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Educating in one of the Largest Former Concentration Camps in Germany

Dr. Iris Groschek of the Neuengamme Memorial, the site of the former Nazi concentration camp of Hamburg in Germany speaks with the Auschwitz Study Group about preserving the memorial for future generations and how Holocaust Memorials are evolving to suit the needs of modern education.

The Neuengamme concentration camp was a German camp established in 1938 by the SS near the village of Neuengamme in the Bergedorf district of Hamburg, Germany. It was operated by the Nazis from 1938 to 1945. Over that period an estimated 100,000 prisoners were held at Neuegamme and at its subcamps. Around half of them perished there. After Germany’s defeat in 1945, the British Army used the site until 1948 as an internment camp. In 1948, the facility was transferred to the Hamburg prison authority which tore down the camp huts and built a new prison cell block. After being operated as 2 prisons by the Hamburg authorities from 1950 to 2004, the site now rightly serves as a memorial to the victims who suffered and perished there. The Neuengamme Memorial is open to the public and is situated 15 km southeast of the centre of Hamburg.

The sculpture 'Le Deporté' by Françoise Salmon, at the Neuengamme Concentration Camp Memorial
Inauguration of the International Monument, the sculpture 'Le Deporté' by Françoise Salmon, at the Neuengamme Concentration Camp Memorial

Holocaust Memorials have started taking on a more significant role in the education of new generations around the world. There has been an upturn of interest in recent years with educational systems now recognising the importance of teaching the subject as mandatory in schools. Last year (2015) marked the 70th anniversary of the liberation for many concentration camps in Poland and Germany, and several survivors were able to tell their stories. In recent years, the sites of human destruction, the concentration camp sites have become more central to telling the history of those years under National Socialist rule. The conversion of many sites to museum zones comes with a lot of responsibility and decisions have to be made that will not please everyone. An understanding of the history of the camp is essential but even then, making choices of preservation against replacement can sometimes have no clear concise right answer.

 

Dr. Iris Groschek of the Neuengamme memorial
Dr. Iris Groschek

The Auschwitz Study Group recently spoke with Dr. Iris Groschek of the Neuengamme Memorial who explains in detail some of the day to day aspects of running the museum and some of the more obscure historical aspects that have to be considered for a full representative of the camps existence.

The Neuengamme Memorial is a historical site. It encompasses almost the entire historic area of the concentration camp, including 17 original buildings. It is one of the largest memorials in Germany (57 hectares). Our aim is to remember the more than 100.000 people who were prisoners of Neuengamme concentration camp. Altogether, at least 42,900 people died in the Neuengamme main camp and its sub-camps and during the camp evacuations at the end of the war. Neuengamme Memorial is a site for remembering and learning that preserves the memory of the victims of SS terror, while also providing opportunities to explore the causes and consequences of the Nazi regime.

Understanding the Holocaust from its core beginnings is integral to how the museum interact with its visitors today. Whilst it offers an opportunity to explore in greater detail about the Neuengamme camp, the education is not confined to the museum perimeters.

Approximately 100,000 people visit the Neuengamme Memorial each year. If you are visiting the grounds, you can choose between 5 exhibitions, which are in 4 languages (German, English, French and Russian) to learn what happened here between 1938 and 1945 (and also the history of the place itself until today). Visitors can also explore the grounds of the memorial with the help of information panels, a smartphone-app or an audioguide. The memorial also comprises a research archive, a library and the Centre for Historical Studies. So that means we have not only tourists, school classes, group visitors visiting the memorial, but also researchers, humanities scholars, relatives of former camp prisoners and therefore people with different backgrounds and different reasons why they visit and what answers they are searching. The Neuengamme Concentration Camp Memorial is an educational site with international significance where people can explore questions about history and our world today. Our goal is to raise awareness of the injustices committed by the Nazis. Our educational approach towards history encourages reflection and a critical understanding while also drawing parallels between the history of the Nazi regime and current issues. We see ourselves also as an important centre of learning for all of Europe. It is a place where people from Germany and abroad can meet and discuss with one another and conduct comprehensive research on historical events and their consequences.

Neuengamme Concentration Camp in 1938
Neuengamme Concentration Camp in 1938

Indeed, offering the visitor a chance to learn more about how the Holocaust was allowed to happen is something that we hope to see other museums adopt in the near future. So often we see the history of pre camp existence skimmed over, but there are greater plans ahead for the Neuengamme Memorial. 

In the future we will go on to remember the people who died here, to remind people to what racism, anti-semitism, discrimination, exclusion, anti-democracy can lead to by discussing, providing information and also by preserving the grounds and original buildings.

We will always have to find ways to talk about the history in a modern and also appropriate and effective way to make sure it is not forgotten and to hopefully make people learn for the future.

We have visitors not only from the Hamburg region, but from around the world. That´s why we offer guided tours in different languages like English, French, Spanish, Danish, Dutch, Polish, Russian, Norwegian, Swedish or Sign Language. We not only offer guided tours (2-3 h) but also project days. While special focus on guided tours is put on the personal experiences of prisoners, we also explore the relationship between the history of the concentration camp and the economic interests of the city of Hamburg.

