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 Bremen-Farge subcamp of Neuengamme.
In the autumn of 1943 the fourth Neuengamme subcamp was established in Bremen-Farge. According to the register of inmates, from the time it was established, Farge was the second largest Neuengamme subcamp. (The only official number is from March 25, 1945. At that point there were 2,092 prisoners in the Bremen-Farge subcamp).
The majority of prisoners were used to construct an underground U-boat shipyard with the code name “Valentin.” It was one of the most important of the new construction projects for the German Navy. The bunker was situated in the north of Bremen on the Weser River. Once it was complete, prefabricated U-boat sections were to be welded together on a production line and then equipped. Marineoberbaurat Edo Meiners from the Marineoberbauamt Bremen was in charge of the site. On July 20, 1944, the Amt Bau OT took over the whole naval construction program. Meiners remained responsible for the construction in Farge but he was now in command of the OT-Oberbauleitung Unterweser. He worked closely with the two large Bremen shipyards, which were some of the largest manufacturers of U-boats in Germany. The Deschimag AG, part of the Krupp Group, was in charge of a smaller U-boat bunker in the center of Bremen (located at Bremen-Neuenland and Bremen-Osterort). The Bremen Vulkan-Shipyard, part of the Thyssen Group, took control of the Project Valentin.
When constructed, the gigantic bunker was to be 426 meters long and 97 meters wide, with a height of up to 33 meters (446 yards by 106 yards by 36 yards). In order to complete the project around 10,000 workers, the majority of whom were forced laborers, had to work daily on the construction site. Prisoners of war, civilian forced laborers, and also concentration camp prisoners were employed.
The first transport of concentration camp prisoners to arrive in Farge was a small detachment required for the construction of the camp. This detachment consisted of a few German befristeten Vorbeugungshäftlingen (BV or Greens)—police preventive custody prisoners—as well as Polish and Soviet prisoners. The camp elder was Erich Meissner, a German political prisoner. A prisoner described him as an alcoholic and brutal madman. (After the war Meissner became the Leipzig mayor.) The higher prisoner-functionary positions were allocated to the German Greens. The lower prisoner-functionary positions, especially the Kapos, were mostly Polish prisoners. Work on the foundations for the U-boat bunker began in the spring of 1944. At that time one or two transports arrived daily in Farge, so that the number of prisoners increased to between 800 and 1,000. The heavy work must have caused a high death rate in the camp, as by the summer the number of prisoners had already dropped back to around 500.
On August 1, 1944, a transport of 2,000 prisoners reached Farge. The majority of these prisoners were French. Other large national groups in the transport were Poles, Soviets, and Greeks. The majority of the existing reports and interviews from survivors originate from prisoners of this transport. Little is known about the period during the camp's construction but there are more details for the period from the summer of 1944.
The concentration camp prisoners worked in Farge in two shifts, each of 12 hours. The prisoners in the day shift were awakened around 4:00 a.m. and had to set forth to the bunker around 6:00 a.m. They worked from 7:00 a.m. to 7:00 p.m., with only a break for a noon meal. The prisoners rarely got to go to bed before 10:00 p.m. as they had to march back to the camp, attend roll call, and eat their dinner. At most, they had six hours' sleep a day. The concentration camp prisoners were used on the heaviest and most unpleasant work that there was on the construction site. This was, above all, the cement detachments, where the prisoners had to shift heavy bags of cement or fill the cement mixers. The dust from the cement was a torture for the prisoners: “During the night the cement, which had settled on the nasal hairs, formed a crust which made breathing difficult. You had to use your fingers to get the concrete out—as well as the hairs as they were part of the concrete.... It sometimes happened that when I was coughing that I spat out a white ball, which just about ripped apart my chest.”
The worst work was on the so-called iron detachments (Eisenkommandos), where iron and steel girders had to be transported. The French survivor Raymond Portefaix has stated that one's life expectancy fell dramatically on being allocated to such a detachment. He described such iron detachments as suicide squads (Himmelfahrtskommandos).
The camp was about four kilometers (2.5 miles) from the construction site in the Rekum Feldmarsch. Initially the prisoners went to work by foot directly through the local community. Later they were taken in little railway wagons. The SS and Kriegsmarine took few steps to hide the subcamp and the prisoners from the local population. A local photographer was even able to enter the subcamp and take a number of photographs. The prisoners were accommodated in an underground navy fuel tank. The circumference of the tank was 50 meters (55 yards) and inside it had a height of 6.8 meters (7.4 yards). The cover was made of cement and camouflaged with sand. Inside the fuel tank there were separate quarters for the Kapos, a couple of showers, a toilet block as well as a long row of tables for washing. The remainder of the tank consisted of bunkbeds separated into five prisoner blocks. On the surface of the camp there were initially three barracks which functioned as the kitchen, sick bay, and office. The result was that all the prisoners, with the exception of the sick and a few prisoner-functionaries, were held in the underground fuel tank. Following the arrival of the transport of August 1, 1944, another two surface barracks were constructed, which at times were used to accommodate the prisoners. As in most subcamps the food was scarcely sufficient to ensure the prisoners' survival.
