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Gallant Wehrmacht soldiers asked if rooms with a balcony were suitable for them.  They were “Jews for exchange”

Gallant Wehrmacht soldiers asked if rooms with a balcony were suitable for them. They were “Jews for exchange”

In the years 1940-1943, Polish diplomats in Switzerland, in cooperation with Jewish circles, developed a system of forging documents from Latin American countries. Issued under Jewish names, they were then smuggled to countries occupied by the Germans. Their possession aroused fear and at the same time gave hope for avoiding transport to death camps. We are publishing a fragment of Roger Moorhouse’s book “Passports of Life. Polish diplomats, false documents and a secret mission that saved thousands of Jews” (Horizon Sign). It was published in a translation by Grzegorz Siwek.

In the winter of 1942–1943, the Nazi concept of “Jews for exchange” began to crystallize. In a series of memoranda, officials of the Reich Security Main Office (RSHA) – representing the SS and police – and the German Foreign Office outlined the framework for this new policy. “British and American Jews,” they wrote in one of these documents, in which they juggled euphemisms, “were expected to take action against other Jews.” In another official note, they stipulated that while stateless Jews and citizens of countries occupied by Germany would be subject to mass extermination, Jews “from enemy, neutral and even friendly countries” should be excluded from it. [z Rzeszą]participating or not participating in the war”. These people – it continued in the quoted memorandum – were not to be subject to “general action”, but to internment “in order to exchange them for Germans living in enemy countries”.

A new type of camp was needed for exchange candidates. A former prisoner of war camp was chosen for this purpose, located north of Hanover, which could be quickly adapted to a new role – transformed into an “internment camp”, i.e. Aufenthaltslager, for Jews from outside the territories occupied by Germany. This name turned out to be very significant. Initially, the office within the SS, responsible for the network of German concentration camps, announced the establishment of a “civilian internment camp” there. After some time, however, the name was changed to “detention camp”, for the simple reason that – in accordance with the provisions of the Geneva Convention – a camp for civilian internment had to be accessible to visiting representatives of the Red Cross, unlike a detention camp. The SS apparently wanted this new location not to be subject to any independent control. The order to open the camp, officially approved by Hitler, was issued in December 1942. This place was known as Bergen-Belsen.

Despite this apparent haste – in view of the Nazi plans to exterminate European Jews as quickly as possible – the transformation of the Belsen camp progressed quite slowly. In the spring, the German authorities appointed a new commander of this facility, who was to supervise the introduction of appropriate changes. Bull-necked SS-Hauptsturmführer Adolf Haas was a baker by profession and a veteran of the First World War, wearing a brush mustache – fashionable at the time – and a long-time member of the SS. Previously, he was the commandant of the Niederhagen concentration camp near Paderborn and was not particularly suitable for managing a “detention camp” for Jews intended for exchange, which required a bit more delicacy. Nevertheless, he supervised its transformation and assigned approximately five hundred concentration camp prisoners and French prisoners of war the task of building new wooden barracks and renovating those that remained after the prisoner of war camp. In mid-summer 1943, Bergen-Belsen was to be ready to receive the first transport of “detainees”.

Deutsche Reich Kennkarte, source United States Holocaust Memorial Museum promotional materials Horizon Sign

During preparations for the opening, the German authorities began – in January 1943 – to relocate Jews with foreign passports from Warsaw and other cities. In fact, in the case of those interned at Pawiak, in the heart of the Warsaw Ghetto, it came almost too late. The prisoners had been kept there for over seven months, and during this time the Nazis were depopulating the surrounding ghetto – the sounds of gunshots and human suffering echoed through the streets. The Germans repeatedly carried out executions right outside the walls of Pawiak, and the internees inside the building cowered in fear. Stung by hunger and bitten by lice, they wondered with fear what would happen to themselves.

That winter, rumors circulated around Pawiak, both about leaving for a safe place and about being deported to Treblinka. In mid-October, those imprisoned were informed that those with American documents would be sent back; the rest were worried about their fate. A week later, the latter were examined by a doctor, and their departure date was set for December 16. But when the day came, they were told that the trip would be delayed until the New Year. On January 1, 1943, Mary Berg described in her diary the nightmares about those who had already been deported and the rumors about Treblinka:

I see tiled bathhouses full of naked people suffocating in hot steam. How many of my relatives and friends died there? How many young people are just at the threshold of life? I curse the coming new year.

