Being a Number: KZ Saal an der Donau, Ring-Me

This is an episode in “the quest for Jan van Boeckel: From Holland to Bavaria” .

DSC_6942-01Saal an der Donau was where the music really stopped for Jan van Boeckel. As expected, this is proving to be one of the most difficult parts of Jan van Boeckel’s story to write. He spent the most painful months at this satellite camp of the Flossenbürg concentration camp, exposed to inhumane treatment beyond imagination. It is difficult because I sometimes just don’t want to know, but feel that I owe it to him to tell the whole of his story, especially there where he was treated as number four-five-one-three-one. Additionally it is proving difficult in a practical sense because it is not easy to gather the necessary information.

At first I only had the information on which I based the episode Ringberg Messerschmitt: Ring-Me. In a desperate attempt to find more background and research material I tried to contact both a priest and a local journalist, which did not get me much further. IMG_6941Luckily I finally got into contact with a researcher who, although he is on a terribly busy schedule, was able to provide me with background information, including a reconstruction done by the local historical society based on witness reports by villagers and survivors. And I count myself lucky that Arthur Simon,  Jan’s friend from Zuchthaus Ebrach, who I introduce in Singing in a Monastery, provided uncle C. in the sixties with a description of his and Jan’s life there.  Arthur’s daughter Anne has very kindly provided me with a witness account Arthur wrote in the  nineties.

IMG_6821 (2)What Jan really experienced we will never know, and we never will know the thoughts he had and the choices he had to make. But armed with both Arthur ‘s accounts and the witness reports by villagers, labourers and prisoners I am able to clear some of the fog created by the Nazi regime ever so slightly.

As I wrote in Ringberg Messerschmitt: Ring-Me,  the Nazis needed to go underground to build new warplanes. The satellite camp in Saal was founded at the end of 1944 to provide an additional labour-force for the construction of these sub terrain tunnels. This became KZ Saal an der Donau.

Arthur Simon and Jan Van Boeckel arrived in Saal an der Donau by train from the main camp in Flossenbürg. Arthur arrived before Jan did, probably on the fifth of February, together with 319 other prisoners. Jan travelled by train ten days later, on the 15th of February, with 199 other prisoners to the, according to Arthur “worst camp ever experienced“.  This is echoed by other survivors, one of them says: “I was in 10 different camps but ….never have I experienced so much hunger”.

IMG_6591 (2)Jan arrived at the station and was accompanied by foot to the camp by young and old SS-guards dressed in their grey uniforms with dogs at their heels. He was marched through the winter landscape to the camp in his flimsy attire. It was a sad-looking place, encircled by barbed wire, with guards posted along the perimeter. Opposite the entrance gate were the SS-barracks. And to the left of the gate was the home of what Jan later probably heard through the camp grapevine, the Kommandant, Konrad Maier, a 45 year old SS-Hauptscharführer.

As in any other Nazi concentration camp the 73 strong SS-division made use of Kapos to do much of their dirty work. The Kapos were prisoners who earned certain privileges in return for working for the SS. Although I have no idea what this was like in Saal, Kapos were often chosen from the criminal ranks, the prisoners with the green triangles.  They functioned as camp leader, block leaders or work leaders. Villagers in Saal say they could distinguished them from the other prisoners by their straight posture and the baton under their arm.

DSC_6909-01

Once within the camp Jan was probably exposed to the first of many rollcalls, and was then assigned to a barrack and a bunkbed. In the beginning of 1945  the camp itself consisted of four barracks which had windows and electric lighting. Bunkbeds were clad with straw which served as a mattress. A small wood burner stood in the room, but it was totally insufficient to offer the much needed warmth to the sparsely clad, underfed, sickly men during these winter months. More barracks were built during February and March 1945, to house the many new prisoners.  A big tent was also erected,  specifically used for temporary prisoner groups such as evacuees from other camps. And in the last weeks “earth bunkers” were dug, due to lack of building material.

Jan wore a prison outfit which he received in Flossenbürg, and if he was lucky he might have had wooden clogs and maybe a coat, or maybe not.  He might later have tied torn pieces of cement bags on his feet against the cold. As a political prisoner, a red triangular badge adorned his striped shirt in addition to his prisoner number 45131. Perhaps there was an H for ‘Holländer’ (Dutchman) in the red triangle. And he might have had the letters NN written on the back of his uniform, labelling him as a Nacht und Nebel prisoner, a prisoner who had disappeared into night and fog. Arthur describes:

to sleep we had to tie our clothes on us to prevent everything from disappearing at night. And upon waking up you were very relieved if you found all your clothes still there”.

Jan was not assigned to the same barracks as Arthur, but their experience must has have been very similar. Rollcalls, and more rollcalls, acute hunger, hard labour, beatings and mistreatment.

In addition to the chores and tasks there were rollcalls and more rollcalls, we were even woken in the middle of the night. We had to go to the Appellplatz and stay there, sometimes for an hour or two in the cold. Waiting for what? Nobody ever knew.”

Sometimes this happened up to two or three times a night.

