Börgermoor Camp

Millions of people suffered and died in camps, ghettos, and other sites during the Holocaust. The Nazis and their allies oversaw more than 42,000 camps, ghettos, and other sites of detention, persecution, forced labor, and murder. Among them was the Börgermoor camp.

History

On June 22, 1933, 90 skilled detainees from Düsseldorf (Ulmenstrasse) (also known as Ulmer Höh) arrived at Börgermoor, Gemeinde Hümmling, Emsland, the first of four subcamps of the State Concentration Camp Papenburg (Staatliches Konzentrationslager Papenburg) established for wetlands cultivation. Occupying two existing barracks, the Ulmer Höh prisoners erected the “barracks camp.” Designed to hold 1,000 prisoners in 10 barracks, Börgermoor assigned accommodations numerically in groups of 100. Thus prisoner 166, Rabbi Max Abraham, slept in barrack 2. Detainees wore green, 1918-vintage municipal police (Schupo) uniforms with numbers on armbands. The Börgermoor early camp came under four administrations: Osnabrück Schupo (until July 15, 1933), SS (July 15 to November 6, 1933), Prus sian police (November 6 to December 20), and SA (December 20, 1933, to April 25, 1934). Thereafter, the detainees proceeded to Esterwegen, and Börgermoor became a Prus sian (later Reich) Justice Ministry penal camp. Pending the SS takeover, the commandant, Sturmhauptführer Wilhelm Fleitmann (Nazi Party [NSDAP] No. 166930, SS No. 2030) and 20 SS trained under police supervision in June 1933. By July 15, Fleitmann commanded 150 SS guards.1

Although this camp did not record any murders, mundane activities sometimes occasioned abuse. On August 20, 1933, Fleitmann granted a one-hour Sunday smoke break but after lights-out initiated a camp-wide contraband search. When it produced hidden tobacco, he ordered a snap assembly. In what detainee Wolfgang Langhoff called the “night of the long bars,” the guards clubbed exiting prisoners on their way to roll call. SS-Scharführer Johannes-Peter Kern (NSDAP No. 96828) also tormented prisoners. In the 32 cell arrest bunker, he made long-standing occupants beat initiates and taunted semiconscious victims with questions such as, “Are you awake?”2

Kern prepared a violent reception for the Oranienburg transport that arrived on September 13, 1933. The transport consisted of “Jews and bigwigs,” including Friedrich Ebert, son of the Weimar Republic’s first president, Ernst Heilmann, a Social Democratic Party (SPD) Reichstag member, and Armin Wegner, a novelist who protested against the “Jewish Boycott” to Adolf Hitler. In each barrack, the SS made Ebert and Heilmann introduce themselves as “traitors to the Fatherland.” Later Kern forced Heilmann to crawl on all fours and bark like a dog. Because of continuous harassment, Heilmann attempted suicide by advancing upon a guard who shot him in the leg. The SS made Jews hand-clean latrine pits on the Sabbath, Rosh Hashanah, and Yom Kippur. Sally Silbermann, a Jewish detainee from the first transport, publicized the Oranienburg group’s ordeal after release. Embarrassed by the press accounts, the Prussian Ministry of Interior reassigned the Jews and prominent inmates to Lichtenburg on October 17, 1933.3

Most detainees worked in land reclamation. While marching to work, the SS required them to sing. In October 1933, Langhoff ’s Kommando sang “Ich hatt’ einen Kameraden.” When asked why they chose this song, they reported hearing unofficial news about the murder of Otto Eggerstedt at Esterwegen II. The SS did not stop their mild protest. At work, prisoners divided into 30- to 40- man teams, overseen by guards and civilian foremen. While some dug peat, others pushed wheelbarrows.4 As Nikolaus Wasser described, the labor exacted a heavy toll: “The work in the Ems marsh was very hard. Everyday, we had to break up the muddy moor. It began with digging a ditch, 10 meters long, 1.10 meters wide, and 1.20 meters deep (approximately 33 feet by 3.6 feet by 3.9 feet). Through the urging of the guards and the use of terror, we reached the limits of our strength. The food and the sleep permitted us could not renew our strength, so it was harder for us to perform the work from one day to the next.”5 

As the singing episode demonstrated, Börgermoor inmates asserted limited autonomy. In late July 1933, they “elected” Karl Schabrod, Bergische Volksstimme’s editor, camp spokesman. Despite some Communist–Social Democratic (KPD SPD) tensions—the camp was 80 percent Communist, and they resented some SPD “bigwigs”—witnesses praised Börgermoor’s strong comradeship. Mutual aid assumed many forms, including French and Esperanto classes. Prisoner initiative emerged foremost in the “Circus Concentrationary” (Zirkus Konzentrazani). After the “night of the long bars,” Langhoff, a Düsseldorf actor, secured Fleitmann’s permission to hold the circus. On August 27, 1933, a barker called the audience into the ring. Inside, talented prisoners performed gymnastic and acrobatic exercises, danced the “moor ballet,” impersonated females, shadowboxed, clowned, and sang. The show culminated in the debut of the “Börgermoorlied.” Anonymously composed, this first concentration camp song electrified the prisoners and SS. Fleitmann banned it two days later because the final stanza and refrain struck a subversive chord:

