During May 5-10, I was once again in Porta Westfalica, Germany. The town of Porta Westfalica held a 70 year anniversary commemoration event, in honor of those who were slave laborers there during World War II, and especially those who died under the extreme and inhumane conditions.
May 5, 2015
Despite striking train workers, I made it to Porta Westfalica from Hannover airport. The first place I visited was the cemetery in Lerbeck where the mass grave site of a number of prisoners who died at the camp was located. Babette Lissner, who put together the event, and picked me up from Bückeburg where I was stranded by Deutsche Bahn because of “obstructions” on the tracks.
32457 Porta Westfalica
The site had recently been cleaned up, and it looked quite nice. One amazing story I heard while there was about the groundskeeper in charge of the cemetery during that time. As he saw so many bodies buried in the grave, with no apparent regard for record keeping, he took it upon himself to record how many people were buried on a given day, and the location in the mass grave. This document survived in the church or state archives, and became extremely helpful many years later. In 2009 the nephew of Albertus de Raaf from the Netherlands, a prisoner who died at the camp in December 1944, came to exhume the remains of his uncle in order to return them to the Netherlands to be buried next to his own father, Albertus’ brother, both of whom were prisoners in the camp. In order to find where Albertus was buried, Babette and others looked at the death records of the camp to find when Albertus died, then looked at the notes created by the cemetery worker to find the location in the grave.
More about Albertus (called Bertus) his life, and his journey back home can be found on the family’s website: http://www.bertusderaaf.nl/
May 6-7, 2015
These two days I mostly spent finishing up my presentation and doing some more research. I met again with Babette Lissner where she told me about Marianna Dumkel. As a 16 year old girl living in Porta Westfalica in 1944-45, she and a friend would need to walk across the foot bridge over the Weser river connecting Hausberge and Barkhausen (part of present day Porta Westfalica). This was the same bridge that the prisoners kept in the Hotel Kaiserhof in Barkhausen would use each morning and evening. Marianna saw them each day, their emaciated bodies, rags for clothing in the cold of winter. Her heart went out to them, and despite the risk if caught, she would sneak bread to them as they crossed the bridge.
I also met with Michael Althoff, a local expert on the tunnels. He later gave me a copy of a C.I.O.S. report detailing the findings of the tunnel and factories by a joint British and American research team. An invaluable find and worth the trip just for this document.
I had a brief tour of the Bremse Berg with Herbert Wiese. This was a sort of rail track on the side of the mountain used to ferry goods and people from the upper tunnel system to the lower and vice versa. There is a “secret” entrance to the tunnel system here, and we noticed it was uncovered. Thinking that someone might be down there, we yelled down that we were the police, and they should come out! No one did.
Update, June 22, 2015: Originally, there was a picture of one of the ‘secret’ entrances including the GPS coordinates for the location. After a concern was raised, I decided to remove the picture and the coordinates. I don’t believe making the location available on this site would have caused any issues, but I also don’t want to be held responsible in any way for having provided the information if an accident were to happen.
I’m 100% sure the city knows of this ‘secret’ entrance, and would close it if they felt the need to, whether or not I left the picture and GPS coordinates on the site. One argument for leaving the information in place would be that many people accessing the tunnels would force the city to do something. In the short term that might look like sealing the tunnel closed. In the long run they could open the tunnels to the public.
I believe there is a better way than trying to force the city’s hand, though… Peaceful petition for public access. If you would like to visit the tunnels, I strongly encourage you to petition the city of Porta Westfalica to make access to the tunnels available to the public. Let them know how many people are interested in visiting this site. When those in charge have a large number of people expressing interest, then they will have the data to show those who hold the power that opening the tunnels to the public is something that should be done.
May 8, 2015
We had a lunch with members of the KZ-Gedenk- und Dokumentationsstätte Porta Westfalica, city officials-including the mayor-and all of the invited guests, which included myself, my mother and aunt, the Hochstadt family from Australia, the de Raaf family from the Netherlands, the Bleton family from France, and the Strozyk family from Poland. The last four families are descendants of survivors of the concentration camp.
After lunch there was a brief opening meeting at city hall, and then a wreath laying ceremony at the memorial in Porta Westfalica.
That evening was a concert at the local Catholic church.
May 9, 2015
The big day of the conference. I presented the following paper in German. It was the same presentation as that given at the AAG conference in April, just two weeks earlier.
[German version coming soon]
A great paper was presented by Danish historian Jens-Christian Hansen. He spoke about the Danish prisoners kept at Hotel Kaiserhof. He recreated the floor plan of the hotel. One interesting point he made, was that the prisoners who were taken because they were asocial (homosexual, mentally ill, etc.) were statistically more likely to die because they were totally unprepared for capture and life in prison. Those who were resistance fighters were more prepared, knowing that they had a high likelihood of being captured, tortured and sent to a prison camp. Before being sent to German concentration and work camps, they had already spent several months in Danish prisons.
I also translated a short statement into German for one of the Hochstadt’s to present at the conference. It was a touching and moving speech.
The text and video of the conference will be available on the KZ-Gedenk- und Dokumentationsstätte Porta Westfalica website.
Later that evening was a reading with Jennifer Teege, who found out in her 30’s that she was the grand daughter of Amon Goeth, a mass murderer and SS officer (portrayed in the film Schindler’s List). Since I was there, and my name is similar to her grand father’s, I asked Jennifer if she knew why he was named Amon. She did not know. My name has two m’s. Here is a lengthy write up about Jennifer Teege’s story:
May 20, 2015
This was the day we were able to tour inside the tunnel. It was remarkable to see the size of the system. Our group was mostly the English speakers, so I helped translate for our tour guide (Michael Althoff). The pictures here speak better than words.
Later that evening, I went on another walking tour with Herbert Wiese and the English speaking guests, again acting as translator at times. We visited the Jewish cemetery up the hill and learned more about the town of Porta Westfalica. We went to the entrance of the upper system where the Hochstadt’s wanted to retrace their mother’s steps back to the women’s camp in Hausberge. We met Rainer Fröbe at the entrance, and he provided much more information and in much more detail than I could have.
(52.2371642,8.9508522) [pics of hausberge camp]
Apparently, the women prisoners were marched through town in order to reach the tunnel entrance. After the women of the town complained, the prisoners took a different path through the woods.
I left the next day for other parts of Germany. All in all it was a great week. I learned a lot and now have a greater sense of what I need to do to finish the dissertation.