Established: 19 dicembre 1938
Location: 30 km South-East of Amburgo
One of the most terrible concentration camps, where tens of thousands of deportees perished
The dramatic destiny of the
850 Italians at Neuengamme
The difficult research work in reconstructing the history of the Italian presence, pulverized in circa 80 sub-camps.
by Alberto Berti
The concentration camp of Neuengamme, situated in northern Germany near the city of Hamburg, was founded the 13th of December 1938 with the arrival of the transport of 100 deportees arriving from Sachsenhausen, of which Neuengamme was initially an external command.
Following the occupation of Poland, Himmler wanted to have a concentration camp at his disposition that was capable of containing 40,000 Poles. With this desire, a brick factory in disuse began receiving the flux of transports carrying small numbers of individuals, 200 – 250 persons, all of them destined to manufacture bricks. The prime material, clay, was extracted from a quarry that was located within the fences of the concentration camp.
In March of 1940, that which was initially a pacific Lager, where bricks were produced and the Blocks destined to house the new and numerous deportees were constructed with these same bricks, transformed itself into a terrifying Lager, one in which terror was omnipresent.
Before continuing to recount the history of this concentration camp, it is necessary to remember that the production of bricks, as with that of various sectors of quarry work that was undertaken in the quarries of Mauthausen, Flossenburg, Natzweiler and Gross Rossen, all run by the DEST, a business owned by the SS, who had purchased the brick factory of Neuengamme with its 50 acres of terrain, was incremented as soon as Himmler got word of the grand projects that were being discussed between Speer and Hitler. These massive works, such as the rebuilding of the two German cities of Nuremberg and Berlin in colossal scale, and the subsequent expansion of this model to other cities, were intended to inspire the awe of the rest of the world.
Himmler therefore proposed this camp as the supplier of stones and bricks (but not exclusively these goods) in consortium with the DEST. Not only would they have the opportunity to take advantage of the free labor of the deportees, but they would also contribute to the economic fortunes of the SS.
The Architect Gutschow had prospected the project of the modernized reconstruction of the city of Hamburg, complete with renovations of its banks on the river Elba. Therefore, the concentration camp was not functional with only this project in mind, one that foresaw the production of millions and millions of bricks every year, but the forced labor of its deportees was utilized also for the construction of the canal that was fed by the Elba, consenting the transportation of materials to Hamburg, located some forty kilometers away from Neuengamme.
Initially, the transports to this Lager were comprised of a few hundred persons, and, if I am not mistaken, the security force of the Lager was entrusted to the police. Successively, in 1940, consistent transports began to arrive. An example: 3,000 persons from Sachsenhausen, 500 from Buchenwald, and so forth. They were for the most part comprised of Poles, and with the arrival of these deportees the construction of the enormous brick factory (Klinkerwerke) had begun.
By this time the terror established in the Lager had taken root and the camp continued to accept a steady flow of deportees that the transports from the other Lagers and the Gestapo of Hamburg and nearby cities had sent.
There were already 5,000 deportees at the end of 1940 (of which 430 had died in the later months); the end of 1941 signals nearly six thousand, excluding the 1,000 Soviet prisoners and their 43 officials who had arrived in October; at the end of 1942 the number had risen to 13,400 (and those who had died were almost 4,000). At the end of 1943 the Lager counted 25.700 deportees and at the conclusion of 1944 the Lager had 48,800 deportees, of whom approximately 10,000 women and the deceased of that year were superior to 8,000 people.
The end of March 1945 saw the matriculation number arriving at 87,000 for the men and 13,000 for the women, but the transports continued to arrive and along with them, groups sent by the Gestapo of Hamburg continued to make their entrance in the camp. These persons were intended to be executed within the Lager, either by hanging or by gunfire.
It has been estimated that in the camp’s history (1938-1945) 2,000 persons had been hung, both men and women, mostly members of the active Resistance. The 71 members of the group known as Baestlein-Absagen-Jacob, of which Magaret Zinke and the actress Hanna Mertens were part, as well as the Hamburg branch of the “White Rose”, were hung within the confines of the camp on the 23rd of April 1945.
The Lager of Neuengamme, with its 80 sub-camps became the largest Lager of northern Germany: within its fences some 104,000 deportees had passed, and it is estimated that between 45,000 and 55,000 did not survive.
For three months, between ’41 and ’42, the entire camp was put in quarantine because the impossible hygienic conditions had provoked an epidemic of typhus. No one could leave the camp, and all of the transports, to and from Neuengamme were blocked. Very few SS participated in the roll calls. The epidemic, besides causing the death of hundreds of deportees, counted 477 Soviet soldiers as its victims.
Still in the initial phase of the Lager, many deportees were sent to Bernburg, one of the six centers where euthanasia was practiced, and there they were gassed.