IMG_6963 (2)Rollcalls took place in the morning, in the evening and often as a form of collective punishment. “The brutal treatment started  at six in the morning”. The prisoners were woken up by roars, orders screamed at them in the German language, which many of the prisoners could not understand being from non-German speaking countries. They had to make their way quickly to the ‘Appellplatz’ – the rollcall area – either between the barracks or on the camp road. Jan had to know his prisoner number by heart – in German:vier fünf eins drei eins” – 45131. Many either did not know or had forgotten it. Every morning it was the same scenario.

 “Shots rang out which either jogged their memory or left the prisoner dead on the floor”.

 In the morning the dead had to be removed from the rooms and aligned along the floor. The administration was done – counting and recording the dead and their numbers and the information was given to the man in charge. Work units were formed and daily work could consist of any or more of the following tasks.

Arthur was not assigned to the building of the tunnels, but Jan might have been. This work consisted of drilling explosive holes in the stones, running from the blast and then being driven with blows and shouts into the clouds of smoke ensuing from the explosion to remove the resulting debris. A day, or a night as the case may be, could be spent dragging equipment from the station to the camp or the construction site, unloading building material such as sacks of cement, building new barracks or bunkers and any other jobs related to enlarging the camp, cleaning buildings of the companies involved in the construction site, felling trees, collecting firewood, menial jobs for village enterprises, digging or transporting bodies and burning the dead.

There seems to have been a second construction site on the opposite side of the river in Herrnsaal where the Organisation Todt (the SS enterprise ‘OT’) also planned to build an airfield. Prisoners were brought here by ferry. Arthur Simon writes that he thought there were two camps in March, this was probably what he remembers.

With no fixed worktimes or free time it did occur that the prisoners worked all day on the construction site, had to unload bags with cement from a train during the night and then had to go directly back to the construction site in the morning.

DSC_6961-01According to Arthur, he and Jan made windows for the new barracks during that first month in Saal. They were not very successful at it. A witness account by villagers  enlisted to build bunkbeds and sheds might explain why. They remember that prisoners were brought in to help them. These men were however so weak that they were unfit to do the necessary work and were often exchanged for fresh prisoners.

One of the daily tasks that had to be done by a group of prisoners was the food chore. This meant walking to the canteen to collect food for all the prisoners. This food was a watery soup with some potatoes or potato peels floating in it. Arthur describes it as follows:

Unfortunately we had to walk two kilometres, which was already very difficult, but returning with the filled containers was worse because you could not spill a drop or the blows would rain down on you. In the snow it was hellish. Many prisoners died from the brutal treatment during this chore. We were very happy when bruised fingers from the weight of the containers was the only consequence when we reached our goal.”

Although it seems to have been a distance of 600 meters to the canteen where the soup was cooked, witnesses in the village corroborate Arthur’s experience. The canisters were carried by the prisoners on two pieces of timbre. This work was done by a team of 30 prisoners who were constantly interchanged. One witness describes that the soup was often spilt due to the weakened condition of the carriers, at which point the ‘guilty one’ was mercilessly beaten.

IMG_7040 (2)The SS knew no mercy”, underlines Willem Evers, the Dutch forced labourer “it was planned execution through work”. Summing up some of the endless terms used by villagers, labourers and prisoners to describe the state and life of the prisoners in KZ-Saal an der Donau shows what Jan experienced here: a horrific, dismal sight, only skin and bones, very weak, could hardly stand, heavy manual labour, constantly beaten, hit,  pummelled, mistreated, kicked, thrashed with wooden sticks, with gun butts, dogs, senseless beating.

Or as Arthur remembers one specific episode:

 “I dropped the bag I was carrying, I waited, and the German who was monitoring the unloading rushed over to me screaming. He pointed his gun, pulled the trigger but the shot did not come. I think that the gun had jammed. He re-armed again, pulled the trigger, but it still did not fire. Enraged he hit me with his gun…”

DSC_6851-01The story of what happened to Jan next will be explained in a following episode.

I have since found out that from the 15th april 1945 onwards Jan van Boeckel was the only Dutchman still alive in the camp in Saal. Originally there were three men from the Netherlands. From the end of March there were only two. On April the 15th 1945, Herman van Brecht, who was 12 years Jan’s senior, dies. Although the chance of finding something is slim, I am now perusing witness reports to see if there is any mention of a Dutchman.

A very warm thank you once again to Arthur Simon and his daughter Anne Autin for sharing the information they had. Further information on Arthur and his journey can be found on her website.

————- will be continued —————

This is an episode in “the quest for Jan van Boeckel: From Holland to Bavaria” .

Sources:

  • Saaler Heimatblätter Heft 1 (2011).Geschichten und Geschichte. Rings um den Ringberg. Arbeitskreis Heimatgeschichte Saal an der Donau.
  • Schmoll, Peter (1998).  Die Messerschmitt-Werke im Zweiten Weltkrieg. MZ Buchverlag.
  • Simon, Arthur (1995/97) Witness account.
  • Simon, Arthur (1967). Interview by C. van Boeckel.
  • Simon, Arthur (1965). Letters to C. van Boeckel.

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