Columbia-Haus

Millions of people suffered and died in camps, ghettos, and other sites during the Holocaust. The Nazis and their allies oversaw more than 44,000 camps, ghettos, and other sites of detention, persecution, forced labor, and murder. Among them was Columbia-Haus.

Starting in July 1933, the first prisoners were delivered to the so-called Columbia-Haus camp, a former military institution on the Tempelhof Field in Berlin, which stood unoccupied at that time. From December 1934, the prison came under the jurisdiction of the Inspectorate of Concentration Camps (IKL) as the “Columbia concentration camp.” It differed fundamentally from all other concentration camps in that the Berlin Secret State Police Office (Gestapa) used this concentration camp for prisoners whose court investigations were not yet concluded and who therefore were not yet supposed to be taken to other concentration camps. This was a substation of the Gestapo’s house prison (Hausgefängnis) in the Prinz-Albrecht-Strasse 8. A transport ran regularly between both detention sites.

The prisoners consisted primarily of political detainees, mostly functionaries of the German Communist Party (KPD), the Social Democratic Party (SPD), and the Socialist Workers’ Party (SAP). In total, approximately 10,000 men were held prisoner here through the fall of 1936. On average, more than 400 inmates were kept in the overcrowded prison cells at a time.

The actual number of prisoners who were murdered at Columbia-Haus is not known. Three known murder cases from November 1933 can presumably stand for many others. SS guards murdered Michael Kirzmierczik on November 20, 1933, and attempted to disguise his death as suicide. On November 24, 1933, Communist Erich Thornseifer was tortured with a cane and riding whip so severely that he had to be brought to the state hospital on the same day. He died there on November 26, 1933. On November 27, 1933, the SS murdered Karl Vesper (KPD), a mechanic who had been imprisoned on November 8, 1933. The murder of four Communist top officials—John Schehr, Rudolf Schwarz, Erich Steinfurth, and Eugen Schönhaar—is connected to Columbia-Haus as well. The Gestapa at Prinz-Albrecht-Strasse 8 subjected these men to interrogation and torture multiple times throughout the day. They were murdered in Berlin-Wannsee on the evening of February 1, 1934, during a transport, which supposedly was to bring them from Prinz-Albrecht-Strasse back to Columbia-Haus.

The first commandant of Columbia-Haus (Leiter des Columbiahauses) on record is Walter Gerlach, who served in this position until December 1, 1934.1 This man, born in 1896, had belonged to the Nazi Party (NSDAP) since 1930 and was a member of the SS from 1931. An SS-Obersturmbannführer, he was named commandant of Columbia-Haus on August 1, 1934. Dr. Alexander Reiner succeeded him. The only preparation that this dentist—born in 1885, a member of the NSDAP since 1931 and member of the SS since 1932—had before taking over the Columbia concentration camp on December 1, 1934, was a mere eight- day visit to the Dachau concentration camp. In the following year, SS- Hauptsturmführer Karl Otto Koch arrived. He was born in Darmstadt in 1897; as of March 1931, he was a member of the NSDAP, and from September 1931, a member of the SS. He served as commandant from April 21, 1935, to April 1, 1936. Heinrich Deubel was the last commandant. He was born in 1890 and joined the SS one year after joining the NSDAP in 1925. Deubel was relieved of his duties on September 22, 1936, because Inspector of the Concentration Camps Theodor Eicke viewed his apparently too lenient treatment of the prisoners as “unsuited” for the camp. Following this, Max Koegel served as commandant until September 1, 1936, without ever being formally appointed to this position. Koegel was born in Füssen in 1895 and first became part of the NSDAP and SS in 1932. Between July and November 1936, Kurt Eccarius was appointed to the headquarters of the Columbia concentration camp. He was born in 1905 and had been a member of the SS and NSDAP since 1929.2 For the commandants of Columbia- Haus, this position was the beginning
or intensification of a career that was distinguished above all by the readiness to unscrupulously fight against opponents of the National Socialist system.

