I do not pretend to know how it feels to be a Holocaust survivor or even related to one. I cannot comprehend the enormity of that pain. I cannot begin to fathom what it’s like being German on Yom Hashoah, because somewhere in the country’s psyche must be indescribable guilt, as so it should be. I have been living in Germany for 35 years, and neighbors and friends speak about WWII almost in the abstract. Most of them were either not born yet or too young to realize what was going on. Yet they bear the guilt and legacy of shame.
Barely 35 kilometers from where I live in Bavaria, is the Flossenberg concentration camp. A Nazi labor camp and a “transit stop” to the unfortunate on their final destination to Dachau, Treblinka, and most notorious; Auschwitz. The camp is nestled in the Oberphalz hills, a few kilometers from the Czech border, and in the Upper Palatinate of Bavaria. Beautiful fields, forests, hills, and picturesque homes dot the countryside like a Renaissance painting. If one is not specifically looking for Flossenberg, one might easily miss it.
Flossenberg is not new to me. I have taken many family and friends there. The camp is situated in a small valley surrounded by low rolling granite hills. Beautiful homes rise on the side of the hills with a row of wooden homes resting on their crest. Wooden homes are rare in Germany, making these few stand out above all the others. Flower boxes filled with hanging seasonal flowers give them a sense of normalcy and mundane. A true Bavarian panorama of serenity and beauty. They are unique in their simple charm. They also happen to be the homes of former SS officers that oversaw the camp. Strategically located they could look down at the misery and death in the comfort of their living rooms Does not get more evil than that. Now they are inhabited by “normal” families.
Flossenberg was the main quarry providing building materials to the Third Reich’s government and military buildings in nearby Nurnberg and further away in Berlin. Conditions were abysmal and if the cold and slave labor didn’t kill, the SS did. Entering the camp one gets a tight feeling in the chest. Arbeit macht Frei was the cliché wrought in iron on all entrances to concentration camps: Work liberates. A cynical taunt that adds to the blatant cruelty that the place inflicted on those inside. The same sign hangs on the entryway into Flossenberg.
Camp data shows that the camp’s slave labor was also profitable for businesses in the area. The camp commandant would grant free labor to businesses upon request. A few meters from the front “gate” were bakeries and grocery stores. Most still operational and kept the original family names. They supplied the camp with food and resources. Businesses as far as Weiden also availed themselves to Flossenberg’s slave labor. Sad to say, that I live in Weiden, and some of those business names are still in existence. What a legacy to bear.
The barracks have long been gone, but the main buildings still stand to include the in processing center with its selection rooms, showers, delousing chambers, and a crematorium. When the 97th Infantry Division liberated the camp on 23 April, 1945, they found 2,000 starved inmates and scores of dead bodies lying around. During the last few months and in anticipation of the allied invasion, the SS officers revved up executions and the crematorium became obsolete. So they piled the bodies up, threw gasoline on them, and set them on fire.
The 97th Infantry Division marched into the front gates of Flossenberg at 10.30 a.m. on April 23rd. What they saw they could not believe. As they walked through the camp they started filming, collecting information anticipating war trials. Led by General Sherman Hasbrouck, the US military ordered the local population to start digging up graves. Mass and shallow graves were also found scattered outside the camp. Underground bunkers held the condemned until their execution. Gallows and firing squads were the preferred method. It is estimated that between 1944-1945 approximately 1500 prisoners were executed.
In 1939, Dietrich Bonhoeffer a pastor and theologian from Breslau, Poland, decided to return to Germany from the US in an attempt to help Jews escape. His open criticism of Hitler put a target on his back. He was active in the underground resistance and suspected of abetting and aiding in the attempt on Hitler’s life. He was eventually caught and sent to Flossenberg. He was executed on April 9, 1945, a few days before the liberation. A commemorative plaque hangs in his honor on the wall normally used for firing squads.
This 23rd of April marks the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Flossenberg. Not much fanfare; the Corona virus took care of that. Flossenberg is a silent place. Originally opened in 1938 for political prisoners, soon morphed into a labor camp. Like Dachau , Flossenberg is located on the edge of a quarry. The Third Reich needed the granite, marble, and other earth resources for their building projects, some of which can still be seen in Nurnberg. One can recognize former Third Reich buildings by the color of the granite. The Flossenberg Granite quarry is still open today.
I can never pretend to know how it feels to be a Holocaust survivor or a relative of one. But 35 miles from my home I can still walk the horror in the silence of what it was. A silence filled with pain of the unheard. A place where humanity was at its worst. A place of despair. A place where one is apt to ask G-d, why? A place that brings Yom Hashoah very close into my life. Never again.