Just my notes and photos …….
Friday 22 October – Berlin
The Neue Synagoge was built in 1866. It was a massive ‘Reform’ synagogue, accommodating 3200 worshippers. On Kristallnacht 1938 it was set on fire but the head of the local police precinct, Wilhelm Krützfeld, called the fire brigade, insisting that it was a historic listed building. Services were held here until 1940 when the building was confiscated by the Nazis and almost completely destroyed by Allied bombings in 1943. Amazingly the ‘everlasting light’ burned on throughout. After the War the East German governments only kept the main façade as a memorial – as this was the only structurally intact part of the building – but the main Hall had to be demolished in 1958. The front of the building was rebuilt in 1988-91 with Federal Government financial support and the magnificent Moorish-style golden Dome was reconstructed in 1991.
These are the names of some of the inhabitants who died when their house was destroyed. As a mark of respect the building has not been rebuilt.
‘Stolpersteine’ (stumbling stones) are brass plaques laid into the pavement to mark the last places of residence of victims of the Nazis.
Stella Goldschlag was a Jewish beauty who was compared to Marilyn Monroe. She turned informant, partly to try to save her parents. She would even find out the details of Jewish funerals so that she could collect names to pass to the Nazis (after Jewish men or women had buried their non-Jewish spouse or husband, Stella was ready to hand over the Jews, no longer privileged by their marriage, to the Gestapo). There were four attempts on her life by Jews.
In 1994, the woman feared so much by Jews who attempted to hide committed suicide at the age of 72, by jumping out of the window of her Berlin apartment.
Stella had a daughter Yvonne who emigrated to Israel. She loathes her mother.
Frank Foley was the Head of the British Passport Control Office in Berlin. Foley was in fact Britain’s most senior spy in Berlin. During his time in Berlin, Foley is known to have saved an estimated 10,000 German Jews by stamping their passports and allowing them to enter Palestine.
We saw Otto Weidt’s workshop, now a Museum. Weidt was compelled by his growing blindness to abandon his work as a wallpaper hanger. He set up a workshop for the blind in Berlin, manufacturing brushes and brooms. Practically all of his employees were blind, deaf, and mute Jews. They were assigned to him from the Jewish Home for the Blind in Berlin-Stegliz. When the deportations began, Weidt, utterly fearless, fought with Gestapo officials over the fate of every single Jewish worker. He used both bribery and the argument that his employees were essential for fulfilling orders commissioned by the army. Once – after the Gestapo had arrested several of his workers – Weidt went to the assembly camp at the Grosse Hamburger Strasse, where the Jews were incarcerated pending deportation. He succeeded in securing their release at the last minute.
We walked to the site of the Rosenstrasse protest. Goebbels was anxious that Jews who were married to non-Jews should also be deported. As part of the Fabrikaktion (starting 27 February 1943) to deport all the Jews who remained in Berlin and elsewhere, these Jews were arrested and taken to a welfare office for the Jewish community located on Rosenstrasse. But a group of the non-Jewish wives stood outside the welfare office for seven days to protest. Astonishingly they were successful. On 6 March 1943 Goebbels order that the men should be released. The Rosenstrasse protest was one of the few (?the only?) protest in Germany against the Nazis and the only protest that was successful.
Shabbat 23 October – Berlin
On 10 May 1933 the first act of what was to become the Holocaust occurred. Hitler-supporting students at Berlin University burned 20,000 ‘degenerate’ books. Goebbels congratulated them. The fire brigade was called – they poured petrol on the fire.
The Nazis commissioned IBM in Switzerland to compile lists of Roma. They were required to wear a brown or black triangle.
Here’s the memorial to homosexuals murdered by the Nazis. It is a looped film in a cabinet with a viewer that is too high for children. The film includes men kissing. Despite being designed by gays we were told that it is quite controversial. Lesbians were not treated as severely as homosexuals. They were required to wear an asexual black triangle.
And here is the memorial to the Jewish victims. The abstract installation leaves room for interpretation, the most common being that of a graveyard. I first saw it several years ago. By comparison I was struck by the number of the blocks that had cracked. Outdoor memorials need to be constructed robustly.
Also people sit on the blocks – to my mind this is disrespectful and I remonstrated with one boy.
Fashion was one of the largest of Berlin’s industries and was dominated by Jews. The Nazis decimated the industry. There is a memorial at Hausvogteiplatz which was the heart of the industry. The steps leading to the U-Bahn station show the names of the fashion firms that disappeared.
Sunday 24 October – Berlin, Ravensbrück
The East Side Gallery comprises murals on an undemolished section of the Wall by the river (the Wall ‘came down’ on 9 November 1989. 9 November was also the date of Kristallnacht in 1938).
