The first stop the train makes after crossing the border between Germany and Poland is Rzepin. Passengers from Berlin disembark here and wait on the platform for the express train to Opole. The container terminal at the station opened just a few years ago; today it’s well stocked and teeming with goods from China, which are increasingly being transported to Europe by rail.
I follow our route on my phone and watch the blue dot head steadily eastwards. We follow the course of the Oder River, constantly crossing and re-crossing it. Before setting out on this journey, I’d spent a lot of time zooming in and out of maps, switching between satellite and topographical views, and poring over old maps of the coalfields that were drawn when this mining region was still part of the German Empire and when the Kattowitz grammar school stood next door to the synagogue. Directly to the north lay the Ferdinand pit, whose seams bore names like Jakob, Karoline, Xaver, or Veronika Blücher. These seams were marked by blue and red lines, which run through the map like arteries and veins through a body.
The National Socialists brought the camps to Silesia. During World War II, Silesia was part of Military District VIII, where seven so-called STALAGs and OFLAGs for European prisoners of war were located—the former for non-commissioned personnel, the latter for officers. In countless subcamps, prisoners were exploited for their labor, for instance at the Goleszów cement works, the railway depot at Gliwice, the Jaworzno power station. Above all, however, at Auschwitz.
The camps’ infrastructure remained in use after the war ended. Now they were used to intern Germans—or anyone considered German—prior to resettlement. These prisoners were housed in the Eintrachthütte, Myslowitz, and Lamsdorf camps. Many died of starvation, torture, and disease.
Among the new prisoners were former soldiers of the Wehrmacht. One of them was my grandfather, a dispatch driver with the infantry. He had not been deployed for long, being a farmer and hence a member of a “scheduled occupation,” considered indispensable. Only in 1944 was he trained as a driver and sent to the front. He was taken prisoner by Russian troops in April 1945 and remained a prisoner of war, working as a miner in the Silesian coalfields, until March 1949.
Experiences of war and violence leave their mark on families over generations. This is not to weigh the suffering of the perpetrators against that of the victims. But a great deal did change in our family—a family, if you will, of perpetrators, or at least on their side. One such thing was the attitude my grandfather took to military service. When my father and his two brothers were about to be drafted in the 1960s, my grandfather did his utmost to have his sons exempted, ideas of military and masculine honor be damned. The decision to grant his application was up to a commission, however, and on this commission sat my grandfather’s brother, who was very much of the opinion that his three nephews could serve and their parents’ farm survive their absence. Yet my grandfather was less concerned with hands missing from the farm than with arms, which he did not want to see his sons take up. The brothers quarreled, and in the end, the eldest son was exempted while the two others had to do their military service.
On his return from captivity in June 1949, my grandfather wrote down his recollections. I have only known of their existence for a few years. They consist of three fragmentary pages that merge into a more precise whole with the autobiography of the journalist Harri Czepuck, who was in many of the same places at the same time as my grandfather, as I discovered by accident in the course of my research. Yet it’s unlikely that they knew each other well, due mainly to the sheer number of prisoners, but also on account of the age difference: Czepuck was only eighteen years old when he was captured, my grandfather was already thirty-five.
My brother and I grew up with my grandfather. We spent many a winter’s evening playing cards at the kitchen table, waiting for my parents to be done with their work on the farm. He never talked about the war or his captivity in Silesia then, though there were times in his life when he did. On the name days of his four children, for example, which were celebrated like birthdays. The children were allowed to stay up late, and sometimes he would talk about that time. But nobody remembers what it was that he told them.
Wanting to know more, I turned to archives for information. I addressed one request to the German Red Cross Tracing Service, another to the “Deutsche Dienststelle (WASt),” which maintains official records of all German military personnel. The first answer arrived two months later. A cover letter accompanied by a form filled out in a handwriting that I recognize as my grandfather’s. It is an application for partial invalid status on account of war injuries. The second answer took nearly a year longer to arrive. An official confirms the duration and locations of his imprisonment: Sagan, Christianstadt, and Zabrze.
My grandfather was registered at Sagan from April 28 to June 10, 1945. The road there led past the little town of Halbe, sixty kilometers south of Berlin. In his memoirs, he recalls: “What do we see? Sheer horror. Hundreds of bodies, some of them squashed to a pulp, some just parts of bodies. Cripples who ask us for a lift. A wreckage of armory, misery, death, and crime.” More than 60,000 people were killed in the battle of Halbe, fought in the last days of the war.