The earliest actual information on the social backgrounds of the members of the guard staff is found in the second schedule of responsibilities of the Gestapa from January 1934, in which is cited: “SS-Kommando Gestapa: SS-Brigadeführer Henze; Kommandohaus: Berlin SW 29, Columbiastr. 1/3.”3  There is only fragmentary information on this unit. Until the turn of the year 1934–1935, the SS- Bodyguard Regiment Adolf Hitler (SS- Leibstandarte Adolf Hitler) provided the guard staff. In March 1935, supervision was provided by 55 SS men who were housed in the residential building of the prison complex.4 This changed on April 1, 1935, when the SS-Guard Force Oranienburg-Columbia (SS-Wachtruppe Oranienburg-Columbia) was created, which shortly thereafter was renamed SS-Guard Formation V Brandenburg (SS-Wachverband V Brandenburg). Their quarters were located in the Oranienburg Castle, while only the members of the headquarters—made up of almost 20 SS men, including some SS-Führer and SS-Unterführer—remained in Columbia-Haus. At the beginning of 1936, 30 members of the SS- Death’s Head Formation Brandenburg (SS-TV) were assigned to the headquarters of the Columbia concentration camp.5 Many members of the SS guard force later served in leading functions in other concentration camps.

The cover of the May 23, 1935, issue of the Arbeiter Illustrierte Zeitung—which was published in exile in Prague—featured the photo of Hans Bächle in full SS uniform next to the headline “The Confession of an SS-Man.” Along with a report on the inside were also sensational pictures from Columbia-Haus. Bächle, already a member of the NSDAP in 1931, joined the SS guard force in 1934 and later was sent to Columbia-Haus headquarters. In April 1935 he met with two prisoners, Hausmann and Wiendieck, who were both close colleagues of the former Silesian Gauleiter and Provincial President Helmut Brückner, who was also imprisoned in Columbia-Haus. Hausmann and Wiendieck met each other through Dr. Josef Römer, former head of the Free Corps Oberland and later co-leader of the Uhrig-Römer-Resistance Organization. Bächle told Hausmann, Wiendieck, and Römer that he was prepared to help them escape. The SS man rented a car in which he and two of the prisoners f ed from Columbia-Haus and drove to Czechoslovakia on the night of April 20, 1935. Römer stayed behind because he ultimately decided not to flee. The escape was assisted by the fact that on April 18, 1935, Commandant Reiner was relieved of his duties after the murder of two prisoners and because of prevailing uncertainty among the SS guard staff caused by these events.

To make room for the extension of the Tempelhof airport, the Columbia concentration camp was closed on October 1, 1936. The prisoners were taken to the new Sachsenhausen concentration camp located north of Berlin. On November 16, 1936, a teletype message of the Gestapa wrote off the history of Columbia-Haus, stating succinctly, “The Columbia concentration camp in Berlin-Tempelhof was closed on November 5, 1936.”6 Sachsenhausen is thus documented as the successive camp to Columbia-Haus.

Only very few trials were held for the crimes committed in Columbia-Haus. In 1948 the 10th Grand Criminal Court of the Berlin Regional Court held a hearing against SS guard Karl Pfitzer. He was accused of cruelty toward prisoners. The accused was active as a cook in Columbia-Haus until September 1933, where he abused this position of power, beating defenseless prisoners in the face with a ladle during the serving of meals, stomping on them with his feet, or shoving prisoners’ heads against the wall. He received a prison sentence of four years.

In 1964 a preliminary proceeding for murder was pursued by the Central Offi ce of State Justice Administrations (ZdL). But because both of the accused SS members had in the meantime died, the trial was stopped in the same year.

Another attempted prosecution of the ZdL against the now-dead commandants Alexander Reiner, Karl Koch, Walter Gerlach, and Heinrich Deubel also failed. Further investigations ceased. In addition, there were trials against a few people who had held leading positions for crimes in the other concentration camps. This is how in 1947 Eccarius received a lifelong sentence of forced labor from a Soviet military court for crimes committed in the Sachsenhausen concentration camp. After serving this sentence in Siberia, the Coburg Regional Court sentenced him to four years in prison in 1962.

