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The plan was to recount the history of the first transport of prisoners from Auschwitz to Flossenbürg. But then my research uncovered new documents…

Writing History, Writing Stories

Working at a concentration camp memorial entails involvement in many different kinds of research. We help people search for missing relatives, for example, or aid academic researchers.

But we also conduct research for our own projects - such as this website.

The idea for Research Stories grew out of a joint project of the Flossenbürg Concentration Camp Memorial and the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum. On this site, we wanted to present examples of our everyday research.

The two memorials had worked together in the past, resulting in the anthology Transporte polnischer Häftlinge in den KZ-Systemen Auschwitz, Dachau und Flossenbürg (Transports of Polish Prisoners to the Concentration Camp Systems of Auschwitz, Dachau, and Flossenbürg).

Prisoner Transports

The Kommandanturen (headquarters) of the individual camps were administered by the “Inspection of the Concentration Camps” in Oranienburg, north of Berlin. In 1942, this administrative office became “Amtsgruppe D” (office group D) within the SS Main Economic Administrative Office. The centralized structure made it possible to bring in large groups of prisoners to perform forced labor building new main camps whenever they were founded, such as Sachsenhausen, Buchenwald, Flossenbürg, or Auschwitz. The internal logic of the concentration camp system led to the transport of thousands of prisoners by the Reichsbahn, the national railway. At first these prisoners were needed to build or expand the camps, later, when subcamps were established as part of the armaments industry in 1942-43, they were needed as forced laborers for these production sites.

German efforts to keep up arms production led to an increase in the number and frequency of prisoner transports to subcamps, whose numbers also grew. Amtsgruppe D attempted to utilize the qualification and training of the prisoners and send them to those subcamps where they could perform specialized tasks. The high death counts as a result of inhumane working conditions also made it necessary to continuously transport new prisoners to the production sites.

A distinction must be made between prisoner transports from one concentration camp to another, or to a subcamp, and the deportation of the Jewish population of Germany and the occupied countries to concentration camps and death camps in Eastern Europe.

One of the essays in that book is on the first transport of prisoners from Auschwitz to Flossenbürg in November 1940. Eleven men were transferred, as punishment for the escape of another prisoner.

That seems like a good place to start, so I ask our project partners at the Auschwitz-Birkenau Museum for scans of the documents on that first transport and on the prisoners sent to Flossenbürg.

Information from Auschwitz

At the time that the concentration camp at Auschwitz was being built, prisoners and local workers had regular contact. Most likely the latter helped the prisoner Thadeusz Wiejowski to escape from the camp on July 6, 1940.

Five workers were arrested and themselves imprisoned in Auschwitz. Furthermore, eleven prisoners were accused of knowing about the escape plans and not alerting anyone.

The accused waited almost three months for their sentence. In October, they were led to the Appellplatz (roll call grounds). There, Karl Fritzsch, the camp director (Schutzhaftlagerführer) read them their death sentence.

Fritzsch then went on to commute the death sentence into flogging and subsequent transfer to the Flossenbürg concentration camp. Working in the quarry there, Fritzsch said, was a death sentence in itself.

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In the documents sent to me by the colleagues at the Auschwitz-Birkenau Museum, I find the prisoners who were sent to Flossenbürg as a disciplinary transfer.

Once I have their names, I can look them up in our Memorial Archives database.

Documents in Flossenbürg

One of the names, Gerhard Eugeniusz Hejka, grabs my attention. I had just recently put protective covering on a package card in our archives for someone of this name.

Gerhard Hejka’s package card, 1944 (Flossenbürg Concentration Camp Memorial)

I then look at the other documents we have for Gerhard Hejka. His personal effects card is of particular interest.

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There are, as it were, two layers of time on the file card. It was first filled out at Hejka’s arrival in Flossenbürg in December 1940.

But there are also handwritten comments on the card in English, and one of them is clearly dated “11 June 1945”—two months after the camp was liberated.

Gerhard Hejka’s personal effects card with a note in English (Arolsen Archives/Flossenbürg Concentration Camp Memorial)

“In camp at Schwandorf” is written on the card. That must refer to the displaced persons (DP) camp. Unfortunately, I cannot find any other documents that confirm this statement.

I need to try to find out more about the DP camp. The research of a former colleague on displaced persons after the Second World War brings me one step further.

I can’t find any mention of Schwandorf in her essays, but Gerhard Hejka is named as one of the “camp leaders” in a DP camp for Poles in Weiden in Upper Palatinate.

