Tuesday, September 27, 2011

the Holocaust in Hamburg

It's been a week since I last updated, and the week just flew by. Most notable was my study tour to Hamburg with my Holocaust and Genocide class. The weekend was truly an eye-opening experience for me and the rest of the students as well.

The tour started on Saturday morning when we had to wake up at the crack of dawn to meet for the 4 hour bus ride to Hamburg (including a 45 minute ferry ride). On the way, we watched the movie The Pianist, which follows the struggles of a Polish Jew musician in the destruction of the Warsaw ghetto during WWII. While we were all tired, almost everyone watched the entire movie and it really set the scene for our trip to Hamburg. 

Our first stop upon arrival in Hamburg was the Bullenhuser Damm School, a sub-camp of Neuengamme from 1944. The Nazi doctor Kurt Heissmeyer was doing research on tuberculosis at the school, injecting the disease into 20 children who were taken from Auschwitz for his experiments. As the war was coming to an end, the children (along with 6 Russian prisoners of war) were killed in the school's basement because they knew too much. Heissmeyer received 6 prison life sentences for his actions and the school is used today as a kindergarden, which seems a little cruel in my opinion. There was also a rose garden on site as a memorial to all the victims of the tragedy.

rose garden memorial
Bullenhuser Damm School

After visiting the school, we were given several hours of free time to roam the city of Hamburg. Cara, Hannah, and I decided to walk on the main road taking in the historic sites of the city. We stopped by the harbor area for a photo-op with a giant anchor statue, further proving my life-long dream to be a sailor. We also discovered a charming little bridge where married couples over the years placed locks inscribed with their names and date of marriage. It was beautiful and I one day hope to place a lock of my own on the bridge. 

love locks 
St. Michaelis Church

While roaming Hamburg, we found the gorgeous St. Michaelis church, the most famous church in the city, complete with an epic statue of the archangel Michael defeating the devil above the entryway. After climbing what felt like 100 flights of stairs, we were rewarded with a breath-taking view of Hamburg, well worth the physical exertion from the climb. 

Hannah, myself, and Cara at the top 

After a delicious German dinner of steak and potatoes we headed to the Hamburg's red light district, St. Pauli. Considering how we don't really have many areas like this in the United States, it was a very interesting experience. The street was crowded with bars, clubs, and strip joints. However, the novelty of the area soon wore off as we prepared for our visit to Neuengamme. 

On Sunday, we started the day with a visit to the St. Nikolai Memorial, another Protestant church in Hamburg. The church was a focal point in the attacks by British and U.S. bombers in the summer of 1943, specifically the successful weeklong firestorm from late July to early August. The allies succeeded in starting a firestorm, which reached temperatures of 1,500 degrees F (hot enough to burn brick)! Many German citizens were killed in the attacks and 10% of the German war economy was destroyed (the goal of the attack). Considering how the church was a landmark for the bombers, it is amazing that a large portion of the church survived the attacks.

view from top of tower
St. Nikolai Memoial

After the visiting the St. Nikolai Memorial, it was time to reach our final destination, the Neuengamme concentration camp. After the war, most of the camp was destroyed and a new prison was placed on site. However, after pressure and protest from below, the prison was relocated and a memorial opened in 2001. Since most of the original structures were town down, place holders signify where the building would have been.

bricks signifying prison bunkers
original guard tower

Specific places visited at the camp are as follows:

roll call square: Most of the square has been covered up, but some areas are still visible. This is the place where roll call would occur twice daily (before the prisoners departed for work and once again when they returned). Sometimes the process could go on for 24 hours straight until the number of prisoners (dead or alive) matched what was registered. 

roll call square
internal prison: All that remains of the internal prison are traces of cells where prisoners were placed and tortured for offenses that weren't worthy of punishment by death. Prisoners would stay there for up to 2 weeks, most often with standing room only. 

internal prison remains

crematorium: All large camps had a crematorium to get rid of the evidence, in this case the dead bodies of the prisoners. There is a small memorial in its place today.

crematorium memorial

railway: The railway connected the camp to the outside world in order to deliver prisoners, supplies, and finished products (bricks and weapons). The small railcars help up to as many as 80 prisoners, and the trip to the camp often took days.


Commander's Villa: The camps Commander stayed here with his wife and 4 children. On the gate of the yard there is a depiction of the main building at Auschwitz. 

the Commander's Villa (and Torben)
the Dove-Elbe Canal

Dove-Elbe Canal: A canal that connected the camp to a branch of the Elbe River, which was hand-dug by prisoners, often times with no tools. The canal took 2 years to finish and required 1,600 men, which were referred to as "death squads," due to the fact that many of the prisoners working on the canal didn't survive very long. 

Brick Factory: One of the better places to work as a prisoner due to a roof over head and heat from the brick ovens in the winter. But hard work included pushing heavy carts by hand full of clay and then completed bricks. 

Brick Factory with push carts

Clay Pit: There was only one clay pit still existing at the camp today. This was one of the worst jobs due to the wet conditions of the pit. If a prisoner happened to slip in the mud, the SS officer would consider the prisoner to be "resting," which mean certain death. They worked all day, from sun-up to sun-down, with a high mortality rate (around 50% for the entire camp-approximately 50,000 deaths). 

last existing clay pit

We concluded the trip with a visit to the camps museum, which included displays from the beginning of the war to its end, containing victim descriptions and reactions. It was hard to imagine the living conditions of the prisoners on a daily basis and I am still struggling with an appropriate reaction. 

prison built on site after war
bunks (2-3 prisoners per bed)

On the bus ride home, we watched another relevant film called The Downfall, which explores the final days of the Reich, where senior leaders began defecting from their beloved Fuhrer, while still others pledge to die with Hitler. The movie was just as enjoyable as the first movie, and offered an insight into the inner workings of the Third Reich's downfall. 

After a final ferry ride from Germany to Denmark, we arrived home in Copenhagen, tired from our trip but also changed for the better. 

roomz and I on the ferry home

No comments:

Post a Comment