Grunewald station (now disused but preserved as a memorial) was the biggest deportation site for Jews in Berlin. It is in the middle of a beautiful residential area which our educator compared to Hampstead Garden Suburb. A total of 35 trains transporting 17,000 Jews departed from Platform 17 in cattle wagons to Auschwitz, starting on 18 October 1941. There were around 1000 on each train. Conditions were atrocious. Rachel Genuth – who was deported from Hungary – says that on the train to Auschwitz buckets were emptied of urine and faeces and then filled with water. Revolted, Rachel swore she would never again drink water – the trauma was so great that she could not drink water for sixty years.
By the end of the war 30-50,000 Jews had been deported through this station. The irony was that Jews came to Berlin from elsewhere in Germany because they believed they would be safer. Before boarding the trains, people had to deposit their valuables.
Minkie Orenstein bravely told us how her grandfather had been deported from here. She said that people threw letters out of the trains with their Jahrzeit date (anniversary of their death) – they knew they were going to die.
On 20 January 1942 leading Nazis met at a beautiful villa on the shores of Wannsee, a suburb of Berlin (ironically the villa was built by a Jew, Ernst Marlier, in 1914). The Wannsee ‘Conference’ was coordinated by Reinhard Heydrich. It lasted about two hours and formalised the Nazis’ policy of the extermination of Jews in occupied Europe. Minutes were taken, supervised by Eichmann. The 15 attendees were told to read the minutes then destroy them. Heydrich told them: ‘This meeting did not take place’. However Undersecretary of State Martin Luther saved his copy by mistake and this is how we know the detail of the meeting.
What stands out is the utter inhumanity of the meeting. It’s as if the attendees are planning the demolition and reconstruction of a building – not mass murder.
Ravensbrück was predominantly a women’s camp. But one of the four survivors travelling with us, Harry Olmer, spent time in Ravensbrück. He told us that the sick bay in the camp was there both to cure and to kill.
Around 110,000 people died there.
Himmler believed in building camps in beautiful parts of Germany – and also he had a lover near Ravensbruck. He believed that if Jews were taken to a place of beauty it would purify them. Notable prisoners in Ravensbruck included Margarete Buber-Neumann. She had already been in a Soviet Gulag. Her book is called ‘Under Two Dictators’. Another inmate was Gemma La Guardia Gluck, sister of the Mayor of New York.
A third was Odette Sansom, an SOE Officer. She had married Peter Churchill, a fellow SOE Officer. She used the name ‘Churchill’ in the camp because she was a spy and the British thought that if the Germans thought (wrongly) that she was related to Winston, they would keep her alive as a possible bargaining tool.
When it became clear that Germany would be defeated, the indescribably brutal camp Kommandant Fritz Suhren took Sansom hostage because she had fooled him into thinking she was Winston Churchill’s niece and he thought that taking her hostage and ‘rescuing’ her might save his skin. He said to her “The Führer has committed suicide” to which she responded “And when are you going to?” Suhren was executed by a French firing squad in June 1950.
In 1940 Himmler introduced a torture regime of 25 lashes. Another torture was requiring the inmates to stand on ice for hours. Also he put some of the women in trucks, telling them they were being taken to a better place. The trucks returned with only their clothes, some with warning notes in the pockets. The women were seen by a dentist (to check for gold in their fillings…) then gassed. Later (as the Russians advanced) a gas chamber was set up on the camp, close to the crematorium. Gemma La Guardia Gluck had her barracks close to the crematorium. She described the constant stench of death.
In 1941 the inmates began to be used as forced labour. Siemens was one company that used them.
Ravensbrück was the home of the ‘Rabbits’. They were called “the Rabbits” because they were used by the Nazis as laboratory animals for medical experiments. They were 75 young Polish women who had been Resistance members. The Nazi doctors inspected their legs and gave them crutches. They were then put to sleep and various substances were inserted into their legs, as medical experiments.
Not only did the ‘Rabbits’ work together to keep one another alive after the surgeries, but other inmates in the camp risked their lives daily, secretly bringing them food, water, and even medications to help them survive.
The ‘Rabbits’ themselves defied the Nazis, bravely protesting the illegal experiments and finding ingenious ways of smuggling out messages to the outside world about their surgeries and the “selections” in the camp. Inmates were allowed to write one letter a month. The ‘Rabbits’ used urine to write secret messages. They managed to convey to the Polish Resistance that they needed to iron the paper to see the messages.
The Nazis were determined to eliminate all evidence of war crimes. On 4 February 1945 the crippled young women learned of their death sentence. The SS were coming for the ‘Rabbits’ in the morning. Overnight, as the ‘Rabbits’ stayed up writing goodbye letters, the inmates came up with a plan to grab and hide the ‘Rabbits’ in the predawn hours, during roll call – and right in front of the SS. It worked. The ‘Rabbits’ were successfully hidden that morning – and then kept hidden for nearly three months – until Liberation. Amazingly, not one of the ‘Rabbits’ was ever betrayed. As one surviving ‘Rabbit’ put it, “You could say that the entire camp helped us, hid us, protected us.”
