‘If people become silent, the stones will cry out…’ – Stutthof concentration camp

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I don’t know why I waited so long with this post, but here it is. I spent most of my short life living 3 km away from a place where 65.000 people lost their lives.  Stutthof concentration camp. I have this blurry memory from childhood, I was maybe 5 years old, when my Dad took me there to meet with a friend who lived nearby. It was dark and I had no idea what this place was, but still I felt it was an evil place. Dad explained me quickly that a lot of people had suffered there. It made such an impression on me that I’ve never forgotten this feeling. Thirteen years later I came back to become a guide there. I was 18.

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Stutthof concentration camp was established on September 2nd, 1939. It was only the second day of WWII, so it was the first German Nazi camp set up within present borders of Poland. Аt that time the little tourist resort Stutthof was situated in the borders of The Free City of Gdansk (you can find my article about it here), where the Polish minority used to be persecuted by the German Nazis. The Nazis, along with the Gauleiter Albert Forster, planned to purify the whole Pomeranian region from any Polish aspects. That’s why already before the war they started to gather all information about active Polish patriots who were members of Polish organizations in The Free City of Gdansk. These people were first to be arrested. The Germans were well prepared for the action and already the very first day of the war they started arresting Poles.

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The next day the first transport of approx. 150 prisoners arrived at Stutthof. Of course the camp was not prepared. There were only tents, no barracks at all. It means that the first prisoners were supposed to build the camp by themselves. And the first months of camp’s existence were the hardest.

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Untill January 1942 Stutthof was rather a local camp, supervised by the Nazi German authorities in Gdansk. The head of the whole structure was Albert Forster, Hitler’s close friend. In the first years the camp was meant for Poles and Kashubians from Pomeranian region. In November 1941 Stutthof was visited by Heinrich Himmler. It was a big day for camp’s authorities. Himmler walked through the camp and decided that the place was perfect for further extension. The plans were to imprison up to 100.000 people at once just in the main camp. To compare, at the end of 1944 there were no more than 57.000 prisoners, including all 40 subcamps.

On January 7th 1942 Stutthof became part of the Concentration Camps Inspectorate, supervised directly by Heinrich Himmler. That was the moment when the camp started to grow. With time it became an international camp, for prisoners from more than 20 different countries.

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The living conditions were oriented on mental and physical breakdown of the prisoners, leading to their death. Lack of food, hygiene and space resulted in quick exhaustion. Winters were especially hard. It was forbidden to use ovens which were installed inside barracks so the temperature inside was exactly like on the outside. Winters at that time were much colder than now, with -25 or -30 degrees, high humidity and wind from the sea.

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“Puny huts, hurriedly constructed from thin slats with holes through which wind and chill sneaked in, were extremely crowded. People lay on bare straw, cleared for the day with two planks nailed together in a T shape. Those planks were the sole equipment of the room that could be sat upon somehow. After the straw was cleared  there would appear a narrow passage through the middle of the hut. It was covered during the night, so that those sleeping on straw could stretch out.”

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A prisoner received no more than 600-1000 calories a day. Breakfast consisted of a cup of watery corn coffee and a 100 g slice of bread, baked of the worst flour. Dinner consisted of one liter of a watery soup without fat, cooked on rotten beets or potatoes. In the evening they would receive again just a piece of bread.

No wonder that the men normally unblemished would after a while address you as ‘pig’, that they would steal a neighbour’s bread, that they would duck the blows falling on them even if it means you will be beaten, that they would base their lives on conscious and bare-faced lie. We inmates cease to wonder after a while. Soon we will stand on the sloping edge. When the hunger dreams will engulf the fevered head, we ourselves will jealously watch those able to divide their bread ration into two meals. We will be unable to do that. Calm men will become quarrelsome, the collected ones – violent. They will grab each other’s blankets before going to sleep, literally, with no exaggeration fighting for every inch of space on the pallet. They will measure the bread with measure tape before dividing it. Educated people will ask you to give them your bowl after dinner to wash it – the bowl you licked out so scrupulously – and only so that they would rinse it with water and drink that slop; they will snatch rotten potatoes thrown out from the kitchen wherever possible, hoarding them like treasure in the straw, among the lice, and eat them unpeeled during the night”.

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The camp existed almost 6 years, from September 2nd 1939 till May 9th 1945. During this time approx. 110 000 people were imprisoned at Stutthof, 65 000 of them died. The majority of victims were Jews, Poles and Russians although the camp was a place of extermination for people from more than 20 different countries.

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Today you can visit the museum where you can see all what’s left of the camp. Four barracks with exhibitions, gas chamber, crematory – a territory of 20 ha whereas at the end of 1944 it was 120 ha. Nevertheless, it’s worth visiting. Indira Gandhi said once that ‘history is the best teacher with the most ignorant pupils’. It doesn’t matter that it happened 70 years ago, it can always happen again, unless we remember, unless we spread this information to the world. As it’s written on the monument at Stutthof Museum: ‘If people become silent, the stones will cry out…’

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all photos were taken by Waldemar Szymański, Stutthof Museum. All rights reserved. Quotes were taken from a book “Stutthof. Historical information” by Janina Grabowska-Chałka, Gdańsk-Sztutowo 2004

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