70 Years On: Remembering the Holocaust and the Palmnicken Massacre

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.

Auschwitz and its history have come to embody the tragedy of the Holocaust
Auschwitz and its history have come to embody the tragedy of the Holocaust

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.

Palmnicken was a peaceful spa and resort town prior to WWII
Palmnicken was a peaceful spa and resort town prior to WWII

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.

 

Source

Egremont, M. (2011), Forgotten Land: Journeys Among the Ghosts of East Prussia

Advertisements

Seventy Years On: Remembering the Loss of Konigsberg

Seventy years ago this month, the remnants of the German 4th Army were engaged in a fighting retreat across East Prussia as the tide of war turned firmly in favour of the Soviet Red Army. Clearing their remaining concentration camps as they went, the Germans became encircled in the ‘Heligenbeil Pocket’, their final rallying point the historic city of Konigsberg.

By this point Konigsberg lay in ruins. A massive Royal Air Force raid in August 1944 had destroyed a huge percentage of the building stock and caused thousands of fatalities. The subsequent Soviet artillery onslaught that began in January 1945 lay further waste to the great East Prussian capital.

Konigsberg in ruins
Konigsberg in ruins

Konigsberg was renowned across Europe as a leading intellectual centre, best personified by its most famous citizen, Immanuel Kant. It had prestigious universities, extensive libraries and museums, contained the best of Prussian architecture and was an important mercantile centre, home to many Baltic noble families.

On the 9th April 1945, Commandant Otto Lasch surrendered Konigsberg after a devastating three month siege by the Soviets in the hope of preserving the lives of the few remaining citizens of the city. Acting against Hitler’s orders, Lasch was sentenced to death in absentia.

During the Red Army assault, hundreds of thousands of East Prussian civilians made a desperate dash to the West in the hope of survival. Stories of the Soviet brutalities (none of them unfounded) led to a mass population upheaval almost unprecedented in European history.

Many of the East Prussian evacuees had nothing but a horse and cart for transport
Many of the East Prussian evacuees had nothing but a horse and cart for transport

Those trying to escape by ship often fell prey to the merciless Soviet submarines operating in the Baltic; others seeking an overland route towards the Polish border were shot at by Soviet fighter aircraft. These innocent civilians were offered no support by Stalin’s Western allies and the Potsdam agreement subsequently awarded the entire area of East Prussia surrounding Konigsberg to the Soviet Union.

Renamed Kaliningrad, after Bolshevik revolutionary Mikhail Kalinin, the former Konigsberg was transformed into a typically characterless Soviet city, its heritage and history destroyed in a matter of months. The remaining German population was either executed or forcibly evacuated and the beautiful Konigsberg Cathedral and Castle were allowed to lie in ruins as a macabre testimony to Soviet victory.

Konigsberg Castle c.1900. The castle stored thousands of books and works of art
Konigsberg Castle c.1900. The castle stored thousands of books and works of art
Konigsberg Castle in ruins in the 1950s. The remains were blown up on Brezhnev's orders in 1968
Konigsberg Castle in ruins in the 1950s. The remains were blown up on Brezhnev’s orders in 1968

The scourge of Nazism brought considerable devastation to the German people and its territory. Some of it was deserved whilst some of it was unnecessarily violent on the part of the Allied powers. The brutal destruction of Konigsberg and the subsequent violent upheaval of the civilian population of East Prussia surely falls into the latter category when, even after the German surrender, the Soviets were allowed to rampage on without censure.

Seventy years on, it is hoped that Konigsberg is remembered for its extensive contribution to European cultural and intellectual history, and also for the sacrifice it was forced to make because of Nazi and Soviet excesses.