Thursday, 25 August 2016

Penig Diary 2

Monday, 3:20pm   Re: Sunday

What to make of it all? I am not sure I can answer that yet, if ever. We spent the morning at the hotel with Ringo, Tobi, Uli and Emilie going through a pile of documents. First we examine a plan of the camp as it was planned but not fully executed, together with an aerial photograph taken by a US plane on 13 April, two days before the camp was occupied by US troops and the remaining prisoners, that is to say those in the sick bay, some 80 women including my mother, were liberated and taken to the nearby Luftwaffe hospital in Altenburg. The rest (620) were marched off to Theresienstadt. Some (72) escaped along the way in the chaos, some died. What records say is that 13 women had already died at the camp, their bodies being buried just outside the camp fence, and that 17 died on the march. We don’t know what happened to those that arrived at Theresienstadt, but the information will be elsewhere.

Camp as planned, but not all huts built

As for Penig itself it was one of the 136 sub-camps of Buchenwald. It was opened on 9 January 1945 and settled by seven hundred women transported from Ravensbruck by train on 10 January. The plan was standard throughout the German territories, standard huts, of standard measuremen (36.55 metres x 8 metres), each with the standard three level cribs. There seem to have been six or seven huts plus a sick bay, and a hut for the guards who comprised both local people and the SS. It was surrounded by an electric fence and had at least one watchtower. There were no washing facilities at the camp, nor was there food or heating. Food and washing were provided by the Max Gehrt aeroplane-parts factory where the women worked, perched on stools or standing, in three shifts of 06.00-14:00,14:00-22:00 and 22:00-06:00 so the factory was working 24 hours a day, seven days a week,  at full capacity.  Also at the camp, as prisoners, were three women from Leipzig as medical staff.  (There were times when ⅙ of the work force were too ill to work.) The deal seems to have been that the factory was short of workers, all the men being on the front, so it approached Ravensbruck to provide 700 prisoners as workforce and the camp was built with that purpose in mind. The women chosen were all Hungarian and mostly on the basis of skill, or whatever skill they said they had. The women were not tattooes at this stage as that took long and were simply given nubers that had to be stitched to their light uniforms. There were a few Ukrainians and Poles added from sources nearby. Among the guards there were some Hungarian Swabians.

One of the valuable documents Ringo showed was the timeline, which made it clear that the Hungarian women were deported from Budapest to Ravensbruck on the 8th and 9th November 1944, so my mother must have spent at least two months at Ravensbruck before being transferred to Penig (incidentally, pronounced by locals as Pay-niche). What did the people of Penig know about this? There were certainly some local people working alongside the prisoners  so they must have known, as would those who saw over 200 women march through the streets three times a day, seven days of the week.

Ringo made it clear I could take away as much material as I liked but we would need another suitcase for that so I made a quick selection. More was to be added to that the next day (today, as I write this).

All this is information that I note down and absorb.

After this we went to lunch. It had been sunny but it began to rain as we sat outside so moved the table under cover. Ringo, it turned out, was the manager of a village football team playing a first round cup match that day so he kept in occasional touch by phone. They ended winning 7-1.

Walking from factory to camp

First we walked to the factory, a little way inside town up quite a steep hill. We examined the site, now vacant, looked at photographs of the factory as it was in 2011 just before demolition, by which time it was unoccupied. We passed hardly anyone in the street.

Then we set out for the camp. It was well over an hour’s walk almost all uphill on the side of a highway, past fields of maize, a restaurant, a quarry. It was slow going with a heavy rain cloud, clearly alrready precipitating ahead of us to our right. We missed it. It grew hot when the sun was out and cooled as soon as it disappeared behind clouds. A solitary black cat in a field was absorbed in watching for its prey in the grass. Cars shot past us.

The camp was built a long way from the factory and off the road in order to keep its existence secret, though it couldn’t have been secret for long. The long march between camp and factory went past houses of the period and plenty would have seen it. The chief lesson of the march for me was the thought of women marching all that way up and down hill, in every seasonal condition, while suffering from hunger, fatigue and disease. It seemed impossible. While Penig was a work camp not an extermination camp the eventual aim was to exterminate all prisoners once they had served their purpose. They would have exhausted that purpose pretty soon.

It was down a lane surrounded by birch trees at the end of which there was simply a block of granite, recording the site as a sub-camp of Buchenwald. There was nothing left of it except the area itself, at the centre of which a show-jumping course was prepared. People came here for fun now. Equipment related to show-jumping was stacked one side. There was just one hut which was not original but built on the foundations of an original so of the same dimensions. It was that that took my attention, it being the only object around which some coherent feeling might form. I am not sure it did, or rather that the feeling, such as it was, was coherent, but I felt drawn back to the hut once we had passed it. I imagined sitting on the steps with my mother and talking to her but it was a faint image, nothing I could grasp.

We climbed a patch through more trees to get to the back of the site and compared what we saw there with the plan and the aerial photograph. It was easy enough to see where the buildings would have been.  We stood at the top, talking, looking around then came down. It was of course odd to see the show jumping course at the heart of it.  Once a year, said Ringo, there is a commemoration attended by some, but most people prefer not to think of it, or of the past at all. Penig was not bombed, there was no street fighting, only at the outskirts. It could continue its existence in full beauty, albeit without most of its men who were, of course, engaged in fighting doomed last ditch battles against Russians and Americans.

Path between levels in the camp.

Hard to know what to make of all this. After walking back, taking a short cut that did not exist in 1945, we drove to dinner in a fine Italian restaurant in a beautiful spot, just overlooking a beautiful small town. There we talked of what we experienced. Ringo said he felt ashamed that his grandparents should have allowed it to happen. Shame, I suggested, was not the best feeling for people of his generation, because shame leads to resentment. Rather than focusing on the guilt of the criminals it is better to remember the humanity of the prisoners, and to consider their lives before - and after, if they survived. Build the archive out of them, for them, as a memorial. Celebrate and lament a common humanity. And don’t remember the prisoners as primarily Jews or as Hungarians, though clearly they were both things and were there precisely because they were such. Better, I said, to remember them a fellow human beings with lives like ours.

I don’t know how far I thought or felt that through. I certainly didn’t want Ringo and his friends, or indeed any German of that generation to feel shame, though I did not want to spare the generation of perpetrators any shame or guilt. I  do think the Holocaust was a unique event in that it was a coldly efficient attempt to exterminate, with the maximum humiliation,  anyone ‘infected’ by up to the three generations, wherever they were, not just in one country, an entire race of people who had suffered cycle after cycle of persecution, and to wipe all memory of them from the earth so no one would know they ever existed.

Nevertheless, I am not quite sure that it is worth making that distinction as regards the fate of individual victims, whether they were Jews, or Roma or sickly or gay. The distinctions were the problem in the first place. It may be better and more useful for us think of one set of human beings inflicting terrible suffering on other human beings, to concentrate on what unites rather than divides us.

But that is easy for me to say, and it sounds a little pious as it comes out of my mouth. Just talking about it makes me suspicious of my mouth.

1 comment:

Pleasant Street said...

I don't know if it sounds pious. I don't think any kind of real sense is to be had in such a place in that set of circumstances. Nothing my mind has ever been able to wrap around it, and I did not have family members there. I think how you said that sounds like a sensible approach, if there is one.
Thank you for sharing these posts. I feel kind of like a trespasser reading them, but I have always wanted to know more. Maybe above all I wanted to know if what I read about was true.