As the Russian Army advanced, prisoners were transferred from Auschwitz to Ravensbrück. Conditions were terrible. The bread had been gnawed by rats. Inmates looked in vain for worms to eat. There were fights over whether to remove dying people from the huts (Jewish law said that they have to be left to die naturally). Tents were erected to take more prisoners. They were a death-trap, they were freezing.
At the end of our visit to Ravensbrück there was a moving ceremony to mark the return of Mala Tribich MBE to the camp – for the first time (now 91) since she was an inmate aged 14. You can watch the video of her speaking here. And see the Times article here.
Monday 25 October – Bergen-Belsen
Approximately 50,000 people died in the Bergen-Belsen camp complex.
As Allied forces advanced into Germany in late 1944 and early 1945, Bergen-Belsen became a collection camp for thousands of Jewish prisoners evacuated from camps closer to the front. Such was the Nazis’ hatred of Jews, they diverted precious military resources into keeping them incarcerated.
The arrival of thousands of new prisoners, many of them survivors of forced evacuations on foot, overwhelmed the very limited resources of the camp. From late 1944, food rations throughout Bergen-Belsen continued to shrink. By early 1945, prisoners would sometimes go without food for days; fresh water was also in short supply. Sanitation was incredibly inadequate, with few latrines and water taps for the tens of thousands of prisoners. Overcrowding, poor sanitary conditions, and the lack of adequate food, water, and shelter led to an outbreak of diseases such as typhus, tuberculosis, typhoid fever, and dysentery, causing an ever increasing number of deaths. In the first few months of 1945, tens of thousands of prisoners died.
On April 15, 1945, British forces liberated Bergen-Belsen. (An excellent account of the British Forces’ campaign in N. Europe – culminating in the arrival at Bergen-Belsen – can be found in Bernice Lerner’s book about her mother (liberated from the camp) and Glyn Hughes, a British Army doctor, see my review here). The British found around 60,000 inmates, most of them seriously ill. More than 13,000 inmates, too ill to recover, died after liberation. After evacuating Bergen-Belsen, the British burned down the whole camp to prevent the spread of typhus.
After liberation, British occupation authorities established a displaced persons camp that housed more than 12,000 survivors. It was located in a German military school barracks near the original concentration camp site, and functioned until 1951.
The survivors of Bergen-Belsen felt that the crimes against them were being whitewashed and forgotten. So on the first anniversary of liberation they arranged their own memorial with this paraphrase from the Book Of Job:
Earth conceal not the blood shed on thee!
That is, Don’t Pretend Nothing Happened!
At the end of our visit to Bergen Belsen we had time to view the permanent exhibition. Before that there was a memorial ceremony at the obelisk. As well as the memorial prayer recited by Clive Lawton, there were speeches.
First from the two British Army representatives: Colonel Dickie Winchester, Royal Artillery, representing the role of the Army in the liberation and in the role of 64th Anti-Tank Regt Royal Artillery and 113th Light Anti-Aircraft Regiment. And Lieutenant Colonel Simon Ledger (Ret.) of the 13th/18th Royal Hussars, the lead Armoured Regiment nearby in 1945 that were informed of the horror of Bergen-Belsen – their Reconnaissance Troop was sent to assess the camp. Both men laid wreaths.
Then from Alfred Garwood, survivor of Bergen-Belsen, and Scott Saunders, chairman of March of the Living UK.
Alfred Garwood described how he survived as a baby in Bergen Belsen because his mother managed to breastfeed him. The children in the camp played among bodies. They knew not to cry: “Children who cried, died”. As a result of his experience in Bergen Belsen Garwood became a doctor, specialising in the trauma of survivors.
Harry Olmer spoke, his story is here.
Ian Fenton also spoke. He held a photo of his father who was one of the first British Army liberators at Bergen Belsen. It affected him for the rest of his life. He always despised Germany.
Mala Tribich spoke, to thank the British Army.
After ten weeks at Ravensbrück Ms Tribich was deported to Bergen-Belsen. She insisted on walking out of Bergen-Belsen upon liberation in April 1945, despite having typhus. “I got up and promptly collapsed. They scooped me up, put me on a stretcher, and carried me off, but I think it shows my determination.” (Here is a speech by Ms Tribich, a remarkable lady who looks 20 years younger than her real age).
It is often forgotten that even before the killings in the death camps. 2.5 million Jews were killed by bullets in East Europe and Russia.
The permanent exhibition at Bergen-Belsen is excellent. You can buy the catalogue (also excellent) here. Here are a few photos, in approximate chronological order: