Germany still hides its death-camp past

The Times reveals that ordinary Germans are living in a former concentration camp

More than six decades after the liberation of the camps, tales from the Shoah remain as shocking as ever. And pair of articles from The Times and Sunday Times last weekend challenged some conventional wisdom.

The first, in The Times, concerned the families who have chosen to make their homes on land still toxic with Jewish blood from the Holocaust, puncturing the image that, of all nations, the Germans have sought to sanctify the lives of those who perished.

The second article, a book excerpt by Eva Figes in the Sunday Times, explores how the German Jews suffered a double pain. They were outlawed, deported and killed by Germany — and were treated like lepers by fellow Jews in British-mandate Palestine.

In his troubling article The Families who set up home in the Buchenwald concentration camp, reporter Roger Boyes tells how an offshoot of the notorious concentration camp Rehmsdorf, deep in Eastern Germany, is now on the surface a peaceful garden — unless one starts asking questions.

When Boyes began his journey of discovery, he was told by a raging resident: “This is private property. No pictures. Leave us alone — the past is the past.” In fact, where “4,000 inmates were worked, starved and beaten to death”, ordinary German families now live, while the remains of the concentration camp crumble away.

Personally, I am not greatly surprised. As visitors to Auschwitz will testify, the place where the town ends and the camp begins is hard to identify because the architecture is so similar.

The Times writer notes that markers for Rehmsdorf are barely identifiable.

The railway line where inmates were herded is closed, the station is up for sale and Alsatian dogs bark in an open-air cage. After an initial hostile reception, Boyes persuades one resident, 65-year-old Manfred Kriegel, to share the secrets of his home. It turns out that his residence is the former home of an SS camp officer. In Britain, we bulldoze the homes of convicted murders like Fred West; in old East Germany, they are regarded as social housing.

Kriegel has covered up many of the Nazi slogans which adorned the walls of his property, including a huge skull with the slogan: “Führer, give us the order and we will follow you.” No wonder the collective lament of the old Nazis still being rounded up is that they were only taking orders.

If all of this is disturbing enough, the image of the kibbutz as the pioneering, inspiring, equal-opportunity employer in the first years of the Jewish state could be somewhat punctured by the account given by writer Eva Figes. She recounts the story of the family housemaid, Edith, who left
Berlin as an illegal immigrant to Palestine after the war. It was an alienating experience which led her to London, where she declared to Eva that “everyone hates everybody else”.

The idea of the kibbutz life had thrilled her; the reality was different. In the dining hall, the older Ivrit-speaking kibbutzniks refused to eat with the yekke arrivals. They referred to them as sabonim — bars of soap, in reference to the Nazis, who had made soap out of Jewish corpses. The humiliation was so great that one mother, who had lost her husband and two children in the camps, hung herself in the kitchen.

“They despised us,” she said of the kibbutz residents, and “treated us as if we were ‘human dust’.”

Even making allowances for poetic licence — and taking into account Figes’s anti-Zionism — this account in the Sunday Times will lead to soul-searching. The dreadful legacy of the Shoah may be expunged physically in eastern Germany, but lives on in the pysche.

    Last updated: 11:48am, June 30 2008