Flossenbürg Displaced Persons Camp

Directly after the liberation of the Flossenbürg main camp by U.S. infantry divisions on April 23, 1945, the site was used for other purposes. The concentration camp buildings remained in the main intact. At first, the barracks were used to care for the sick and enfeebled liberated prisoners. At the same time, U.S. troops secured documents belonging to the SS administration and used the existing infrastructure as their base. For a few months, it was also used as an internment camp for members of the German Waffen-SS who had become American prisoners of war in Bohemia.

After the Americans left, the camp was used by the international refugee aid organization UNRRA to house displaced persons (DPs). Until the end of the 1940s, Jewish and Eastern European concentration-camp survivors and former forced laborers often lived in such camps. Not all of them wanted to return to their native countries, either because they knew they would face reprisals in the socialist-run countries or because they hoped that immigrating overseas would secure them a better life. The Jewish survivors prepared to immigrate to Palestine (after 1948 Israel) or the U.S.

Most of the DPs housed in the former Flossenbürg concentration camp were non-Jewish Polish DPs. They created the first memorial site at the former camp in 1946–47, the “Valley of Death.” At the same time, the authentic remnants of the concentration camp began to decay. Until the end of the 1950s, expellees from the formerly German regions of Eastern Europe were housed in the increasingly derelict barracks. These were all successively torn down, the only thing that remained were the large stone buildings. The former SS mess hall (“casino”) became a restaurant, the Kommandantur (headquarters) was renovated to create subsidized housing. Industry was built up on some of the former area of the prison, and the terraced area was opened up for new housing developments in successive construction phases starting in 1957.

For pragmatic reasons, the barracks of the former concentration camp Flossenbürg near Weiden were also used as a displaced persons camp after the war. From late April 1945, the barracks were inhabited mostly by Poles who had been deported to Austria as forced laborers during the war.

Hejka must have been a member of the committees formed by Polish DPs in Flossenbürg from June 1946 to work on the creation of memorial sites - a monument on the Flossenbürg Memorial Cemetery and a chapel on the grounds of the former concentration camp.

Erecting the First Memorials

The index of our collections shows that our archives hold documents on the construction of both the monument and the chapel. These even include the minutes of the committee!

I get the book with the minutes from the stacks and carefully flip through the pages for mention of Gerhard Hejka.

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I soon find Hejka’s name. At the second committee meeting on July 23, 1946, he was voted vice chairperson. He spoke fluent German and Polish and his main focus was to represent the interests of Polish victims.

In May 1945, the American military government created a modest cemetery in the Flossenbürg town center for concentration camp prisoners who died after liberation. This burial site was threatened by neglect, and so the memorial committee was pushing for reconstruction.

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On October 27, 1946 - only four months after the committee was founded—an unveiling ceremony took place for the newly designed Memorial Cemetery. The cemetery’s five-meter-high granite monument makes it visible from afar.

Fundraising postcard, sketch by Josef Linhardt, 1946 (Flossenbürg Concentration Camp Memorial)

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After the construction of the Memorial Cemetery in the town center, the committee turned towards carrying out plans to build a chapel on the former concentration camp grounds.

The cornerstone for the chapel was ready to be laid on September 1, 1946. Stones from three demolished concentration camp watchtowers were used as building material.

The chapel is part of a memorial site that uses Christian symbolism, including a Stations of the Cross Garden and a Redemption Path. Visitors pass through the staggered posts of the camp gate and are led into a valley. After the camp crematorium, they pass a pyramid made of ashes and come to memorial plaques that list the number of prisoners from each nation who died in Flossenbürg concentration camp. Finally, the path leads upwards to the chapel, “Jesus in Prison,” which overlooks the valley, promising salvation.

The memorial site soon became known as the “Valley of Death.”

By the time of the opening ceremony for the memorial chapel on May 25, 1947, on the Sunday of Pentecost, Gerhard Hejka was no longer a member of the memorial committee.

In the summer of 1948, he and his wife Kazimiera immigrated to Australia. He died there on July 27, 2009.

Back to the Present

I lean back in my desk chair and close my eyes.

The archival documents offer a number of possible stories. Which one do we want to tell on the Research Stories site?

Prisoner Thadeusz Wiejowski’s escape from Auschwitz and the consequences for his fellow prisoners—that is, the history of the first prisoner transport from Auschwitz to Flossenbürg?

Or maybe instead a story about the situation for former prisoners after the war, and their dedication to creating memorial sites - or the story of Gerhard Hejka?

For our research we only have the documents that survived. Our task is to shine light on as many different aspects as possible in order to do justice to the diversity of Nazi victims and their many different stories. The digitalization of the archival holdings is a great aid in this work.