Embracing the past at Saal

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

The subcamp in Saal, also known as KZ Ring or Ring-Me,  where Jan van Boeckel’s life was slowly bled out of him, was and is not more than a meadow at the edge of a forested hill. Between the field and the hill, a narrow, sandy road twists lazily upwards. As the road curves to the left a space opens up, shadowed by trees. A crescent, carved into the chalky slope. Here the mosquitos bite, the rain falls and the wind rustles through the leaves.

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The crematorium site at Saal before the inauguration of the new panels

Not a very special place to see. But years ago, at this very spot, SS-guards ordered an improvised crematorium to be built and used. Railway runners were laid across two, low concrete walls. A fire was lighted underneath, burning the bodies of concentration camp prisoners to cinder.Now, there is only earth, wood and leaves. And, as of last Tuesday, there is also a well made, informative display panel in subtle greys, describing what used to be here.

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The crematorium site at Saal during the inauguration ceremony

This week the display panel was officially inaugurated during a small, intense ceremony. Villagers brought benches up the narrow dirt road, placing them in front of a speaker’s platform. Jakob Haiblum, a former prisoner of KZ-Saal / Ring-Me concentration camp, whom I have described here, was invited to join the ceremony. He held a moving speech for a group of Saal villagers and suited officials from local memorial organisations.

Nothing remains of the former concentration camp Ring, only memories. And these memories are embedded in Jakob’s mind, memories dating from 15th February to 20th April 1945. Exactly the same months that Jan van Boeckel was imprisoned here. Although my uncle Jan’s life was cruelly cut short due to the deprivation and treatment at this subcamp of Flossenbürg concentration camp, and I have every reason to be here, I feel like an outsider looking on while this brave man speaks to his audience.

DSC_0149It is 71 years since Jakob was freed from the camp. Jakob spent time here in hunger, hurt and fear. He speaks about what he had to undergo, but also about what he was given. Five times, he repeats, five times I was saved by Germans. His words are gifts that float through the air and land on his silent listeners. It is not the first time he holds out his hand in friendship. He has been here many times. His memories have now become part of the fabric of the village. His audience lives and works here, their parents and grandparents used to live and work here. The village memories have mingled with Jakob’s words, creating a new, more complete picture. Six information panels have now been placed at noteworthy spots along the route through Saal an der Donau from the station to the former crematorium.

A realisation slowly dawns on me. This inauguration ceremony is not a commemoration to the ghosts of the past, it is a statement of ownership by the village: We deal with our past, they say, we do not shy away from the historic horrors. I awkwardly observe from the sidelines and suddenly come to another painful realisation.1943 foto's Jan (2) Jan is not important to them, they did not know him, not his dreams, his jokes, his worries and his ideals. There are no memories of the funny, loving, musical, idealistic man that Jan van Boeckel was, the man that I have gotten to know so well during these past months of intense research. No. There is no place for  individual stories.

There were hundreds at this camp. There were thousands in the region there were millions in total. Remembrance in Germany is not about individual victims. I also realise that this might be the reason why, although many people have gone out on a limb to help me here in Bavaria, certain information was not shared, emails not answered, questions not asked, interest not shown. There is not much room for individual stories in this place, there is only the fact that a vast number of anonymous people were brutally treated and lost their lives. A fact so huge, that the initial reaction here in Germany was to forget as quickly as they could, literally wiping away traces of the past and the camps. A new generation has now stepped up and is creating a tradition of remembrance – German style, for German people.

IMG_7947 (2)This is exactly what I now have witnessed at Saal an der Donau: This small but beautiful ceremony was by and for a village which dares to face ownership of a horrific history. And Jakob is the living proof that the camp was here, people were degraded and killed right here, it really happened. He symbolizes the camp and the dark past.

Jakob in a voice, clear but pitched high with emotion, described what he experienced, what he felt, what he feels and what he hopes. His words resonated in the air as the deep sound of didgeridoos filled the earthy crescent and brought the ceremony to a close. Saal is so very lucky to have this openhearted, decent and sincere person as a reminder of its shadowed past. Embracing the past in Saal, means embracing Jakob. He makes it very easy to do.

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

6 thoughts on “Embracing the past at Saal

  1. Je slaat de spijker op de kop. Daarom ook wil het Auschwitz comité dat monument met al die individuele namen. Opdat ieder leven en dood gezien wordt. Het is lastig te begrijpen vooral ook omdat van zovelen geen nabestaanden zijn. Zoals Jan gelukkig wel heeft: hij wordt niet vergeten.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Juist ook voor diegene die geen nabestaanden hebben lijkt het mij van cruciaal belang dat de namen worden genoemd. Daarom ben ik ook een grote fan van het Stolpersteinen project…

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