remember the past · change the futureFlossenbürg
In the summer of 1933, just a few months after coming to power, the Nazis began to establish concentration camps to intern and punish those whom they regarded as hostile to the regime. The number of these camps, and of the prisoners held in them, increased markedly late in the decade. During World War II, the Germans and their allies established more than camps. In 1941 42, six facilities in German occupied Poland were set aside as extermination camps: Birkenau (at Auschwitz), Treblinka, Majdanek, Chelmno, Belzec, and Sobibor. Several million people, the great majority of them Jews, were gassed or otherwise killed in these camps. But killings were frequent at most other camps, as well, and in addition many inmates died of disease and malnutrition. Overwork, too, was a common cause of death, for most prisoners were forced to do slave labor.
The village of Flossenbürg dated from the Middle Ages and was located in the Oberpfalz Mountains of Bavaria. A granite quarry was established there in 1875 and soon became the center of the village economy. In the late 1930's the owner of the quarry -- also mayor of the village and a loyal Nazi -- persuaded Heinrich Himmler to establish a major camp (Konzentrationslager
, or KL) at Flossenbürg. A key function of the camp would be to provide slave labor for the quarry, and in the spring of 1938 the SS established a company to manage the laborers.
Established 3 March 1938, KL Flossenbürg was consistently in operation until liberated by American troops on 23 April 1945. Jacob Weiseborn - who poisoned himself in January 1939 - Karl Künstler (died in Allied bombing, March 1945), Egon Zill (imprisoned 1955-70; died 1974), and Max Koegel (hanged himself while in American custody, June 1946) served successively as commandants. Koegel also served as commandant at Majdanek and Ravensbrück, and Zill at Natzweiler. The number of inmates at KL Flossenbürg fluctuated between 5,000 and 18,000. Early on, the preponderant majority of prisoners were German. It was they who built the camp through forced labor. Beginning in 1940, prisoners came increasingly from Czechoslovakia. Flossenbürg was close to the border of the Sudetenland, which, along with western Czechoslovakia, the Germans had seized in 1938-39. During World War II, many Poles and Soviet prisoners of war were held there, as were nationals from throughout Nazi-occupied Europe. Some Jews were also imprisoned there, and in addition Flossenbürg served also to funnel Jews to the death camps. On 5 December 1943 a sealed train arrived at Auschwitz. Its cargo was 1200 Jews from Flossenbürg, 80 of whom the guards left to freeze in the snow.
KL Flossenbürg was a stammlager
(main camp), one of seven in Greater Germany, the others being Dachau, Buchenwald, Sachsenhausen, Mauthausen (Germany had incorporated this Austrian town), Neuengamme, and Ravensbrück. Each of these camps had many satellites, or nebenlager
. At least 55 camps served as nebenlager to Flossenbürg at some point in the war, mainly in 1944 45. Most were open for less than a year and held fewer than 1000 inmates, but at least two had 4000 5000 inmates. Hitler himself, accompanied by Himmler, is known to have visited one of the satellites in January 1943 and to have spoken to inmates, this being one of the few cases in which he appeared at any camp.
As is noted in the captions, prisoners at Flossenbürg worked in stone quarries at the camp (photos #34962
) and in a Messerschmidt plant nearby. It appears that work in the quarry was mainly the burden of those who were regarded with particular loathing by the camp authorities. Some sense of life in the quarry is provided in the testimony of a gay survivor of Flossenbürg:
We gays were assembled into work detachments ... to work in the granite quarry.... The work of quarrying, dynamiting, hewing and dressing was extremely arduous, and only Jews and homosexuals were assigned to it.... Just like the prison camp itself, the granite quarry was completely surrounded by barbed wire, and guarded outside and inside by SS sentries. No prisoner was permitted to get closer than five metres to the wire. Anyone who did so was shot by the S.S. guards without warning, since this transgression was already considered as attempted escape. For shooting a prisoner who "attempted escape," an S.S. man received three days' special leave...
One way of tormenting Jews and homosexuals that the S.S. in the quarry were very fond of was to drive crazy prisoners who were already physically at the end of their tether. A man who had not done anything in particular would have a metal bucket placed over his head. Two men held him down, while the S.S. men and Capos banged on the bucket with their sticks. The terrible noise amplified through the bucket soon brought the victim to such a pitch of terror that he completely lost his mind and his sense of balance was destroyed. Then the bucket was suddenly removed and he was pushed towards the wire fence. He could seldom right himself in time. And if he staggered inside the 5 metre zone, he was fired on in the usual way. "Games" such as these were a favorite pastime for some of the S.S. guards.
(Heinz Heger, The Men with the Pink Triangle)
As at most concentration camps - though not extermination facilities - mortality at Flossenbürg was highest toward the end of the war. This was partly because of severe shortages in food and medicine, and partly because of overcrowding, as thousands of prisoners, most of them Poles or Jews, were brought in from Auschwitz and other camps in the east. As Flossenbürg became more crowded, sanitation broke down and epidemics spread.
As is reported in the captions to several photos in this collection, records discovered at Flossenbürg on its liberation noted that in the fourteen months preceding 20 April 1945, about 14,000 prisoners at Flossenbürg were killed or died of exhaustion, malnutrition, harsh treatment, and various diseases. Hundreds of victims of illness or starvation were disposed of by injections of phenol. On 20 April, as Allied armies neared the camp, 15,000 inmates were marched away. Those that were unable to keep up with the march were shot, and there was also at least one mass killing. About 2,000 prisoners were left in the camp when American troops arrived. Many of these inmates were nearing death from typhus, dysentery, and starvation.
Among the prisoners sent westward to Flossenbürg in 1944 were inmates of the slave labor camp at Plaszow. Auschwitz also sent many prisoners to Flossenbürg, many of whom died on the deportation trains. One death march lasted 42 days. Beginning at the slave labor camp of Neusalz, on 26 January 1945, 1000 Jewish women were sent out toward Flossenbürg. Most died or were murdered along the way, and only 200 survived the march, arriving 11 March - to be promptly shipped on by train to Bergen Belsen. Even in the last weeks of the war, prisoners were dispatched to Flossenbürg. On 8 April 1945 the remaining Jewish prisoners at Buchenwald were marched toward the camp. Occasionally, trainloads of newly apprehended prisoners also arrived. As late as 14 December 1944 a train departed northern Italy bearing Jews destined for Flossenbürg.
Like the women from Neusalz, many prisoners who arrived at Flossenbürg were simply sent on. Likewise, inmates from the camp were often marched haphazardly, with no particular destination. One group of marchers, sent out on 27 March 1945, was herded north, then west, and finally south, arriving at Regensburg more than three weeks later, having covered more than 250 miles in a journey that concluded less than 50 miles from its point of origin. Few survived the trek.
Captions on several of the photos in the collection refer to a massacre of prisoners who had been marched from Flossenbürg on 20 April 1945. Such mass killings were not unusual. Indeed, they were encouraged by the high command. On 14 April Himmler sent a telegram to the commandant at Flossenbürg, ordering a full evacuation and specifying, "No prisoner may fall into enemy hands alive."
An assault on prisoners quite similar to the one reported in the captions had taken place just before it, and apparently in the same vicinity. On 7 April 4480 prisoners were dispatched by train from Buchenwald, destined for Dachau, but the train was diverted to the town of Nammering, near Passau, and there, on 19 April, about 800 prisoners were shot or burnt by the SS. The killing was halted only after a protest by local farmers and a priest. On 26 April the remaining prisoners were sent on to Dachau. Shortly thereafter, on orders from the commander of the American forces who had liberated the area, residents of several nearby towns were forced to bury the victims of the massacre. Among the Germans who were forced to participate were people from Nammering. There are close parallels between this train of events and the one described in several captions in the Flossenbürg collection. These captions, too, report the massacre of about 800 prisoners in transit in April 1945. Again the people of Nammering are noted, and in this case they are accused (note photo #46864
) of having participated in the killing. The captions portray the victims as inmates from Flossenbürg, rather than Buchenwald, and report that they had been sent out on 20 April, whereas the massacre of the prisoners from Buchenwald appears, as previously noted, to have taken place on the 19th. Perhaps there was in fact only one massacre, with a confusion on dates and the identity of the victims. Possibly there were in fact two separate incidents, coincidentally close in time and in location.
Although KL Flossenbürg was not an extermination facility and did not possess a gas chamber, it had a reputation for brutality that was exceptional even among concentration camps. The death rate there was very high. Executions were common (note photos #45585
). Among the last to be hanged were Admiral Wilhem Canaris and the noted theologian, Dietrich Bonhöffer, both of whom were executed on April 9, 1945, for conspiring against Hitler. They, along with several alleged co-conspirators, had first undergone a quick trial at the camp, but more often even this much of a formality was ignored. Rather, prisoners were hanged or shot capriciously. Furthermore, beatings were commonplace and often resulted in death. Each of the successive commandants promoted the culture of violence, as did every adjutant. The lower-ranking SS and most kapos likewise pursued the policy. The camp doctor during most of the last year of the war, Heinrich Schmitz - who had been given a choice between taking up this assignment or being committed to a mental hospital - not only killed patients with injections and operated on them without anesthesia (note photo #45587
), but purposely allowed typhus to spread among the prisoners. Schmitz was executed in November 1948.
The harshness of life at the camp was not coincidental, but rather purposeful. As Schmitz told an American interrogator, "Flossenbürg was so designed to bring about, and it did so bring about, the physical and spiritual breakdown of all its inmates."
Readers who desire further information on KL Flossenbürg should access the website of the camp memorial, www.gedenkstaette-flossenbuerg.de
(the website is in German, but the director of the memorial, Jörg Skriebeleit, can correspond in English). Another excellent resource is Jakub's World: A Boy's Story of Loss and Survival in the Holocaust
, by Alicia Nitecki and Jack Terry (SUNY Press, 2005). This is the story of Jakub Szabmacher (later, Jack Terry) and his experiences during the war. About half the book deals with Jakub's time in Flossenbürg, the camp where he was liberated (he is actually depicted in three photos in the OSU collection, #34983
, and 34985
). The authors provide a historical sketch of the camp and convey graphically what life was like there.
Do you have memories or memorabilia to share?
If you have any photos, documents, or memorabilia regarding KL Flossenbürg that you wish to share, please consider donating the items to the Holocaust Memorial Program at Oregon State University. Of particular value would be statements or testimony from camp survivors or from liberators. We will deposit these items in our collection in the University Archives, where they can be available to the public. Reports on the collection will be posted periodically at our website.
For further information, please contact Paul Kopperman, at firstname.lastname@example.org