**warning - may contain what would be considered gruesome content and photos**
It feels inappropriate to say that I was "excited" to go see my first concentration camp...I've been fascinated for years. As wild as this may sound...I think I get it from my mother, who is also fascinated by WWII, concentration camps, Nazi Germany, Hilter's hold on people's mind and heart... I started out with the Diary of Anne Frank then moved on to the Hiding Place...two books on my must read lists still today. So, it was with "excitement" that I learned that a tour of the Flossenburg Work Camp would be available to me on Memorial Day. After talking to John, we decided it would be a most appropriate activity to remind ourselves how truly thankful we are for freedom and those who fight to keep it that way...
There is conflicting information regarding the actual numbers of prisoners that lived and died here, so take the following as what I was told during my visit. Flossenburg Work Camp was opened in 1938. Its about 30 minutes from Vilseck (where I live) and set in a beautiful valley surrounded by green forest and hills. It was the fourth concentration camp to be built in Germany, however, they didn't call it a concentration camp...they called it a work camp because the prisoners were set to work cutting granite out of stone quarries....as you see the photos below you will see that all of the rock was from this quarry. Now, even though they called it a work camp while others such as Dachau and Auschwitz were called "Death Camps", do not be fooled...as our dear tour guide, Herb, put it...instead of just being shot or gassed or hung or burned these poor souls were worked to death.
The original camp was built for 1600 prisoners, however by the end of the war, over 100,000 prisoners were housed in Flossenburg and its sub camps (approximately 18,000 in the main camp) located around the quarry. There was an estimated 73,000 prisoners killed at Flossenburg and when it was liberated in April 1945, the US Army found only two thousand sick prisoners left in the camp. An additional 14,000 had been forced on a "death march" for three days...4,000 died in those three days before the US Army caught up to them and saved the remaining 10,000...
Here is what is left of Flossenburg in photos...
The SS Headquarters building located in the SS barricks area...this was built after the camp had been opened for a few years when it was growing quickly with more and more prisoners being transported here.
Our tour guide - Herb is a Prestbyterian minister...his family is from Flossenburg and his parents and grandparents remember well the days of the concentration camp. It was fascinating to hear his family's recollections and stories...probably what is most interesting to me was his comment about how the German people that lived less than a mile from this terrible place could not have KNOWN what was happening.
Herb told me that these German people had been told that this prison was for criminals, murderers and rapists that were dangerous. He reminded me that the people from the city were not invited to tour the facilities or even go near the various camps or quarry. He asked me to imagine living near a prison in the US...would I try to liberate or free those prisoners even if I thought they were being mistreated? He also reminded me that there was no television in those days and newscasts were all pro-nazi and would never tell the truths about camps like Flossenburg. As unbelievable as it sounds...many of these townspeople really did have no idea the true evil happening in these camps. His explanation opened my eyes just a little more to how these terrible things could be allowed by good people.
As you enter through the Headquarters building you look off to the left and see a tall hillside. This hillside is now covered in german homes, however it was the location of 16 prisoner barricks. They were built to house approximately 100 prisoners each. By the end of the war there were more than three prisoners per bunk...
How does it feel, I wonder, to have a home built on soil where those barracks once were?
This is the small garden that was the original memorial created for the survivors of the concentration camp. Anybody looking at these crosses would assume a religious Christian significance, however, what I learned is that these are actually nazi symbols that were in the concentration camps. In 1995 there was a reunion of survivors. Up to that time only a small garden filled with these crosses has been created as a memorial. It wasn't clear if it was the survivors that complained or I wonder if their silence said all that needed to be said because shortly after that the German government put about 2 million $ into a new memorial site. For whatever reason, they chose to leave this section alone and build around it instead of tearing it down.
Now we turn to the far southwest corner and one of the last two corner guard towers that are still standing. Those homes built on the hill are shadowed by this site. I wonder what they must think as they look out their windows in the morning....or do they think of it at all? The building is a church that was built later as part of the new memorial site. I was taken back by how truly beautiful this area was...can you imagine it as a concentration camp? I couldn't...
And then, we look to the northwest corner...and I saw the smokestack...the crematorium...I was surprised by how small the building was at first...no more than the size of a living room. How, did it handle the number of deaths that occured in this camp? Herb told me that the camp originally had contracted the services of the funeral home in the city of Flossenburg, but as more and more prisoners were sent to the camp and more and more deaths occured they built this crematorium.
Inside the building were three small rooms. As I turned into the first room I was shaken from the site of the oven. It sat in the room and seemed to suck the air out of it and the reality of this place settled heavily on my shoulders.
The second room was empty...I learned later that it was where they "cooled" the bodies. They threw them into a pile before burying them or burning them...the photos of what was found in that room at the liberation of the camp brought tears to my eyes.
The third room, I discovered, was the "operating room" for hurt or sick prisoners. If they died then it was a short toss into the cooling room...it was also where they laid the dead prisoners to remove their teeth. As I stood in there I found that I was hugging myself. I didn't want to touch that table. I didn't want to touch the walls. I knew there had been terrible suffering in the place where I was standing.
After leaving the crematorium you see a large valley with the church on one end and the crematorium on the other. In the middle is a remembrance for those that died. First, a long flat area with a sign that says, Prisoners were shot in mass here. Then a mound of earth with a sign that says, "These are the ashes and bones from mass-burnings." Because of the significance of Memorial Day, the Veterans of Foreign Wars were conducting a memorial service. I stood silently and watched the group of soldiers I was with standing at attention as Taps was played out by a bugler...
Day is done, gone the sun, From the hills, from the lake, From the skies.
All is well, safely rest, God is nigh.
Go to sleep, peaceful sleep, May the soldier or sailor, God keep.
On the land or the deep, Safe in sleep.
Love, good night, Must thou go, When the day, And the night Need thee so?
All is well. Speedeth all To their rest.
Fades the light; And afar Goeth day, And the stars Shineth bright,
Fare thee well; Day has gone, Night is on.
Thanks and praise, For our days, 'Neath the sun, Neath the stars, 'Neath the sky,
As we go, This we know, God is nigh.
The sign the prisoners saw as they entered the gates of Flossenburg read, "Work shall set you free." As I read the letters and stories of the survivors I couldn't help but wonder how so much evil could occur in a place that was so beautiful. The sun was shining and birds chirping...there was a slight breeze that whispered through the trees and the flowers were in full bloom...
ON A SUNNY EVENING - Third poem in the Terezin Concentration Camp Children's Cantata
On a purple, sun-shot evening
Under wide-flowering chestnut trees
Upon the threshold full of dust
Yesterday, today, the days are all like these.
Trees flower forth in beauty,
Lovely too their very wood all gnarled and old
That I am half afraid to peer
Into their crowns of green and gold.
The sun has made a veil of gold
So lovely that my body aches.
Above, the heavens shriek with blue
Convinced I've smiled by some mistake.
The world's abloom and seems to smile.
I want to fly but where, how high?
If in barbed wire, things can bloom
Why couldn't I? I will not die!
--Michael Flack, 1944