Sources

This contribution is based on Kurt Schilde, Vom Columbia-Haus zum Schulenburgring: Dokumentation mit Lebensgeschichten von Opfern des Widerstandes und der Verfolgung von 1933 bis 1945 aus dem Bezirk Tempelhof (Berlin: Hentrich, 1987), pp. 41–67; and Johannes Tuchel, Columbia-Haus: Berliner Konzentrationslager 1933–1936 (Berlin: Edition Hentrich, 1990). In addition to these works, Schilde went back to local historical brochures and essays, among others, Emil Ackermann, ed., Aus der Tempelhofer Geschichte: Naziterror und Widerstand (Berlin: Vereinigung der Verfolgten des Naziregimes Westberlin [VVN], Verband der Antifaschisten, 1984); Helmut Bräutigam and Oliver C. Gliech, “Nationalsozialistische Zwangslager in Berlin I: Die ‘wilden’ Konzentrationslager und Folterkeller 1933/34,” in Berlin-Forschungen II (Berlin, 1987), pp. 141–178; Laurenz Demps, “Konzentrationslager in Berlin 1933 bis 1945,” Jahrbuch des Märkischen Museums, Nr. III (1977): 7–19. Biographical information was taken from the published memoirs of former prisoners along with relevant reference works, including, among others, Kurt Hiller, Schutzhäftling 231 (Neue Weltbühne 1935, Nos. 1–5); Henry Marx, “Als es noch kein Konzentrationslager war . . . Bericht über einen achttägigen Aufenthalt im Columbia-Haus,” Aufbau (New York, June 17, 1988), pp. 24–25; Stefan Szende, Zwischen Gewalt und Toleranz. Zeugnisse und Reflektionen eines Sozialisten, with a foreword by Willy Brandt (Frankfurt am Main: Europäische Verlagsanstalt, 1975). Important information also came from contemporary texts, such as the Braunbuch über Reichstagsbrand und Hitler-Terror (1933; repr., Frankfurt am Main: Röderberg-Verlag, 1978); Kurt Bürger, Aus Hitlers Konzentrationslagern (Moscow: Verlagsgenossenschaft Ausländischer Arbeiter in der UdSSR, 1934); Das deutsche Volk klagt an: Hitlers Krieg gegen die Friedenskämpfer in Deutschland; Ein  Tatsachenbuch (Paris: Carrefour, 1936); Konzentrationslager: Ein Appell an das Gewissen der Welt; Ein Buch der Greuel; Die Opfer klagen an (Karlsbad: Verlagsanstalt “Graphia,” 1934). In addition to this exile literature, one can include the book by Johannes Tuchel, Konzentrationslager: Organisationsgeschichte und Funktion der “Inspektion der Konzentrationslager” 1934–1938 (Boppard am Rhein: H. Boldt, 1991), with which the historical classification in the system of the concentration camp was carried out.

There are no coherent archived written records on the Columbia concentration camp. Still preserved is the “Sistiertenkladde” from December 29, 1933, to January 18, 1934, a book that lists all detainees and includes many entries of prisoner names (BA, R 58/742). An exemplary collection of memoirs and reports from prisoners can be found in the WL and in the YVA, Jerusalem, as well as in the GDW- B, in the ABI, and in the VVN- BdA. The archives of the state attorney’s offices at the Berlin and Cologne regional courts and the ZdL all contain information on the legal proceedings against the personnel of the Columbia concentration camp. The BDC was also consulted for this project.

Critical Thinking Questions

  • How does the example of this camp demonstrate the complexity and the systematic nature of the German efforts to reorder German society and later to abuse and kill the Jews?
  • For most of the 1930s, concentration camps were not for Jewish prisoners. Why were these people incarcerated?
  • How might the jailing and murder of political opponents be a warning sign of mass atrocity and genocide? Investigate if this is happening in any country presently.

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.

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