The wooden arch at the camp entrance is gone but there is still a stone guardhouse. And there are still guards posted outside, Bundeswehr (German army) soldiers nowadays, who cheerily but firmly prevented us from entering the Wildflecken military barracks. I was following the footsteps of Kathryn Hulme. On the 29th of April 1945 Dachau was freed and on the 30th of April 1945 Hitler killed himself. In July 1945 Kathryn Hulme arrived at this very same spot where I stood on the 18th of September 2015, 70 years later.
The former SS training camp is surrounded by dense Bavarian forest and was so secret that it was not drawn into any map between the establishment in 1938 and the capitulation in 1945. Now it is only vaguely visible from the village square, a broad band of forest blocks a clear view. This countryside is known as the poor man’s Alps, because the Rhön Mountains are not really mountains. Covered by woodland, the rolling hills are dotted with light coloured hamlets. Wildflecken is a tiny village of little import, 3000 heads today and not more than 50 in 1945. It is flanked and dwarfed by the sprawling military camp with the same name, spread out like a fan along the slope of the wooded hill. From across the valley the military zone looks like any other Rhön hill village shimmering and glinting white in the sun.
When Kathryn Hulme’s American/European/New Zealand UNRRA team (see part 1) first arrived at Wildflecken they thought they were terribly lost in the dense, threatening forest. They were actually nearly on top of the barracks. The team took over the camp from the US army and with it they took over the care of 20.000, mostly Polish people, in an area with a 40 km (25 mile) perimeter and no fence in a war-torn unstable land. Many German barracks, and concentration camps (such as Dachau) were used after war’s end to house the millions of displaced people in Europe. The inhabitants of Wildflecken were mostly Polish, with a few Russian, Ukrainian and Baltic people who had partly been absorbed as Poles. New wagonloads of people were sent to the camp by the US army with little forewarning, first they were picked up with trucks by the UNRRA team at a neighbouring station. Later, when the bombed out railway bridge was repaired, they were brought by train to the camp itself. At a certain point wagonloads left again in brightly decorated trains, headed for home – if and when there still was a home to go to.
Kathryn Hulme describes what she encounters at the camp as ‘the composite face of human misery’. These were people, including children, who had been slave labourers or concentration camp victims under the Nazi regime. After hearing the excruciating stories of just a few individuals during the first days and seeing the raw anguish at first hand she mutters to herself I suppose one gets used to it. Only to be admonished by her countess- translator: Jamais! (Never!).
This September I wanted to see Wildflecken with my own eyes. After hitting a dead end at the barracks gate we tried the City Hall, which was closed as it was a Friday afternoon. “No, you cannot enter the barracks” repeated the lady we met outside the City Hall, looking at us with sorrowful eyes. “Access is only given to the public on All Saint’s day on the 1st of November to visit the children’s graveyard “.
We must have looked very forlorn as she came back later and gave us the telephone number of an old man who according to her still knew a lot about the history of Wildflecken. That gave is some hope and we immediately called the number, but no one answered. And with that I thought I had reached the end of my endeavour to follow Kathryn Hulme’s footsteps.
As we were leaving the village, having all but given up, a signpost pointed to the left , ‘Polenfriedhof‘ it read, the Polish cemetery. Taking a left turn, along the edge of the forest to the east another sign read “Zugang bis Polenfriedhof Frei“. All other parts of the military camp are strictly off limits, but we could follow the path up to the Polish cemetery through military terrain. This is the place where the old, the sick and the very young were laid to rest. Freedom did not bring new life for all.
Winding slightly upwards, the path led into the dark forest… will be continued in a next post soon…