“From prejudice to hatred to violence to murder, the paths are very short,” said Karl Freller, director of the Bavarian Memorial Foundation, to an audience of more than 500 at the Holocaust memorial site where the Nazi concentration camp Flossenbürg once stood. The crowd, including six survivors of the camp, had gathered in the German state of Bavaria on April 24, the 77th anniversary of the camp’s liberation. During a moment of silence honoring the roughly 30,000 people who died at Flossenbürg, attendees also remembered two Holocaust survivors killed during Russia’s invasion of Ukraine: Boris Romantschenko and Vanda Semyonovna Obiedkova.
The invasion loomed large over the commemoration—an unsurprising shadow given the hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians who have sought refuge in Germany since the conflict began, as well as Russian autocrat Vladimir Putin’s distortions of World War II history as a justification for his warmongering. He’s spoken of a quest to “demilitarize and de-Nazify” Ukraine, a country with a Jewish president, Volodymyr Zelenskyy, and a thriving Jewish population of between 49,000 and 400,000. (Ukraine’s last census took place in 2001, meaning more recent exact figures are hard to come by.) Zelenskyy, for his part, has refuted these claims by drawing parallels between Putin and Adolf Hitler.
In Putin’s version of events, any attempt to assert Ukrainian sovereignty is a Nazi one, a continuation of the 20th-century battle between Russia and Ukrainian nationalists, some of whom allied themselves with Nazi invaders during the war in a bid to gain independence from the Soviet Union. On Monday, as Russia celebrated its triumph over Nazi Germany on so-called Victory Day, Putin reiterated his earlier arguments, declaring that Russian soldiers “are fighting for the Motherland, for its future, so that no one forgets the lessons of World War II, so that there is no place in the world for torturers, death squads and Nazis.”
Reflecting on the links between the Russia-Ukraine war and the Holocaust during last month’s commemoration at Flossenbürg, Rachel Salamander, an editor and publisher who was born in a displaced persons camp in 1949, said, “For almost a decade, until the start of industrial mass murder, propaganda had fooled the population into believing that Jews weren’t human, so that they consequently had to be exterminated.” Today, she added, “we hear that Ukrainians are neo-Nazis and fascists who must be destroyed. The deadly method is depriving people of their humanity, depriving them of their legitimacy in order to justify genocide.”
To stop this “deadly method,” German culture minister Claudia Roth challenged the audience to assume a greater responsibility in remembrance culture by personalizing survivors’ memories. “What do we mean,” she asked, “when we swear to each other that what happened may never happen again?”
Germany’s culture of remembrance, which has long centered on survivor narratives and oral histories, faces a near-future without any living witnesses to the genocide. Flossenbürg and Dachau, whose sites are now overseen by the Bavarian Memorial Foundation, represented two of the nearly two dozen concentration camps designated for the mass murder, forced labor and detention of Jews and other marginalized groups during World War II. (In total, the Nazis operated more than 44,000 camps, subcamps, ghettos and holding centers.) Staff at the memorials have, in recent years, witnessed “numerous instances of instrumentalizing remembrance of Nazi victims for propaganda purposes,” says Christoph Thonfeld, head of the research department at Dachau. In response, staff historians are taking steps to preserve the integrity of these recorded memories from rhetorical manipulation.
Founded on factory grounds in 1933, Dachau was the Nazis’ first concentration camp, beginning as a detention site for political dissenters before evolving into a model for all the camps that followed. New SS camp guards trained at Dachau, which housed an estimated 200,000 prisoners, at least 28,000 of whom died in the camp and its subcamps, between 1933 and 1945.
Since the former camp’s establishment as a memorial site in 1965, Dachau’s exhibitions have focused largely on the fate of those imprisoned there. Plans are underway to permanently incorporate a new show that will examine how SS officers and Nazi prison guards progressed from prejudice to murder, presenting the perspective of the perpetrator for the first time in the memorial’s history.