“Thus for us there is no lament / Winter cannot last forever / Someday we will gladly say / Home, you are mine again. [Last refrain:] Then the moor soldiers / will no longer dig with the spades / in the moors!”6

One Sunday in late September 1933, 20 wives from Düsseldorf arrived unannounced to visit their husbands. Refusing an order to deposit care packages and leave, they waited outside for 90 minutes while the SS confined the prisoners to barracks. When the women rejected the offer to see their men individually, the SS let them enter as a group. Jean Kralik presented his wife, Lya, two baskets, one of which contained a photograph with the “Börgermoorlied” written on the back. Civilians soon sang the Lied (song) in Düsseldorf.7

In October 1933, poor staff discipline, including Fleitmann’s involvement in a barroom brawl the previous August, prompted SS and Prussian Ministry of Interior investigations. Rudolf Diels, chief of the National Headquarters of the Secret State Police (Gestapa), ordered state prosecutor Günther Joel and 50 Berlin police to remove the SS. On November 4, Fleitmann’s “Free Corps,” armed with firearms and hand grenades, shot at Joel’s men while prisoners took cover in the barracks. The rumor that the SS fleetingly considered arming prisoners is unconfirmed. The mutiny ended the next day, when SS-Gruppenführer Fritz Weitzel ordered the Papenburg SS to stand down. The SS left Börgermoor on November 6.8

Under Prussian police, the prisoners conducted secret and public political activities. On November 7, every barrack quietly commemorated the Bolshevik Revolution. The November 12, 1933, Reich Plebiscite occasioned open dissent, however. In conversations that started with the coded message “Moritz has said,” the camp underground urged prisoners to vote “No.” Of 1,050 ballots cast in the camp (police included), fewer than 20 supported the regime. The police ordered penal exercises but otherwise refrained from retaliation.9

Under Obersturmführer Waldemar Schmidt, the SA treated the prisoners properly. On December 22, 1933, Börgermoor’s population declined with the Christmas amnesty of 380 prisoners. Releases continued in the coming months. On April 1, 1934, Neusustrum’s population arrived in the camp. Börgermoor’s remaining 467 detainees entered Esterwegen II on April 25, 1934.10

On November 4, 1934, the Meppen civil court fined Fleitmann 150 Reichsmark (RM) because of the bar fi ght, but the Osnabrück state prosecutor dismissed the judgment after Fleitmann’s appeal to Hitler. Fleitmann remained in the SS but was demoted to Untersturmführer and for a time served on the SS cadre branch staff (Stammabteilung), which amounted to career limbo. Attached to a Luftwaffe construction unit in war time, Fleitmann died in Soviet captivity on November 14, 1944.11

According to historian Hans-Peter Klausch, the SS reassigned Kern, probably for disciplinary reasons, to SS Sturmbann Bad Oeynhausen on October 15, 1933. In an indication that Emsland service did not always compromise SS careers, he was promoted to Untersturmführer in 1936. The Oldenburg prosecutor indicted him for torturing Börgermoor inmates, but he committed suicide in 1949 before trial.12

Sources

The most important secondary sources on Börgermoor are Dirk Lüerssen, “‘Moorsoldaten’ in Esterwegen, Börgermoor, Neusustrum: Die frühen Konzentrationslager im Emsland 1933 bis 1936,” in Herrschaft und Gewalt: Frühe Konzentrationslager, 1933–1939, ed. Wolfgang Benz and Barbara Distel (Berlin: Metropol, 2002), pp. 157–210; Kurt Buck, “Die frühen Konzentrationslager im Emsland 1933 bis 1936,” in Die frühen Konzentrationslager in Deutschland: Austausch zum Forschungsstand und zur pädagogischen Praxis in Gedenkstätten, ed. Karl Giebeler, Thomas Lutz, and Silvester Lechner (Bad Boll: Evangelische Akademie, 1996), pp. 176–184; Willy Perk, Hölle im Moor: Zur Geschichte der Emslandlager, 1933–1945, 2nd ed. (Frankfurt am Main: Röderberg Verlag, 1979); Elke Suhr, Die Emslandlager: Die politische und wirtschaftliche Bedeutung der Emsländischen Konzentrations- und Strafgefangenenlager 1933–1945 (Bremen: Donat & Temmen, 1985); and Elke Suhr and Werner Bohlt, Lager im Emsland, 1933–1945: Geschichte und Gedenken (Oldenburg: Bibliotheks- und Informationssystem der Universität Oldenburg, 1985).

Biographical information about Fleitmann and other Börgermoor SS is found in Hans- Peter Klausch, Tätergeschichten: Die SS Kommandanten der frühen Konzentrationslager im Emsland (Bremen: Edition Temmen, 2005).

