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Blog Post No 12. (09/11/2019) - Gedenkstatte Kz Neuengamme

We cannot afford to overlook the tragedies and atrocities authored while previous generations stood by, unless we want to repeat the same mistakes. The Holocaust is one of the greatest tragedies in recent memory, with countless men and women ghettoized, targeted and ultimately murdered. Who should step in to enact justice when the state itself assumes the role of criminal and takes "sovereignty as license to kill" (Gareth Evans, The Responsibility to Protect)? That was the question troubling the world after the Holocaust. Even those not moved to shame by the plight of the Jews, the Roma and the other undesirables in Germany recognized that they could find themselves one day under the boot of a power-mad rogue state willing to commit genocide. A consensus was reached, leading to the UN charter of human rights, the outlawing of genocide and the provision of measures against such crimes against humanity. Humanitarian intervention came later, but nearly sixty years too late for the dead at Neuengamme.

This place feels hateful. My chest felt tight and the air unseasonably cold as we crossed the entrance square. I later learned the area just before the entrance was the parading ground, where the SS kept the prisoners waiting for hours. They then stripped them of all clothing and had them meticulously shaved by other prisoners. Many collapsed waiting there in the cold. It was also where public executions were conducted, mostly hangings. Neuengamme was not a death camp but that didn’t save the 44,000 - 55,000 who died in the camp from overwork, starvation, sickness or poison gas.

I was shocked to discover that there was a rather jazzy cafe in the old barracks building our group gathered in. It made me sick to think that someone would want to buy a croissant or mac and cheese in the middle of a memorial to victims of genocide. I used to think concentration camps were kept far away from the German public in places like Poland or the remote countryside. But it was here, just across the fields, hedged by the cosy village of Neuengamme that was just a bus ride or two away from the city center of Hamburg. Neuengamme was uncomfortably close.

The Neuengamme concentration camp was originally a brickworks factory. They brought in prisoners in ever increasing numbers throughout the war days to raise production in order to rebuild Hamburg in Hitler’s image. Neuengamme accommodated the final solution by working its prisoners to death and increasing the rates of execution.

The brickworks have long since lain silent. Grass grows on the tracks to the clay pits and some of the boards barring entrance to the upper levels are rotting away. Here at Neuengamme, Germany chose to forget rather than remember and the BRD erected a prison where the old concentration camp once stood. There was no monument for many decades, just two prisons making very practical use of the space where so many innocent people died. This felt insulting, as if later Hamburger politicians were conspiring with the SS in order to erase all traces of what really happened at Neuengamme. The SS burned the files, cleared out the refuse and burned the bodies and the BRD tore down the old barracks and built a prison for actual criminals right over the old camp.

Mounting pressure from survivors and war-conscious West Germans forced the construction of a monument in 1989. A chimney like pillar recalls the smokestack of the crematorium with the words “Your suffering, your trial and your deaths shall never be forgotten”, and gravestones line the wall facing the old camp. The first prison was torn down and a second was built nearby, and the entire camp was slowly and reluctantly converted into a great memorial. Many of the buildings are gone now and others like the crematorium and gas chambers have only foundations left.

The pain of this place is draining, but the mood lightens as the sky finally clears. The laughter of children could be heard on the other side of the canal by the work pits. People still live in the homes where farmers could see undesirables being worked and whipped and shot to death from their kitchen windows. The truth is that we do need to move on past these tragedies, but forgetting them entirely ensures more atrocities like Rwanda and Srebrenica in the future. Maybe remembering means the dead rest a little easier, freed at last from the horror of Neuengamme.

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