“On the threshold of an age without contemporary witnesses, the focus is on conveying the history of the concentration camp in a contemporary way,” wrote the site’s director, Gabriele Hammerman, in a 2021 article. An upcoming renovation will “fundamentally change” Dachau by opening up spaces previously inaccessible to the public, including an administrative building where camp commandant Theodor Eicke capitalized on anti-Semitic and xenophobic thinking as he trained facilitators of the Nazis’ terror regime. Currently owned by the Bavarian state police, the commandant’s office building is scheduled to become part of the Dachau memorial as early as 2025.
The renovation will also open other spaces never before toured by the public, including a bowling alley and a beer cellar—social rooms integral to the commandant’s philosophy. “Eicke combined exerting discipline and breaking of personalities of SS members with a strong sense of camaraderie and paternalism,” Thonfeld explains. The inclusion of these spaces, he continues, will help visitors see how a “racist, elite organization” formed its self-image.
Exploring such stories “allows us to go beyond mere externalizing of the SS as ‘evil other,’ which is morally desirable but doesn’t help with the still-necessary societal confrontation with Nazi cries,” says Thonfeld. Recognizing all humans’ capacity for evil is a goal similarly embraced by Roth, the culture minister, who argued in her speech at Flossenbürg that “man and beast are inseparable. The beast did not assume human form in the Nazi concentration camps. It lurks in people. It lurks in us.”
Speaking with Smithsonian, Roth says, “Trying to understand what made human beings do evil” is one way to “open the door to history [and] try to communicate things that are difficult to explain.” Confronting the past, she continues, is a way of strengthening democracy: “Putin pretends to ‘de-Nazify’ Ukraine. This propaganda is absurd, especially regarding its history. Ukraine is defending her liberty and democracy.”
Flossenbürg, located about 130 miles northwest of Dachau, opened in May 1938 in a remote area known for its granite quarries. Between 1938 and 1945, the Nazis imprisoned around 97,000 people from 47 countries at the camp. Harsh conditions, including forced labor at the quarries, which supplied stone for Nazi architectural projects, resulted in the deaths of an estimated 30,000 prisoners across Flossenbürg and its subcamps.
In April 1945, as the United States Army advanced into northern Bavaria, SS officers at the main Flossenbürg camp rushed to erase evidence of their operations, mainly by forcing over 9,300 prisoners south toward Dachau on open freight cars and death marches. When the 90th Infantry Division liberated the camp on April 23, just 1,500 prisoners remained. As in other camps across Germany, American soldiers forced civilians to bury the camp’s dead and confront their own complicity in allowing the Holocaust to happen.
Though Flossenbürg held one of the first concentration camp memorials in Europe—displaced Poles inaugurated a “Valley of Death” honoring Polish and German clergy victims near the former crematorium on May 25, 1947—authorities only acknowledged the site’s Nazi history decades later. According to the memorial’s website, the 1950s saw Germany “repress[ing] recent history in favor of the integration of persons with a Nazi past.” As the Cold War continued, many of the horrors of the Holocaust were dismissed by locals, overlooked due to Germans’ shame over their tacit approval of or outright participation in the atrocities. It was only in the late 1960s and 1970s, as a new generation came of age, that West Germany began confronting its not-so-distant history.
On the other side of the Berlin Wall, in East Germany and the rest of the U.S.S.R., officials ignored Eastern European Holocaust victims’ faith in favor of presenting a broader narrative of the Nazis’ racially motivated genocide of ethnic Slavs. This conflation of the Holocaust and the Nazis’ targeting of Slavs is a key element of the Russian myth of the Great Patriotic War, a nationalist reading of World War II that paints the conflict as a clash in which righteous Soviets rescued humanity from the evils of fascism.
“[W]hen you create this narrative of glory against ‘fascism’ and victory, of pretty much saving the world actually, then these other events [like the Holocaust] don’t seem so relevant anymore,” Simon Lewis, a cultural historian at the University of Bremen’s Institute for European Studies in Germany, told Smithsonian last year. “…They’re a bit of a nuisance to the master narrative of they, the Nazis, being the bad guys, and [us] defeating them.”
At Flossenbürg specifically, the erasure of the Holocaust is best represented by the construction of a housing development on the former camp grounds. As recently as the 1970s, locals advertised the town that lent the camp its name as a leisure destination, referring to the actual camp grounds as a place of “shared history for all war dead.” In 1995, a permanent exhibition finally replaced a small memorial plaque at the site.