Czepuck, too, remembers his time in the small town now known as Żagań: “And another thing happened in Sagan: the dissolution of the German Reich. Overnight, it seemed as though there were hardly any Germans left. Wherever you turned, groups of men proclaimed their regional allegiances and disavowed the Reich. [. . .] The simple reason for this collapse of the German nation was the announcement by the Soviet commanders that all non-German foreigners were to be released immediately. [. . .] It turned out, however, that the Soviets weren’t quite so stupid as these people had taken them for.”
Of his existence in the camp, my grandfather wrote: “We had no space. One man lay squeezed against the next. First, our hair was cut, but there was nothing to eat. Death camp. My only thought was to get out. And I was among the first party to leave, ten thousand of us. Nobody knew where.”
The train continues along its route. It is mid-October, and here and there I can still see dried-up maize in the fields, waiting to be threshed and turned into biogas and then into energy. Near Głogów, the first cooling towers announce that we are approaching an industrial region. Next come the oil refineries and their jumble of pipes. Parked on the side are wagons marked with Hazchem warning signs and the code 90/377. I look this up. It turns out the wagons are transporting detonators. The German word is Zündhütchen, and the diminutive suffix ‑chen makes them sound more harmless than their function would seem to permit. Detonators or “blasting caps” are used to detonate gunpowder and are embedded at the base of every cartridge case. Older varieties used mercury fulminate to trigger explosions; since the 1930s, a mixture of tetrazene and lead styphnate has generally been used.
Their second stop was Christianstadt (Krzystkowice) on the river Bober. Concealed here in the forest was the largest munitions factory in the German Reich and a subcamp of the Groß-Rosen concentration camp.
Ruth Klüger, then twelve years old, and her mother were transferred here from Auschwitz-Birkenau after having volunteered for a labor detachment. In her autobiography Still Alive (also published as Landscapes of Memory), Klüger describes the route there: “We passed a summer camp for youngsters. I saw a boy in the distance energetically waving a large flag. It was a gesture affirming the sunny side of the system that was dragging us along in the blood and excrement of its underside. [. . .] In the late afternoon we arrived in Lower Silesia, in a forest. The nearest village was called Christianstadt [. . .]. The forest was idyllic, quiet, and the camp seemed bearable with its empty wooden barracks.”
The factory was located in the woods two kilometers northeast of a small town now known as Nowogród Bobrzański. Its predecessor still featured in Stielers Hand-Atlas of 1907, but disappeared from the maps when construction began in 1939. The bulk of the 1,500-hectare industrial site remains a restricted military zone to this day. The factory was operated by Dynamit Nobel AG and was a gigantic industrial complex consisting of more than eight hundred buildings. There were five methanol bunkers, each the size of a pyramid, two power stations, and two water treatment plants, as well as several plants for the production of sulfuric acid, whose ruins look like disused swimming pools. They were used in the manufacture of RDX, or hexogen, an explosive over fifty percent more potent than TNT. Local residents would later report that a constant low rumbling had emanated from the forest.
Some twenty to twenty-five thousand prisoners were interned in eleven camps and forced to work in explosives production. Among them was the mother of the writer Jan Faktor. “All the women who were even remotely fair-haired and who had to work the so called ‘lead shift’ found that their hair turned nearly orange from the poisons they were exposed to. Epileptic fits were the order of the day, with foaming mouths and subsequent amnesia.” The workers at the Dachau armaments and munition works, on the grounds of which the first of the Nazi concentration camps was to be founded, had already experienced something similar.
Ruth Klüger tells of everyday life in the camp, which included acts of sabotage on the part of adroit prisoners capable of bringing machines to a halt, and of the guard’s doomed attempts at teaching the female prisoners to march in lockstep: “Her whistling was quite useless, however. Despite all her annoyed frustration, she never got us to march properly. Try to teach Jewish housewives—and that’s what most of them were, of course!—to act like army recruits. Men could be trained more easily, I thought with a grin, touched by an early whiff of feminism.”
The factory was abandoned in the early days of February 1945. The Klügers, along with thousands of others, were sent out on a march with blankets and mess kits. Ruth and her mother managed to escape during the second night and fell in with the westward trek of refugees fleeing the German territories in the east. They managed to concoct a plausible life story for themselves and received food and a change of clothes.
For the next four months, the factory and barracks in Christianstadt lay largely deserted. Then my grandfather and Harri Czepuck arrived. Their orders were to dismantle the plant. My grandfather wrote: “After a day’s march, we reached a camp that didn’t really look like a prison camp at all. It was former staff housing for the IG Farben plant at Christianstadt-on-Bober. We were promised that we could go home as soon as the job was done. We were keen to get working. Our working day followed Russian time, leaving by the gate at half past five in the morning and returning home at seven or eight at night. In the evening, after a tough day’s work, each of us still had to carry home four bricks, a distance of four kilometers. There was soup twice a day, a pint at five in the morning and another after work. By the middle of August, the factory had been dismantled and the entirety of the plant loaded onto trucks.”
