People worldwide have been marking Holocaust Memorial Day, with a resonating message that such evils should never be allowed to occur again as concerns grow over a perceived rise in antisemitism within many communities. Seventy years after the liberation of Auschwitz, it is important that people stop and reflect upon how something like the Holocaust could have occurred, however inconceivable such a phenomenon is.
Such was the size of the Auschwitz complex that there was no possibility of the Nazis covering their tracks and hiding evidence of their barbarism. However, at the same time as the largest death camps were being uncovered by Allied troops – during the early months of 1945 – clean-up operations were initiated at the thousands of smaller camps scattered across Germany and its occupied territories.
One infamous example of this took place in the former East Prussia when a detachment of SS soldiers was tasked with emptying the local Stutthoff sub-camp, which had opened in 1944 to house prisoners from the previously-occupied Baltic states, from whence the Nazis were now retreating.
From the edge of the small village outside of Konigsberg where the camp was situated, the prisoner column was marched to the Baltic coastal resort of Palmnicken (now Yantarny), known for its precious amber mines. These mines had been chosen as the execution place for some 7,000 Jews. Many died during the 30 mile march through bitter winter weather and witnesses recall corpses being scattered for hundreds of yards down stretches of roads.
When the operator of the amber mine refused to open the shafts for the execution, the workshops and administrative offices were chosen as replacement death chambers. It should be noted that the local Volkssturm commander, a man named Feyerbrand, forbade the execution of the Jews only for the SS to conspire to have him transferred away from the district. Realising that he had been duped, Feyerbrand shot himself.
The SS began to murder the prisoners, two at a time, on the 30th January 1945. When they got tired of killing they waited until the following evening when the remaining Jews were herded onto a nearby beach and literally shot into the freezing Baltic. Only 33 of an estimated 3,000 inmates still left standing after the march survived.
The Palmnicken massacre was a microcosm of the Holocaust: the careful planning; the brutal transportation of prisoners; the non-resistance of bystanders; the lone appeal by a principled man; the disregard for human life.
If such barbarity could pervade the enclave of a tranquil spa resort it could affect everyone. And it did.
We must never forget.
Egremont, M. (2011), Forgotten Land: Journeys Among the Ghosts of East Prussia