Here’s an interesting history I ran across in my research. It’s a little bit of situational irony, something that happens to everyone. This woman was able to notice it and find humor in it later in life despite all of the tragedy. This event is juxtaposed with another event that shows how interesting humanity can be. Even though she had just survived months of the most brutal displays of humanity in the concentration camps, she was able to show compassion to her “enemy”.
Györgyné (Zsuzsa) Papp was born in Budapest, Hungary in 1921. Her family was Jewish, but not religiously. She was arrested and sent to Auschwitz. Later she was selected to go to a labor camp. She ended up being transferred to several labor camps and ended up in Salzwedel.
One morning she woke up and all of her captors were gone. It was April 1945. The Americans were advancing quickly, so the German soldiers had fled. Zsuzsa and her sister went into the town of Salzwedel to search for food. The town was nearly deserted as well. They went into stores already looted by other prisoners. Then entered homes to find any food they could. In one home they found a loaf of bread on the table. As they went to get it they heard sobs from a woman who told them that was all the food she had left for herself and her four children. Even though they were starving and had been abused and mistreated for months by this woman’s nation, they felt pity on her and left the bread.
Zsuzsa tells how one of the things she was most fearful of while in the concentration camps was cleaning the latrines. They were just too awful for her to contemplate. She felt so fortunate to have escaped the dreaded latrine duty in all her months in the concentration camps. As she was walking around Salzwedel she somehow fell into a ditch used for a latrine and found herself covered in waste.
My first week in Germany was very lonely. I’m such an introvert, so it’s my own fault, but still. That’s the reality.
On Saturday I took the train to Minden. I dropped my things off at the hotel, then took the train further to Nienburg. I served there as a missionary for my church 16 years ago. I had contact with friends there, still, so I stayed there Saturday night and went to Church on Sunday. That was great fun. Sunday evening I was back in Minden.
On Monday, I met with Dr. Gerhard Franke. He is a retired school teacher and teacher instructor (which he did for over twenty years). He was interested in this topic because he grew up in Hausberge, was four years old when all of the tunnel stuff was going on, and is interested in history. He was a great help. He had contacted the city of Minden archives and was notified of several people in the area who were interested in the topic. So, being the great person that he is, he made appointments for us to visit with them.
The first stop on Monday was with a Herr Münstermann. He was a teenager during the war and experienced the issue first hand. He also later became a city official for many years. I wasn’t prepared to even meet with anyone that had lived through this time period, so I didn’t complete any paperwork at GMU to allow me to use personal interviews in my research. But nothing says I can’t listen anyways. He told us a little about the situation, and most helpfully, explained why it came to the point where forced labor and underground factories were necessary in the first place. Basically, after “Big Week” (a massive, multi-day bombing raid on Germany by the Allies), the Ambi-Budd company in Berlin was nearly completely destroyed. Numerous other business suffered a similar fate. They began the process of requesting increased protection from the military and help from the government. The idea was then, to disperse factories into smaller sub-factories where products could be produced in part, then brought together at yet another facility to be assembled.
In 1944, the decision was to move dispersal to underground facilities to further keep the factories secret and protected. Herr Münstermann had several copies of documents created by Rainer Fröbe and others. It would have been great to get copies of some of these documents, and Dr. Franke asked. Herr Münstermann, a very serious but kindly man (he is a widower and we could tell he was pleased to have us as company, he even put on a tie, and his suit coat when we sat down to talk), but he never gave out his things, because they had a tendency to not be brought back. We sat in silence. He capitulated, based on the good relationship Dr. Franke and he had. After our meeting, we immediately went to a copy shop, made double copies, and took the originals back to Herr Münstermann. Thank you, Herr Münstermann! (As it turns out, I found all of those documents in the Neuengamme archive, but you never know, so get copies while you can!)