Czepuck, too, recorded this dismantling, but questioned the whole point of the undertaking. He did so because, for one thing, negotiations over Europe’s boundaries had already reached a point at which it was clear that the factory would fall within the Soviet zone of occupation. It would therefore have been enough to transition the factory to producing reparation goods. A related problem was that dismantling the factory was tantamount to its destruction: “Only a few months later, by August, tens of thousands of former German soldiers had worked like ants to effectively destroy this Nazi munitions factory, which even we, though we were not experts, realized could not just simply be put together again—not even in the vast expanses of the Soviet Union, where, as we were later to discover, certain miracles had indeed been accomplished. Yet the inexpert demolition job in the Christianstadt forest caused so many explosions and other accidents that not only cost many human lives, but probably also made a mockery of the whole effort. Of course this former German depository of the means of destruction had to go. But the material that was carted off, if it ever made it onto the eastbound trains, was no better than scrap.”
Afterwards, my grandfather reports, there was no mention of going home. The remaining prisoners were divided into five groups. Five groups, just as the German occupiers, only a few years earlier, had divided the inhabitants of Silesia according to their supposed racial worth. The Volkslisten comprised four degrees of German-ness, each with their own differently colored passports and graded privileges, with the “rejected” ethnic Poles as the fifth group. The situation was now reversed: the “rejects” were those under seventeen and the non-Germans. They were released and allowed to go home. And then there were those no longer fit to travel, neither home nor to the next labor camp.
My grandfather and Harri Czepuck, however, were now moved to a small town near Kattowitz that was once known as Hindenburg and is now called Zabrze.
Before continuing on to Zabrze, I meet a friend who shows me around Katowice. We pass the Spodek, a multi-purpose hall that resembles a UFO. Next to it are new buildings housing a consulting firm. Behind a green recreation park rises the pithead of the former Ferdinand coalmine, which closed in 1999. Over the 176 years of its operation, miners hewed some 120 million tons of anthracite from the seams below. The grounds of the mine are now home to the Silesian Museum.
Afterwards, I catch the local train to Zabrze. The conductor charges six złoty for a ticket, about $1.50, the fare for any destination within an hour’s radius. That radius also includes Auschwitz.
The ride lasts twenty minutes. As I disembark, I notice the smell of coal still hanging over the town.
Though I had booked lodgings close to the station, a burst pipe means my landlady has had to find new accommodation for me. She picks me up in her little red car and points an apologetic finger at the back seat, which is full of parcels. She’s a delivery driver, she tells me, and this is her evening’s work. By the time she drops me off at my new accommodation on the south side of the town, darkness has fallen.
The next morning, I take a look around the area. My lodgings are in an old mining neighborhood, the streets lined with row upon row of single-story houses blackened with coal dust, their plaster crumbling. I turn towards Kopalnia Guido, which used to be the town’s largest mine. Along the way, I encounter scavengers pushing baby strollers from bin to bin, gathering empties and returning them to the nearby supermarket.
The pit was opened in the nineteenth century and named after the industrialist Guido Henckel von Donnersmarck. The disused pits and coal seams have been repurposed as tourist attractions. A pub has been installed 320 meters underground that offers beer sampling and can be hired for events.
On arriving in September 1945, the prisoners of war each received socks, underwear, a pair of wooden clogs, and a uniform of coarse twill. On the back were scrawled, in black oil paint, the letters JW, standing for Jeniec wojenny, prisoner of war. My grandfather wrote: “A few days later, on September 27, 1945, we were to go down the pit for the first time. We marched to the mine under heavy guard. Miners took charge of us there and down the shaft we went, 300 meters below. Nobody would have thought that we would be fated to go down that pit, day after day, for four whole years.”
Hierarchies soon emerged, as they will emerge everywhere. In the camp, they sometimes replicated old ones. My grandfather met someone he had known but who, it emerged, had been a member of the SS: ‘“I met old K.S. from Dachau. We were put into the same group. At first, we stuck together like brothers. Unfortunately, our friendship soon soured, for K. had been in the SS and it soon turned out that these people were not on an equal footing with everybody else.” Czepuck, too, describes how a former SS member, who previously had been a guard at Auschwitz, was initially put in charge of running the prisoner-of-war camp before being put on trial for his crimes at Auschwitz.
The notes for this period are nearly all about food, eating, and provisions. My grandfather wrote: “A hungry spell began in November 1946. Until the autumn of 1946, all we got each day was a liter of gruel or some parsnips, no fat. Potatoes were weighed individually. We went to pieces.” The German prisoners of war soon drew sympathy from the Polish miners, some of whom shared a bit of their food with them. My grandfather recalls: “Some of us have only the poor miners to thank for our lives, for though they had barely anything to eat themselves, some of them still had a crust of bread to spare for the prisoners. I am hugely grateful to all these people.”
