A few weeks ago I found myself stuck in 20km's worth of Autobahn traffic performing some unusual crossed legged clutch manoeuvres. Morning coffee and battering rain had put into action every possible bodily function on my brain's „don't piss yourself“ list and left me wishing Renault had installed an automobile equivalent of a bedpan. Alas, they hadn't, they don't and likely never will. As such, my bladder drove me onto the hard shoulder, past a kilometre worth of patient, cursing German drivers and off the Autobahn in the direction of Kaltenkirchen, north of Hamburg. I soon found myself on a country road and began desperately looking for a suitable petrol station, cafe or bush where I could relieve nature's call. A sign appeared to my left, „KZ Gedenkstätte.“ As a former history student and someone bursting for a piss, a concentration camp memorial seemed like a perfect place to stop.
I parked the car in the waterlogged carpark. The rain had stopped and after an hour stuck in traffic, the crisp, clean air was a welcome relief. Hopping over puddles, I made my way towards a large portakabin with an open door. Just before entering, I was stopped in my tracks by a overly enthusiatic „Hallo!“ from a man off to the right. I matched his enthusiasm with my urgent request for a toilet, whereby he escorted me to a cupboard inside the portakabin. There was a moment of confusion as he switched on the light and leaflet laden shelves came into view. Was my German pronounciation really that bad? However, after fumbling with a previously unseen handle, a side door opened into a small WC and I was allowed my moment of relief...
Rejuvenated, I stumbled past the boxes in the cupboard, through another door and into a small exhibition room detailing the history of the camp. The man with the enthusiastic Hallo was enthusiastically awaiting me. As the sole visitor and user of his not so public toilet, I felt an obligation, despite my bad German, to try and speak to him. It turned out to be a good decision. He explained that the camp had only been operational for the final 9 months of the war, having originally been established to provide a workforce for a nearby airfield. The original runway was too short for the newly developed jet fighters and so a supply of free labour was needed. The SS duely obliged and prisoners were sent from the Neuengamme camp south of Hamburg. He explained that the exact number of prisoners to pass through the camp was difficult to pinpoint but that between 500 to 700 lost there lives there. Largely Russians, Poles & French, they died of hunger, disease and exhaustion. However, in Holocaust terms, Kaltenkirchen is a small fish in a big pond.
After politely pretending to read the German language information boards, I headed out to see the remains of the camp itself. Before the war, Kaltenkirchen had seen the Nazi's take 95% of the vote and the area was a National Socialist hotspot. As such, the populace didn't take too much interest in the camp during the war and especially not afterwards. In the 1970's it was completely torn down, nature was given free reign and the memories were buried away. In spite of this this I learnt from Herr Enthusiasm that an association is working to remember to various Holocaust sites around Schleswig Holstein including Ladelund, Husum and Ahrensbök.
The Kaltenkirchen result, white fencing outlines where the barracks once stood and towering pine trees cover the whole camp. I found myself being guided from tree to tree by information plaques marking areas where barracks, officers quarters and solitary confinement once were. The whole camp I covered in less than 10 minutes before I ended up in what was the parade ground. Here, daily role calls were held, sometimes hours long in wind, rain, cold and snow. A punishing daily ordeal for undernourished and inadequately dressed prisoners. Now, the only thing standing is a single stone pillar. Upon which, the words of a poem spiral round forcing several loops of the stone in order to read the entirety. I gave up trying to translate after the 5th loop and instead made my way back to the car with a spinning head.
I negotiated the puddles again and got back behind the wheel. I put the radio on but couldn't listen to it. My head was awash with thoughts and still twirling from pillar. I couldn't drive away. Instead I sat motionless in the car in a slight state of shock. All I'd wanted was a toilet...
Ashes of Birkenau, Stephan Hermlin (The Poem on the Turning Stone)
Die an die Hoffnung glauben, Sehen die Birken grün,
Wenn die Schatten der Tauben Über die Asche fliehn:
Lied des Todes, verklungen,
Das jäh dem Leben gleicht:
Schwer wie Erinnerungen
Und wie Vergessen leicht