides information for each of the 100+ signs around the site).

Who’s to say what is the right way to honor, mourn, or reflect?

This willow tree was planted as part of a garden that was closest to the road and camp entrance.
Inmates maintained the garden, but could not use it. The SS guards called it The Oasis.
I walked the grounds first, to see what was left of the original camp buildings, before going inside one of the barracks buildings for the main exhibit. The world felt disjointed, from the incredible rainbow completely encircling the sun, to the beautiful, quiet countryside complete with a nearby town of thatched-roof houses. It felt like a make-believe place where the things that photos and quotes and archaeological remains said had happened, could not have happened.

Neuengamme was originally founded for brick production. Inmates dug clay from pits like this one to transport to the brick-processing facility on site. Work expanded to include making armaments and supplies for the Nazis, 
and even running an angora rabbit farm.

Commemoration site for the crematorium. Some victim's ashes were buried nearby; 
many were scattered on the grounds of the camp's plant nursery.

Le Deporté by French sculptor Françoise Salmon

It wasn't until I got to the memorial area, near the site of the old nursery, that I got my first punch of reality. It came in the form of the painfully beautiful sculpture, Le Deporté.

I actually gasped when I saw it, then walked around it again and again, to take it in from every angle. 

This, I felt, was the soul of Neuengamme. It reinforced and reflected every word, every image, every emotion around the loss of humanity in this place.

Then I went to the House of Remembrance, where I saw the camp's heart--laid out on red walls with long white banners listing the names of the confirmed Neuengamme dead, beginning with Kurt Urban on February 22, 1940.

Panoramic view of the walls of the House of Remembrance

By the time I got to the main exhibit building, I was emotionally exhausted. But there was more to learn. Like the convergence of two worlds around Operation Gomorrah

During air raids, the Neuengamme inmates were beaten and rapidly forced into the few buildings with basements, causing many to be trampled, and those remaining to suffer from insufficient oxygen. Later, in the aftermath of the bombing, inmates were sent to clear debris from dangerous ruins and recover the bodies of bombing victims.

The stories of the Holocaust differ in their particular, local atrocities, but run on the same themes of degradation, malnutrition, medical experimentation, and murder. I learned something new here, however. Neuengamme had a “special barracks”—a brothelwhere a dozen women from another camp were brought and forced to be prostitutes.

The memorial area includes a tower, large stone plaques for the 25+ countries of inmates' origins, and markers for villages, individuals, and homosexual victims of Neuengamme. But there is nothing to recognize the shameful treatment of these women. Every time I look at one of my pictures of Le Deporté now, I see them, in their silent, unacknowledged agony.

History shows us over and over the human capacity for cruelty to others. For the tragedy at Neuengamme I feel an unfortunate kinship, given the history of African Americans in the United States. Still, when I left the memorial, I wondered how these things continue to happen, even today.

How does someone disavow or disregard the suffering of a group they feel is different from themselves--forgetting that they, and their friends, and their family are all "those people" to somebody else?
I had thought this exploration of the past might gain me insight into Hamburg and its persona. But each person here is part of that mosaic, with experiences that may have everything or nothing to do with 1200 years of invasions and fires and floods and bombings and concentration camps.

So I'm looking upon my time here with renewed vigor. To continue to explore and learn and-- yes--compare, but also to discover more about Hamburg on an individual scale. 

Because among the many things that I take away from Neuengamme is this overarching lesson: when we lose sight of the fact that each name and every face around us carries its own story, we lose sight of our common humanity.

"Your suffering, your fight, and your death
will not be in vain."

This is the last of my three posts about world wars and Hamburg. If you missed the others, you can read them here: Ein Mädchen im Krieg and Bunkering Down.

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