Back when we were traveling to Auschwitz for a visit I suggested to Lizi that we also go to a concentration camp in Germany later so we could see if there was a difference in the way the camps are treated in occupied territory rather than inside Germany. Once we completed our trip through the death camp though, neither of us had a desire to visit another.
But of course, the best laid plans of mice and men, right?
Not far from where we live, about a half hour, is the Flossenbürg Concentration Camp. Unlike Auschwitz which was a death camp, this one was "merely" a labor camp. The main emphasis here was labor and not eradication although it served both purposes.
Quite some years ago I first heard of the theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer. He could be considered a German theologian though he was born in Poland since at the time of his birth Poland was swallowed up by Russia, Prussia (later Germany), and Austria-Hungary. When I began researching my soon to be home before moving on a whim I searched for camps and saw how close Flossenbürg was which in turn let me to a brief search on it and discover that it is where Bonhoeffer was held and executed. Not that a camp needs to have a "most famous" inmate, but he would certainly rank as among the most well known.
One of the few things my Dad wanted to see on his visit was a camp, so I used this opportunity to finish the observational experiment started two years before. At the start of Dad's trip we visited Nürnberg and went into the Congresshalle. As the largest piece of Nazi architecture left, it has been made into a very well done museum. There is a steel and glass shaft-like protrusion that seems to pierce the building and as you make your way through the exhibit you end up at the tip hovering over the open air, bombed out courtyard that would have been a stadium covered portion of the complex. The displays were very well done and didn't display either pride or necessarily shame in what was done. Rather they were informative and explained how what happened had. But the center courtyard, that was different.
After touring the displays that showed before, during, and after pictures you make your way to the center where the bombed out building was left. Very stout building, so it isn't crumbling, but the pockmarks, the grass, trees, and even weeds growing in the center of this building is very much a middle finger in the air to the bigoted shitheads that built it. I know I've used that phrase before, but it is just as accurate here.
There was a display about the building which also mentioned a spot nearby where they had constructed sample seats which, like all the buildings at the Nazi complex, had used stone quarried from Flossenbürg. So this served as a tie to the bookend excursions of the trip.
A colleague I work with from nearby Weiden told me he doesn't go to the city Flossenbürg because with the camp it just has an air about the whole town he finds depressing. He has even told me that when he goes into the woods nearby that the weather is colder and more repressive. That was not the experience I had though. We had the top down in the Peugeot as we cruised the backroads to the town. We parked at the bus stop and walked on to the site which was itself very strange indeed.
I mentioned in my Auschwitz post that someone lives right next door and can look down into the complex. In Flossenbürg they not only look down into the former camp, they knocked down most of the barracks and built houses on the site. A road goes through the houses and then through the site, there is no fence or barricade. There is even a restaurant that looks down into the site. The old wall is mostly gone, but several of the towers remain.
Walking through the few buildings that remained I didn't take many pictures. Until the end when I took pictures all the way back out. There were stories about the camp, it's history and growth, as well as detailed listings, pictures, and information about both the captors and the captees.
One particularly memorable "escape in place" attempt is chronicled well and also includes the spot in the wall he crawled and hid among the pipes between the floor and ceiling. It describes how he almost gave up hiding because the hiding place was as bad as being dead. I call it "escape in place" because he didn't go with them when they evacuated the Jews, rather he hid, then he was still open about being a prisoner but avoided detection as having been on the supposed to have been evacuated group.
There was an entire library full of books on the inmates of the camp. Famous or not, they have their histories indelibly inked as much as is known separated by country of origin.
In another spot there were plates with pictures and biographies of the camp's staff. Not just the head, but the guards. It talks of where they came from, where they went, if they disappeared later, and if they were discovered as several of the more cruel were.
The site still contains part of a prison complex (weird because the whole place was a prison) where the non-working laborers were kept, the laundromat/washroom, the kitchen, and the administrative SS Headquarters. Much of the city was taken over by the SS guards, but the HQ building is by far one of the nicest, most imposing structures that remain.
As I walked through the exhibits in the laundromat and kitchen there were paths to the parts of the building left un-converted. Some of the walls and floor were covered with glass, or metal grates, but it was possible to step off and into the spaces that had been occupied when the camp was operational. For example, the shower heads were removed, but the tiles on the wall and floor remained. I walked in awe examining the ceilings imagining when it was operational. Running my hand along the same tiles, walking the same floor tiles that seventy years ago had been touched and tread by the captive laborer prisoners.
The sense of tactile actions allows someone to become more connected to anything observed. I long to touch and become a piece of the historic and infamous locations I get to see. There was an authentic set of stairs with well-worn handrail full of patina that I slid my hand down imagining connection to the prisoners of once ago. In this manner I became a part of what I was observing.
At the back of the camp is what they called the Valley of Death. Overlooking it they have built a chapel but the Valley of Death is the part of the camp the town cannot see into from their bedrooms, or their front yard. Surrounded by trees and down a slope is where the worst things happened.
There are many monuments from countries honoring their dead. There is a HUGE mound covered in grass called the Mound of Ashes. It does not take a smart man to understand what lies beneath. A small field with concrete pads is marked as the location where executions by gunfire took place. And in the corner stands the crematorium.
At one point a railway track was added to ease the transportation of bodies from the camp to the crematorium which was really just outside the boundary fence of the camp. At this point the original gates of the camp were set up as the first memorial to the camp by former prisoners. These gates are right next to the crematorium.
My travels through the camp culminated at the crematorium. I walked past it a few meters to see the original camp gates. It is connected to the ubiquitous walking trails throughout this country. This one through the woods. Unlike the last crematorium I was in at Auschwitz, this one had not been destroyed by retreating forces. It had been in operation when the camp was liberated. Inside were the small rooms where bodies had been stacked and prepared for burning. And the ovens themselves.
I did not use my sense of tactile connection in this building. I have no desire to be connected to the folks that orchestrated this travesty. I care not if they were following orders, or even if they themselves were prisoners forced to toil away at the macabre task. The despair and gloom Klaus made reference to centered on this spot. I could feel it here.
On the way back out, I took pictures to chronicle my visit and to use when I explained it. Previously I had no desire to visit another concentration camp. Currently I still had no desire to visit this one twice.
One thing that was poignantly different was that here I found out that after the war the courts extended the statue of limitations to allow prosecution of Nazis involved in concentration camp atrocities. Many of the guards that had disappeared were found years later and recognized by the former prisoners and brought to justice.
Justice here is used rather loosely though. While many were convicted and even sentenced to long terms including sometimes life, most got out after three to ten years. It has taken me quite some time to process the fact that after the war the only people that really had the heart and desire to go after and prosecute were either victims that had survived, or family members of victims that had perished. The country wanted to, needed to, and did move on. They didn't brush it under the rug and forget about it per se, but the overwhelming desire was to get on with correcting the path of the country. It was not, and is not, a sense of ignoring the past, but not vehemently punishing those that did what was done. I'm still not sure I have processed that level of information.
One thing that I am sure of, this visit helped me to better understand what happened afterwards. It helped me in processing my thoughts of the first visit. I finally finished and posted my Auschwitz visit after seeing this site.
When I got here I was told that the Germans don't like talking about this 12 year period of their history. There are thousands of years of history to discuss instead. But if it were not for this 12 year period, I would not be here today. The reason I can work here is due to that time, so it is incredibly interesting and necessary to view for me. But in the minds of modern Germany it is like Alsace and Lorraine were from 1918 on, spoken of never, but thought of always.