For whomever studies the history of the deportation and tends to compare the situations in the various camps, Neuengamme presents certain aspects that differentiate it from the other camps.
For example: one notes the exchanges of deportees between the various Lagers Auschwitz, Dachau, the prisons of the Gestapo, Stalag and Offlag of the Russian military forces. Neuengamme sent the deportees who were the weakest, incapable of working (nicht mehr arbeitsfaehigen), to Dachau many times, for instance, trading the same number of deportees who were healthy and capable of working that were sent by Dachau, in restitution. We find that in its “satellite” camps, there are even some Lagers containing only 8, 2, 20, 7 and 15 prisoners in all.
I have tried to succinctly give an idea of the makeup of the Lager. Now let us talk about the Italians at Neuengamme.
Of the tables that classify the deportees by nationality, the Italians who have passed through this Lager number 850. I think it is necessary to add that the table indicates only those who at their entrance in the camp declared themselves to be Italian, and therefore received the “I” on their clothing. Many of the Italians coming from Istria, from the Carso near Trieste, from Fiume, often partisans in the Slovene or Italian-Slovene formations, declared to be of a Slavic mother tongue and they received the “J”.
The first Italians at Neuengamme, according to data in possession of a French companion who is member of the AIN, arrived with a transport coming from Vienna in October of 1943. The transport sent by the Gestapo was comprised of 400 deportees and besides the several dozen Italians, there were also Czechs and Yugoslavians. Their matriculation numbers were inferior to 25,000.
In July of 1944 another transport arrived from Vienna. Of the 160 people, many were Italians. Yet another transport comprised also of Italian deportees arrived the 1st of September 1944 from Belfort (France). Of the 900 deportees, approximately 100 were Italians and the others were Belgian and French. Their matriculation number arrived past 42,000.
Following these transports, the Italians disembarked directly from Dachau with the transports beginning with that of the month of October.
While the deportees of the initial transports (a few of whom were found to have survived in the counts made at the liberation) are definitely political prisoners who had participated in the Resistance in Italy, France and with the Yugoslavian partisans, a large number of those who had come from Dachau were persons who were rounded up by the Germans and their allies (Black Brigades, Cossacks, Spaniards of the Blue Legion) in the countries of upper Friuli and of the Carnia. After having installed a regime of terror with executions (at Torlano alone 33 people were assassinated, many of whom were children), anything that was of interest to the invaders was plundered, then the villages were put to flame and dozens and dozens of persons were deported.
Others have made the observation that at Neuengamme the Italians lacked a political group that could serve as a means of keeping them united, cared for and comforted. They were isolated, and next to this fact, the division of these poor deportees into the 80 satellite camps provoked the demoralization that made them such easy prey and so vulnerable.
I would like to make yet another consideration: examining the names listed in the Gazzetta Ufficiale for the indemnity, I noticed a strong similarity between the deportees of Laura and those of Neuengamme. Those of Laura declare the camp of deportation as being Buchenwald, many of those of Neuengamme declare only Dachau. These declarations make the reconstruction of the history of the Italian presence in Neuengamme difficult, in much the same way that it has been very difficult for me to reconstruct the history of the Italians deported to Laura.
During the visit that I had the opportunity to make as part of the delegation of ANED for the Congress of the AIN (Amicale Internationale Neuengamme), I visited the Lager that is perhaps the only one that has remained as it was at the conclusion of the war. Making exception for several demolitions that the Senate of the city of Hamburg had effectuated within the perimeter of the Lager in 1948, when a correctional center for minors was constructed. In time, this center became the penitentiary for adults that we find in use still to this day.
While I propose to once again write another article that speaks of Neuengamme, I think it may be interesting to make some comments about the congress of the AIN in which I took part as a member of the delegation of ANED.
The theme that was the basis of the congress was the preparations necessary for the future congress of the year 2000 that coincided with the 55th anniversary of the liberation from the Lagers.
The two most important problems that were debated upon regarded on one hand the necessity of the appropriation of the entire Lager as part of the Gedenkstaette (Memorial) and on the other, how to finance the arrival of groups of camp survivors from Eastern European countries, or their relatives for the congress of 2000. Regarding this situation, it is necessary to remember that of the 106,000 deportees of Neuengamme, 35,000 were Russians and 16,000 were Poles.
In regards to the appropriation of the entire compound of the Lager, the biggest problem is constituted in the insertion in this territory of the penitentiary, in the midst of that which was the Lager, dividing it therefore in two distinct halves. Promises have been made by the Mayor of Hamburg, as well as by the Minister of Culture, Mrs. Marquardt, who have guaranteed the displacement of the penitentiary in another site, and have mentioned that massive funds for this very purpose (62 million euro!) have already been put into the budget, awaiting only the deliberation and approval by the council organs which was underway.