A project day allows school classes to explore aspects in further depth. We also try to offer more interactive methods like working with objects or photos. We are also, for example offering project days focusing on relevant topics especially for vocational schools (medicine during the Nazi regime, the economy of slave labour, trade union resistance, etc.). We also offer project weeks. For example workshops like ‘Art as a Means of Expression and Survival’ or a radio workshop. All those projects are practiced mainly by German groups. International groups often book simple guided tours. But I would also like to mention that we offer International projects / Youth Exchange projects with groups of young people from different countries talking for example about the Future of Remembrance or taking part in international work camps.

Whilst many of the camps were built away from towns for secrecy, several satellite camps appeared as German companies began profiting from the abundance of slave labour available to them. These ‘sub-camps’ became camps of their own, all connected to the main administration. An understanding of the larger sphere of the camps mechanics is important for a more considered learning.

By 1945, 85 sub-camps of Neuengamme concentration camp had been built all over northern Germany (and further). We know about those places and there are a lot of local attempts to mark those places by mounting information panels, build up memorials or exhibitions (like recently in Hannover Ahlem, Bremen Farge or Porta Westfalica). Every year we organize a meet for the staff of Neuengamme sub-camp memorials to network and exchange ideas about current issues. The primary goal of those conferences is to take stock and discuss experiences. Please note also that Neuengamme Concentration Camp Memorial includes not just the main camp, but also 3 other memorials that were established at the sites of former subcamps of Neuengamme in other parts of Hamburg:

  • The Bullenhuser Damm Memorial and Rose Garden for the Children of Bullenhuser Damm
  • The Fuhlsbüttel Concentration Camp and Penal Facility 1933–1945 Memorial
  • The Poppenbüttel Prefabricated Building Memorial

The Neuengamme Memorial was fully established on the site in 2004 to the scale of the former camp so you would assume the preservation of what may still exist would be problematic. However, the buildings were not demolished after the war like in many other camps such as Bergen- Belsen and instead were used as internment buildings. As a result, many of the camps original features have been preserved.

The Neuengamme Concentration Camp Memorial encompasses today almost the entire historic site of the concentration camp. The buildings still existing were reused after the war, first by the British military government who began using the former concentration camp as Civil Internment Camp No. 6 for former SS members, civilian officials of the Nazi state and suspected war criminals. The city of Hamburg took over the grounds of the former concentration camp in 1948 and began using the site as a prison. The wooden prisoners’ barracks were torn down and replaced by a large new building.

The main exhibition building in Neuengamme Memorial
The main exhibition building in the place
where the wooden barracks stood

Almost all of the brick buildings from when the site was a concentration camp were preserved and used as prison and administration buildings or as workshops. We decided not to re-build any of the lost buildings when we opened the memorial after the demolition of the prison and the subsequent transfer of property ownership in May 2007. Reminders of the site’s post-war use include a remnant of the first prison on the grounds of the former concentration camp prisoners’ compound and a section of a wall from the second prison where the clay pits were once located.

We decided to use symbols to mark the fencing or the location of the wooden barracks (locations are marked by stone-filled cages: red stones marking the foundation walls of the former concentration camp barracks. White stones in the middle are a symbol for the teared-down prison and therefore a reminder of the re-use of the place).

Visiting the memorial is very accessible and many of the travel and learning logistics are taken care of by the memorial themselves. A programme of recommended learning is available for group parties, schools or individual visitors. For researchers of the camp or those who lost relatives, an archival facility is available to trace the information that was kept in the camp records. This is a facility that is being used more frequently over recent years.

You can visit the exhibitions in Hamburg-Neuengamme on your own during opening hours. If you visit the place on your own we recommend to first watch our introduction film which is shown continuously in the main exhibition. This film provides visitors with an overview of the memorial and can be viewed in German or English. After this you can explore the grounds, visit the main exhibition or the exhibition about the camp-SS, go to the 'open archive' to research for example the death register, go visit the original brickworks building or visit the House of Remembrance which is part of the International Memorial and an important place for remembrance. If you want to learn more and have a lot of questions, I would recommend to book a guided tour. You should book this 3 weeks in advance. Guided tours are available in English amongst others. If you want to visit the archives to learn more about relatives who might have been in the camp as prisoners, please make an appointment with our staff via email. You can find all information also on our website.

 

Many thanks to Dr. Iris Groschek for speaking to us.

 

Neuengamme Concentration Camp Memorial
Jean–Dolidier–Weg 75
21039 Hamburg
Tel: +49 40-4 28 13 15 00
Fax: +49 40-4 28 13 15 01
E-mail: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

Opening hours of exhibitions:
Monday to Friday: 9:30 a.m.-4 p.m.
Saturday, Sunday and holidays*: 12 noon-5 p.m. (October to March), 12 noon-7 p.m. (April to September)
* The exhibitions are closed on 24th, 25th and 31st December and 1st January.

Website address: http://www.kz-gedenkstaette-neuengamme.de

Friends of the Neuengamme Memorial Blog: http://rfhabnc.org/

Virtual Tour: http://neuengamme-ausstellungen.info/

Explanations of remaining buildings (German only): http://neuengamme-ausstellungen.info/content/lagermodell/karte.html

Official Facebook page: http://www.facebook.com/Neuengamme.Memorial