(courtesy of John Davis)
This is an excerpt of John Davis’s book “Rainy Street Stories”
It tells the story of a survivor he met at Flossenburg, who had survived Auschwitz, Ravensbruch, and finally Flosssenburg
While vacationing many years ago my wife Jane and I decided to visit Flossenburg, West Germany. This charming little town is nestled in among rolling hills, fresh brooks, and quaint farmhouses. In the late 1930s, though, the Nazis chose Flossenburg as the site of a concentration camp. It was for that reason we drove along a particularly pleasant road in search of this place.
The German town is, from all outward appearances, wholesome, sturdy and solid. It was difficult to find the old camp. We finally asked a pedestrian where the former concentration camp was and he indicated it was up a hill on the way out of town. We drove there and parked in a shaded lot. A guided path led us along memorials to the thousands of Europeans murdered there. Indeed, the actual incinerator was still in place. The strange feelings that overcame us were difficult to get a handle on.
The symbolic crosses and memorial tablets were fitting. Fitting is the appropriate word. Not moving. Not horrifying. A few flowers, recently placed, were what moved us. They were, in this park-like setting, perhaps the only scene that associated the place with the dread and terror of those many years ago. Real people, just like us, were rounded up, beaten, whipped, hung, shot and hacked to death there. Yet there was no sense conveyed that any of that had happened. Except, of course, from the anonymous people who placed the flowers. They had lost someone, and still felt the loss.
One of the last stops at the concentration camp is a re-created barracks building. Inside is a museum. Scenes in black and white somehow make it all seem distant and unreal. We stopped at a marker dedicated to famous inmates killed there – Admiral Wilhelm Canaris and Pastor Dietrich Bonhoffer. And then we turned to go.
As we arrived at the parking lot, we were approached by two strangers. They’d been in the museum at the same time we were. He asked me what I thought of the memorial. He thought we were English, and were surprised to discover we were Americans. I told him I really had gotten no sense of the dread reality of events at this place.
“No,” he said in German. “It is like a park. We were recently in Auschwitz. I can tell you that as a retired engineer, with one company of engineering soldiers I could have Auschwitz fully operational in 30 days.”Yet at Flossenburg, I said, there didn’t seem to be any sense of what it had really been like.
“Nor for us,” he said. “My wife could not even recognize the place when we drove in. You see, she was an inmate here.”
It was then that I noticed the woman. She was dark, small, and very thin. She wore long sleeves on a hot August day. I asked how she came to be put there. “Racial hatred,” she said. “I was a Roma, a gypsy, living in Danzig. In 1941 my entire village was rounded up. We were put into cargo trains and brought to Auschwitz, where they kept us crammed like animals in barracks for five months.”
She pulled up her sleeve, revealing the tattoo – Z-1557. Z for zigeunerin, or Roma, a gypsy. “Then, one day, they had a formation to select women who could work,” she continued. “I was chosen and sent at 3 o’clock by train to Ravensbrueck, a concentration camp for women. I only learned this week, due to the remarkable records the Nazis kept, that my family together with all the other Romani then held in Auschwitz were massacred four hours later that very evening.”
My wife and I were stunned. We’d never met an actual inmate of such a place. We didn’t know what to say. She finished her story. “After being held in Ravensbrueck, I was sent to Buchenwald, and after that to this place.”
“Did you see the photographs inside?” her husband asked. “Did you see the one where the commandant and guards of Flossenburg were being tried?”
I recalled a photograph that showed about 50 German prisoners being tried by an American tribunal. “Did you see the look on the Germans’ faces?” He inquired. “They looked like bored opera viewers. Their faces said, ‘So what are you going to do to me?’ Only a dozen or so of those tried received the death penalty. Three times that number were free men within eight years. They really did escape from justice. I think that the whole lot of them should have been finished off,” he said.
“We’ve just visited all the places where my wife was once held. She could not bring herself to go into Auschwitz,” he said.
That camp, in Poland, and some others – Buchenwald, in what was East Germany, for another – seem more as they might have been when in use. Not Flossenburg. “This place is a park,” he continued. “Who can even tell that there was a camp here? I think that here in the West the memory of such a place will go away in another generation.”
The tears his wife cried that day were for the murdered who were still part of her life after all these years. Can we imagine ourselves there? Can we imagine our own families in such a place?
Such places as Flossenburg were huge operations during the war. They were immense and readily visible from afar. Whether those who were alive back then knew, is a question for the past. Whether those of us alive today remember and do all in our power to stop such things from ever happening again, anywhere, is a question that we must answer for.
It has been said that to do good and avoid evil is not enough. We have to do good and undo evil. Why did we meet these strangers in a parking lot in Flossenburg?
I think the sensation I had at Flossenburg was an awareness of evil. That evil was smug, and evil was present. It was smug because it was waiting. Waiting for us to forget in the park that is Flossenburg”