I pause for a moment whenever I read that last sentence. Up to this point, my grandfather’s recollections have mainly been addressed to his family. He writes about how much he misses his wife and his son and gives a minute inventory of the farm’s livestock and equipment, from the nine cows and the gravel cart to the potato steamer. Yet this statement of gratitude goes further. It strikes him as remarkable that the Polish miners should share their food with former soldiers who only recently had destroyed their towns and villages, killing and deporting their inhabitants. Though it may not have been a gesture of reconciliation, it was an act of compassion and humanity.
Czepuck’s experiences were similar. He found a confidant in a coal hewer who posted letters to his mother and relayed her replies to him—and who kept him informed of the political situation outside the camp.
A topic that repeatedly came up in conversation was the Auschwitz death camp, as Czepuck recalls: “Auschwitz had meanwhile come to mean something to us, though many cast doubt on the facts and figures. But since our Polish colleagues down the pit spoke so much and so earnestly of the death camp, the majority of us could not but silently acknowledge it.”
On the way to the station, I make a detour via the Zabrze cemetery. In the Silesian Museum I learned that around 35,000 German prisoners of war worked across forty camps in Silesia, and that the mortality rate was about ten per cent. Stalls at the graveyard entrance have piles of imitation lily, gerbera, and rose bouquets for sale. The candles, likewise on offer, are no longer of the kind filled with paraffin and lit by a wick, but contain battery-powered LEDs. I find no graves dating from the postwar years there, neither of Polish families nor of possible German prisoners of war.
The train to Auschwitz passes through Kattowitz. The regional train I take there is less modern than those I have used so far. At the station, a little blue bilingual sign mounted in front of an electrical distribution box points in the direction of the memorial site: “Do Muzeum/To Museum.” I walk over the bridge across the tracks to reach the village of Brezinka, at the edge of which there is a memorial for the first unloading ramp for Jews arriving at Birkenau. Beside the bridge, on Maksymiliana Kolbego, is a coal merchant’s, where black piles of coal are shoveled onto conveyor belts and sorted by size.
The visitors are in constant motion. They seem reluctant to linger. They catch the shuttle bus that travels between the Auschwitz and Birkenau memorials every ten minutes, or share minivan cabs to reach the more remote memorial sites, like the Monastery of the Friars Minor in Harmęże, where the drawings of a survivor, Marian Kołodziej, are on display.
In the memorial, people gather according to language and time slot for the guided tours they have booked: English, Polish, Spanish, French, and German. I have reserved a place in the German group.
It has now fallen to the third or fourth generation to guard the memory. In Still Alive, Ruth Klüger rejects the concept of victimhood. “The name [Auschwitz] itself has an aura, albeit a negative one, that came with the patina of time, and people who want to say something about me announce that I have been in Auschwitz. But whatever you may think, I don’t hail from Auschwitz, I come from Vienna. Vienna is a part of me—that’s where I acquired consciousness and acquired language—but Auschwitz was as foreign to me as the moon. Vienna is part of my mind-set, while Auschwitz was a lunatic terra incognito, the memory of which is like a bullet lodged in the soul where no surgery can reach it. Auschwitz was merely a gruesome accident.”
Victims may successfully reject victimhood, but the perpetrators cannot slough off their guilt. They can only hope to be forgiven.
The documents show that my grandfather was registered at Moschendorf border camp on March 21, 1949 as a returning prisoner of war. He arrived home two days later—unlike the eleven million displaced persons who had lost their homes in the war.
 Harri Czepuck was a Bonn correspondent for the East German newspaper Neues Deutschland until 1961, the year the Berlin Wall was built. He later was head of the GDR’s union of journalists and became a freelance writer in 1984.
 Memoirs of the years 1942 to 1950 by Josef Müller, transcribed from Sütterlin script by Ludwig Forster. Private manuscript in the author’s possession.
 Harri Czepuck, Meine Wendezeiten. Erinnerungen, Erwägungen, Erwartungen. Berlin: Dietz 1999.
 Ruth Klüger, Still Alive: A Holocaust Girlhood Remembered. New York: The Feminist Press at CUNY, 2001.
 Jan Faktor traveled there on a Crossing Borders grant to research his novel Georgs Sorgen um die Vergangenheit. Jan Faktor, “Tarnname Ulme,” in Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, August 27, 2010 (www.faz.net/aktuell/feuilleton/themen/das-vergessene-konzentrationslager-christianstadt-tarnname-ulme-11027861.html).