Established: 16 May 1938
Location: north-east of Nuremberg
A “border” camp, situated in north-east Bavaria near the border with the Sudeten region (which in that time was Czechoslovak territory), KL Flossenbürg opened on 3 May 1938 with prisoners sent from Dachau. It was originally intended to house “asocial” and “criminal” prisoners (who wore black and green triangles respectively), and as at Mauthausen, its prisoners were set to work excavating rock,under the auspices of DEST (created in April 1938). We can add 1,300 prisoners sent in large part from Buchenwald and Sachsenhausen in November 1938 to the original 400 prisoners sent from Dachau.
The scope for the intensive exploitation of the slave workforce, and the significant profits to be made as a result, led to a rise in the camp population, which reached 3,000 in less than a year (even though its official maximum capacity was 1,600).
With the start of the war, and the increase in the numbers of inmates, both the work and the organisation of the camp were constantly modified. The first non-German deportees sent to Flossenbürg were Czech and Polosh “political” prisoners, starting from spring 1940. At the end of the same year, Soviet prisoners of war started to arrive as well, confined to three blocks (11-13) located separately inside the camp. From 1942, sub-camps were opened with the intention of producing weapons and war materials (including amongst other things, production for the Messerschmitt 109 fighter). Scattered across Bavaria, Saxony and Bohemia, these sub-camps would ultimately number 97: five of these were handed over to Flossenbürg by the concentration camp at Ravensbruck in September 1944. Nearly half the sub-camps (45) were involved in industrial production: in a quarter (22), the work concerned construction and housing production. Amongst the bigger sub-camps, it is worth noting the ones at Hersbrück (which held over 4,800 prisoners) and Leitmeritz (Litomerice; over 5,000). The sub-camp at Mülsen-Sankt Micheln witnessed a prisoner revolt, that was brutally suppressed in May 1944.
Considered a site of “extermination through labour”, Flossenbürg also saw mass executions, above all of Soviet prisoners of war. A special section of the main camp was set aside for Soviet, Polish and Czechoslovak prisoners, capable of holding 8,000 prisoners (in1944). Some of the conspirators involved in the attempt on Hitler’s life in July 1944 were also executed at Flossenbürg, including theologian and philsopher Dietrich Bonhoeffer.
Purely a male camp until January 1943, Flossenbürg increasingly started to take female prisoners as well, who were always scattered across its sub-camps (a female section of the main camp was only opened in March 1945).
At the end of this period (up to 1944), the sub-camps connected to KL Flossenbürg housed roughly 40,000 prisoners, of whom 11,000 were female. In 1945, Flossenbürg took more prisoners who were sent there from camps in the East (including Auschwitz) and from other camps that were being progressively evacuated (Gross Rosen, Buchenwald). By the middle of April, the prisoners totalled 45,813 (of whom 16,000 were women). As the US 90th Infantry Division advanced into the area, the main camp was completely evacuated, and the 14,800 prisoners still capable of walking were despatched south (in the same days, various sub-camps were also evacuated, via similar “death marches”). The march lasted three days, until the column was intercepted by Allied troops: nearly a third of the prisoners had died, to whom must be added 1,500 who did not survive the death marches out of the sub-camps. The main camp was liberated on 23 April 1945: the liberating troops found 1,500 prisoners still inside, ill or unable to move.
According to the most recent work, 96,716 prisoners (including 16,000 women) were registered at one time or otherwise at either the main camp or its sub-camps. The death toll is roughly 30,000. Of course, these figures are naturally approxiamate, due both to non-registration of prisoners and the fact that the camp registration numbers of dead prisoners were re-assigned to new inmates, a practice that continued at least until March 1944.
Roughly 60% of the prisoners were Soviet or Polish, 9% Hungarian, 7% French and 5% German. Around 10,000 Jews passed through Flossenbürg.
Italian prisoners at Flossenbürg
Even though the first Italian prisoners had already arrived at Flossenbürg in 1943 (a few hundred in total), just over 2,600 Italians were deported from Italy to Flossenbürg between September 1944 and January 1945 (three transports left Bolzano in September and December 1944, and January 1945, and due left Trieste in December 1944 and January 1945).
Amongst the 3,020 Italian prisoners individually identified, there were 342 women. Some of these came from other camps, including a number of “political” prisoners (actually striking worked arrested after the strikes of March 1944), who were first sent to Birkenau and then onto Flossenbürg. Detailed work still need to be done to calculate the numbers of the dead. Without doubt, one third of the Italian prisoners (1,077) died in Flossenbürg, and only 180 are positively known to have been liberated.
The camp after 1945
The camp facilities were used for a while by the Allies to house German prisoners (mainly members of the SS), from July 1945 to April 1946. Over time into 1947, the facilities were used by UNRRA, the UN organisation that looked after refugees and displaced populations (“Displaced Persons”, as they were known). Amongst these refugees were some ex-prisoners of the camp, who organised a section of the camp into a memorial to the exterminations: this area is known as the “Valley of Death”, centering on the crematorium (which was preserved and open to visitors until 1946), at the entrance to which a Catholic chapel was erected out of the stones of the watch towers. The area around it, and the entrance to the square where the roll-calls were conducted were, in the coming years, completed restructed to make way for residential construction, such that it is now difficult to visualise how the camp was originally laid out. In 1966, a museum was opened in the ex-prison block, and in 1995, a Jewish holy site was erected next to the chapel.
(Original Italian text by Lucio Monaco, English translation by C Dimarco).