At first the prisoners were guarded by the SS, but as the subcamp system expanded there were insufficient SS personnel for this task. In Farge, it was mostly naval infantry who took over the SS role. From the summer of 1944, a Marine Reserve Detachment of around 250 men took over guarding the prisoners. At this time an injured Army Captain, Ulrich Wahl, was appointed commander of the Farge subcamp. The SS was represented only by a handful of men who held the few positions within the subcamp. On the construction site, the prisoners were supervised by German foremen. They were driven to work by the Kapos. It was left to the prisoner-functionaries to maintain order within the camp. This situation gave privileged prisoners advantages. It changed little in the daily destruction of life. The camp personnel and the guards seldom interfered in the camp. Portefaix wrote the following: “What is typical in Bremen-Farge is the almost complete dependence of the prisoners on the lower ranks. The SS relied for discipline and work on them on the basis of the privileges they would get.... When the Kapos were preoccupied with their own affairs we could stretch out on the plank beds.... On the other hand—the brutality they showed when an SS man appeared in order to justify their privileges!”
Due to the heavy nature of the work, Farge was one of the Neuengamme subcamps with a relatively high number of victims. The exact numbers are difficult to ascertain due to the lack of sources. Heiko Kania identified 553 named victims, but the real number is likely to be higher.
The majority of the victims who have been identified were French prisoners. Their identification is based on postwar lists prepared by surviving French prisoners. As it is only the French prisoners who were able to comprise lists it can be assumed that more prisoners of other nationalities died than are officially recorded. Despite the high number of victims in the subcamp, post-war investigations in Farge concentrated on the nearby Arbeitserziehungslager (Labor Education Camp, AEL). The reason for this was that the British investigators determined that British soldiers had been imprisoned in the AEL. The Bremen State Prosecutor's Office, which later conducted investigations, appeared to have little interest in pursuing criminal acts. It concentrated on questioning a former head of the AEL and as a result, so far as known, there were no convictions of any of the perpetrators in Farge including the subcamp.
The evacuation of the Farge subcamp began on April 10, 1945. In the days before, the evacuated prisoners from other Bremen subcamps had been sent to Farge. The majority of the prisoners were forced to march to Neuengamme where they arrived on April 15. An unknown number of prisoners marched straight to the Sandbostel prisoner-of-war camp where they were liberated by the British Army. A transport of sick prisoners wandered for a week between Bremen and Hamburg before it, too, ended up in Sandbostel.
For a discussion on the relationship between the subcamp and the village see Marc Buggeln, “Das Außenlagersystem des Konzentrationslagers Neuengamme,” Sabine Moller, Miriam Rürup, and Christel Trouvé (ed), Abgeschlossene Kapitel? Zur Geschichte der Konzentrationslager und der NS-Prozesse (Tübingen, 2002), pp. 15–27. On the history of camp labor deployment in the Bremen U-boat bunkers, see Barbara Johr and Hartmut Roder, Der Bunker: Ein Beispiel nationalsozialistischen Wahns, Bremen-Farge 1943–45 (Bremen, 1989); and Rainer Christochowitz, Die U-Boot-Bunkerwerft “Valentin”: Der U-Boot-Sektionsbau, die Betonbautechnik und der menschenunwürdige Einsatz von 1943 bis 1945 (Bremen, 2000). On the identification of Farge prisoners, see Heiko Kania, “Neue Erkenntnisse zu Opferzahl und Lager im Zusammenhang mit dem Bau des U-Boot-Werftbunker Valentin in Bremen-Farge” (unpublished mss). I thank the author for making the mss available. Information about the evacuation of Farge prisoners to Sandbostel may be found in Katharina Hertz-Eichenrode (ed.), Ein KZ wird geräumt: Häftlinge zwischen Vernichtung und Befreiung; Die Auflösung des KZ Neuengamme und seiner Außenlager durch die SS im Frühjahr 1945, 2 vols. (Bremen, 2000), II: 19.
Most of our knowledge about conditions in the Bremen-Farge subcamp originates from survivors' statements. Most of the material is to be found in AG-NG. There are a few files in the BA-MA, Navy collection, as well as in the collection RMfRK (R 3) in BA-BL which provide details on the history of the “Valentin” U-boat bunker. Of particular importance are the photographs in the Photographic Archive in BA-K as well as film made in 1944 by a Marinebaurat showing the construction of the bunker which is now in BFA. StA-N holds 2169-PS, the Neuengamme Standortarzt report submitted to the IMT. For the history of the construction of the bunker and its military significance, see USSBS, Submarine Plant Report No. 7: Submarine Assembly Shelter at Farge (New York, 1947). Raymond Portefaix's testimony of 1947, originally published in French, is reproduced in “Vernichtung durch Arbeit”: Das Außenkommando Bremen-Farge,” Portefaix, André Migdal, and Klaas Touber, Hortensien in Farge. Überleben im Bunker “Valentin” (Bremen, 1995), pp. 19–114.
Critical Thinking Questions
- How could the development of a system of concentration camps be a precursor to mass atrocity and genocide?
- Where were the camps located? To what degree was the German population aware of the camps, their purpose, and the conditions within?
- Did the outside world have any knowledge about these camps? If so, what actions were taken by other countries and their officials? What choices do other countries have in the face of mistreatment of civilians?
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.