Jörg Skriebeleit, who has served as the Flossenbürg site’s director for the past 25 years, says locals didn’t put up much resistance when the memorial opened this initial exhibition. In 2007, however, his team received pushback after debuting a second permanent exhibition that presented the region’s response to the camp’s history. The culmination of a four-year research project, the show reflects decades of local dismissiveness to the concentration camp’s history, as well as the silence that greeted and enabled Nazi activities. It juxtaposes the camp’s past with an account of the town’s history as a quarry site, residents’ response to Nazi ideology, their interactions with American troops and their later marketing of Flossenbürg as a location separated from the horrors of the Holocaust.
Skriebeleit deems the display a “revolutionary” risk because it not only presented history through survivors’ memories but also underscored the “deformation and formation of memory and place” that existed in the surrounding region. Without addressing this culture of silence, the director says, his team wouldn’t be presenting an accurate history. In addition to preserving the camp’s landmarks, he sees his job as “opening spaces [where] people [can] look with different perspectives on what happened.”
On July 14, Berlin-based South African artist Talya Lubinsky will open a three-month exhibition at Flossenbürg titled “Feldspar, Quartz and Glimmer.” A sculptural work will symbolically connect the granite quarries to the building of the town, the propaganda of the Nazis and the misery of the prisoners who died while lifting rock after rock. Nearby, Lubinsky plans to construct an installation in front of a defaced mural depicting concentration camp prisoners laboring in a bucolic countryside setting, their once-smiling faces now obscured.
The effect, says Skriebeleit, “will show things hidden in plain sight” and reflect how “history is used and misused for different arguments.”
In the two-month period between February 24, when Russia invaded Ukraine, and the April 24 commemoration at Flossenbürg, a registered 390,000 Ukrainian immigrants fled to Germany. Erwin Farkas and Martin Hecht, two of the six survivors who attended the anniversary event, recalled when an earlier wave of violence—their deportation by the Nazis—forced them from their childhood homes. (Though their wartime experiences followed similar trajectories, the pair only met after the war, at a displaced persons camp.)
Speaking to high school students the day after the commemoration, Farkas and Hecht described unsanitary conditions in ghettos and train cars, where mothers protected babies from suffocation; surviving selections when their parents did not; and marching with frozen feet from camp to camp before arriving at Flossenbürg in early 1945. Toward the end of the war, the men survived the final death march to Dachau, a train transport targeted by American aircraft hunting for Nazis, and an SS shooting massacre at a train station. Finally, they saw U.S. Army tanks coming over a hill as Nazi guards fled and American troops threw chocolate bars to the starving prisoners.
Soldiers led Farkas, then 16, and Hecht, 13, to a monastery in the town of Markt Indersdorf near Dachau, where they lived at Kloster Indersdorf, an orphanage established by the United Nations as the first displaced persons camp dedicated to children. After the commemoration, Farkas and Hecht traveled to this monastery with Anna Andlauer, a local retired educator and historian who has spent nearly 20 years finding and reuniting survivors of the refuge, which today houses a public school.
“I was allowed back in here to be human,” Hecht, now 91, told local reporter Christiane Breitenberger. “Before, I wasn’t human. [The Nazis] made me a number.”
Both Hecht and Farkas credit Andlauer with bringing them back to Kloster Indersdorf and encouraging them to articulate their memories. Pre-pandemic, anywhere between 10 to 16 survivors would attend the displaced persons camp’s frequent reunions. This year, only two showed up.
Recognizing that they are among the last survivors of the Holocaust, both men say that those who heed their stories must tell them “when we can’t anymore.”
After meeting with students, they walked a Path of Remembrance, a mile-long history walk designed by Andlauer that uses storytelling boards and QR codes to link observers with archival clips that tell the story of Kloster Indersdorf and its survivors.
“It’s a starting point for research,” Andlauer says. “We can only talk about what the survivors told us. We can retell their stories. And we are responsible for doing so.”
Editor's Note, May 11, 2022: This article has been updated to correct the spelling of Talya Lubinsky's name and clarify the number of prisoners evacuated from Flossenbürg in April 1945.