On music in the early camps, the standard work is Guido Fackler, “Des Lagers Stimme”—Musik im KZ: Alltag und Häftlingskultur in den Konzentrationslagern 1933 bis 1936 (Bremen: Edition Temmen, 2000). The new study by Wolfgang Benz and Barbara Distel, eds., “Der Ort des Terrors”: Geschichte der nationalsozialistischen Konzentrationslager, vol. 2, Frühe Lager: Dachau, Emslandlager (Munich: C.H. Beck, 2006), was published after this entry was written.

Primary documentation for Börgermoor begins with its listing in Das nationalsozialistische Lagersystem (CCP), ed. Martin Weinmann, with Anne Kaiser and Ursula Krause Schmitt, prepared originally by ITS (1949–1951; repr., with new intro. matter, Frankfurt am Main: Zweitausendeins, 1990), 1:103. Documents from the StA- Osn, Rep. 430 and 495, including the Grauert memorandum and Kern indictment, are reproduced in Erich Kosthorst and Bernd Walter, Konzentrations- und Strafgefangenenlager im Emsland 1933– 1945: Zum Verhältnis von NS- Regime und Justiz; Darstellung und Dokumentation (Düsseldorf: Droste Verlag, 1985). Klausch, Tätergeschichten, cites Fleitmann’s BDCPF; Sally Silbermann’s testimony in “Schandtaten im Konzentrationslager: Wie Abgeordneter Heilmann misshandelt wurde,” DF, October 4, 1933; documents from StA-Osn; and OsnT, December 24, 1933.

On the police takeover, biased but useful testimony can be found in Rudolf Diels, Lucifer ante Portas: Zwischen Severing und Heydrich (Zürich: Interverlag AG, 1949). On the wives’ visit, Lya Kralik’s testimony is found in Klara Schabrod, “Wie das Lied der Moorsoldaten aus dem Lager geschmuggelt wurde,” in Widerstand gegen Flick und Florian: Düsseldorfer Antifaschisten über ihren Widerstand 1933–1945, ed. Karl Schabrod (Frankfurt am Main: Röderberg Verlag, 1978); and Hanne Höttges’s testimony is found in Inge Sbosny and Karl Schabrod, Widerstand in Solingen: Aus dem Leben antifaschistischer Kämpfer (Frankfurt am Main: Röderberg- Verlag, 1975).

Börgermoor generated many testimonies; the most useful is Wolfgang Langhoff, Die Moorsoldaten: 13 Monate Konzentrationslager; Unpolitischer Tatsachsenbericht (Zürich: Schweizer Spiegel, 1935). The ninth edition contains two illustrations by prisoner Jean Kralik.

Additional published testimonies include Max Abraham, Juda verrecke: Ein Rabbiner im Konzentrationslager (Templitz-Schönau: Druck- und Verlagsanstalt, 1934), reproduced in Irene Dieckmann and Klaus Wettig, eds., Konzentrationslager Oranienburg: Augenzeugenberichte aus dem Jahre 1933 (Berlin: Verlag für Berlin- Brandenburg, 2003), pp. 119–167; Willi Dickhut, So war’s damals . . . Tatsachenbericht eines Solinger Arbeiters 1926–1948 (Stuttgart: Verlag Neuer Weg, 1979); Lola Landau and Armin T. Wegner, “Welt vorbei”: Die KZ- Briefe, 1933/1934, ed. Thomas Hartwig (Berlin: Verlag Das Arsenal, 1999); Alfred Lemmnitz, Beginn und Bilanz: Erinnerungen (Berlin [East]: Dietz Verlag, 1985); Karl Schabrod, Widerstand an Rhein und Ruhr, 1933– 1945 (Düsseldorf: Landesvorstand der VVN Nordrhein Westfalen, 1969); Nikolaus Wasser, Bonner Kommunist und Widerstandskämpfer, ed. Horst- Pierre Bothien (Bonn: Stadtmuseum, 1999); and Ernst Wasserstrass, “Als Reichsbannermann in den Konzentrationslagern Oranienburg und Börgermoor 1933,” in Peine unter der NS-Gewaltherrschaft: Zeugnisse des Widerstandes und der Verfolgung im Dritten Reich, ed. Richard Brennig et al. (Peine: Vereinigung der VVN- Kreisvereinigung Peine, 1970), pp. 62–68. The anonymous testimony, Als Sozialdemokratischer Arbeiter im Konzentrationslager Papenburg (Moscow: Verlagsgenossenschaft ausländischer Arbeiter in der UdSSR, 1935), is extensively quoted in Klausch.

W. Gengenbach’s testimony can be found in USHMMA, RG 11.001 M.20 RGVA Fond 1367 Opis 2 Delo 33, Testimonies of Former Prisoners in Concentration Camps, March to October 1933, pp. 17–19. Photographic documentation of Börgermoor is located in Walter Talbot, “Die alte SA in der Wachtmannschaft der Strafgefangenenlager im Emsland,” Album Presented to Adolf Hitler, December 25, 1935, Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division, LOT 11390 (H). 

Further Reading

The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum Encyclopedia of Camps and Ghettos, 1933-1945. Vol 1, Early Camps, Youth Camps, and Concentration Camps and Subcamps under the SS-Business Administration Main Office (WVHA), ed. Geoffrey Megargee. Bloomington: Indiana University Press in association with the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, 2009.