Our next visit was with Thomas Lange, someone I ended up having much in common with. He was my age, for one. Second, he did his masters thesis on this topic. Thirdly, he is into technology. He’s actually a sound technician now, after finishing his Masters in History. Dr. Franke very kindly invited us all to his house for the discussion. Thomas, also very, very generously, provided Dr. Franke and I with nice, bound copies of his Master’s Thesis. He was thrilled that someone was interested in his work, doubly so that some crazy American was interested. We had a good talk about the subject, what sources he found and where, and things like that. Good stuff.
On Tuesday, we traveled all over Porta Westfalica (which consists of 15 districts which used to be individual villages, including Barkhausen, Hausberge, Neesen, and Lerbeck). We visited the Wilhelm Monument, one of the entrances on Jakobsberg (apparently we missed some huge cement oil tanks that can still be seen), and one entrance on Wittekindsberg, under the monument and behind the current lodgings of the Schützenverein Barkhausen. Dr. Franke knows lots of people and was able to work out some amazing opportunities.
One such opportunity was to meet with Wolfgang Walter who was very young in the military during WWII. He ended up serving in the West German military in the Porta Westfalica area, and thereby developed a great interest in the tunnel systems near by. He was a joy to talk with. He even gave me a large, 2 foot by 3 foot map of the area, so as to properly get a sense of my surroundings and landscape. Thank you, Herr Walter!
Dr. Franke had called the local newspaper and set up an appointment for a photographer to come take pictures. So on Wednesday just before I left, we (Dr. Franke and I) and the chief of the Schützenverein had our picture taken by the old entrance. It was blown up in 1947, so the only thing left to see are huge concrete blocks. Dr. Franke is very interested in turning the tunnel system into some kind of memorial or museum, and is using me (coming all the way from America, showing interest in this place) as an example to local government officials and what not, that this is something important, and worth spending money on. A great thing, I think.
My time in Minden/Porta Westfalica was much too short. I could have used another day in the archives, and another day taking pictures and meeting people. But all in all, a great experience.
I recently finished writing and rewriting and writing again the essays for several scholarship applications. It is probably a good thing, but that was the most time and effort I have ever spent writing three pages of text. I went through several revisions of each essay, had the wonderful Fulbright advisers at George Mason read and reread the essays, and even went to the vastly underused (by me anyways) campus writing center.
Roughing it out
My personal essay started out as being a little too personal, as in informal. At the writing center, I also realized that the opening paragraph was too negative. I wanted to show how as a child I deeply disliked school. In first and second grades, in order to avoid going to school I would often hide in the backyard or somewhere in the house, and generally make a big stink every morning. One time my mom drove me to school (two blocks away) and when we got there I jumped out of the car and ran off into the neighborhood for an hour or so. The rest of elementary school through high school was better; I did not put up as much of a stink, but I still did not like school. I was convinced that I would never have anything to do with school again once I graduated from high school. That’s how my essay started out, a general idea of what I wanted to write about. Like a big block of stone that I hacked away at.
I wanted to convey all of that in a couple of sentences, all to point to the irony that I am now pursuing the highest degree one can attain in school, and that I am still in school 16 years later, with another three years to go (I did have three years off in there, though). But the gal at the writing center was right. It was a bit too negative. Instead I focused on my strengths as an historian and my technical skills. This worked out much better, since this is one of the major focuses of the dissertation. Through this constant revision and insight from others my project started to take shape.
One of the other really neat things about spending so much effort on an essay (especially one about my dissertation research) is that I was really able to focus my arguments and tighten up my thoughts on what I hope to accomplish. Through this process of constant revision I realized three things that I wanted to focus on in my dissertation: the story of the underground dispersal projects; how the projects are memorialized or not, and what that says about Vergangenheitsbewältigung; and an argument for the change in what is considered scholarship in the historical profession. Going through the constant revisions has changed my focus in some small ways from my original proposal in the dissertation prospectus, but that is to be expected. I feel that I now have a much more polished and obtainable goal.