It was not without reason that she thought she would never get out of Pawiak.

When the order to leave was finally given, some prisoners could not believe that it meant anything good. On frosty January 17, in the early morning hours, they heard an order to go with their belongings to the prison yard. After reading the list of names, they had to wait in the snow, so they sat on coats and suitcases. From the way they were treated, many assumed they would be deported and killed. A little later, before dawn, the loading onto the trucks finally took place, and as the Jews drove through the city, they saw for the first time the scale of devastation resulting from the great deportation operation of the previous year. “The windows of the apartments were open – recalled Gutta Eisenzweig – there were no signs of life.” Inside the buildings, Mary Berg saw overturned furniture, broken cupboards, and clothes strewn on the floor. “How much Jewish blood was shed here?” – she wondered. Her fears were not unfounded. By then, only one tenth of the population remained in the Warsaw ghetto compared to the previous year.

The prisoners brought to the suburban railway station still did not know what awaited them and were on the lookout for anything that might reveal their destination. They were relieved to see that passenger wagons had been provided for them, not cattle wagons, which were used during the deportations to Treblinka. Still, as they sat exhausted on the hard wooden benches, they still had no idea where they were going, and they furtively glanced at the German guards in the wagons. Only when the train set off westward did they realize that their likely destination was not Treblinka.

However, they still did not know where they were going, and what’s worse – most of them had only minimal supplies of food with them, which they managed to take with them from Pawiak. For three days the train rolled west. When Mary Berg noticed that they were passing Zbąszyń on the pre-war Polish border, she realized that they had entered Germany. They then bypassed Berlin from the south, crossed the Rhine at Mainz and passed through Saarbrücken, where she remembered seeing the first traces of Allied bombing. Later that evening, the prisoners finally found themselves in occupied France, went through Metz and Nancy to the town of Vittel, and there, after leaving the train, they went to their new place of stay – an internment camp, organized in a former holiday camp. As one of them recalled, it was like “moving from hell to paradise.”

The camp, established in 1941 in the heart of Vittel, included the buildings of three hotels in an elegant park, at that time surrounded by a barbed wire fence and patrolled by soldiers. In two of these hotels – Vittel-Palace and Cérès – the Nazis had already housed British and American civilians captured until the fall of France and the entry of the United States into the war. The third building, the Grand-Hôtel, was intended for the new arrivals and served as their place of internment until the Belsen camp was restored. There were various amenities there – there was a library, a casino, tennis courts and a theater. No wonder this place was described by the Red Cross as “the best German camp in Europe”. For Gutta Sternbuch, the contrast between her new surroundings and the one she had been in just a few days earlier was striking. She came there “from hunger and the atrocities of the Warsaw ghetto”, where the Germans “shot women and children […] with mechanical precision.” Now she was greeted in the comfortable hotel lobby by gallant Wehrmacht soldiers who assigned rooms to the internees and politely asked if they liked those with a balcony.

Skipwith sofa, source  Yad VashemSkipwith sofa, source Yad Vashem promotional materials Horizon Sign

It was a completely different world than the one they knew from Warsaw. There were no assemblies here, and apart from the ban on leaving the camp, only a few restrictions were introduced. Internees could prepare food in their rooms. They could also send and receive letters, and Red Cross parcels containing canned corned beef, cheese, condensed milk and cigarettes arrived regularly. Mary Berg reveled in freedom – she walked in the park, read and dreamed. After the horror of her memories from Warsaw, she wrote in her diary: “What more do you need?” Others, it seems, were not able to shake off their recent experiences so easily. Sofka Skipwith, a Russian princess, fled the revolution, married a British baronet, and settled in Paris, where she was stranded after the German invasion of France in 1940. Interned in Vittel as a foreign citizen, she remembered that many of those who arrived “resembled sleepwalkers. […] They seemed stunned. […] They didn’t speak much, they never smiled, they walked slowly through the park, as if they were afraid of doing something wrong. […] and they seemed to avoid all contacts.

Passports of life.  Polish diplomats, false documents and a secret mission that saved thousands of JewsPassports of life. Polish diplomats, false documents and a secret mission that saved thousands of Jews promotional materials Horizon Sign

Source: Gazeta

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