Interview with Jürgen Köhler, the priest of Neuengamme church community

Jürgen Köhler is 74 years old. When you look at him you immediately feel that he is a priest. It is not so easy to describe but he is a very kind and sincere person, sitting near him you feel like you know him for years. And he was sure that while we were talking God was observing us.

The interview was quite long, about an hour. Herr Köhler seemed to be glad to share with us (me and Gesa – girl who is writing her magister work about Hamburg Neuengamme) not only some information but also his feelings. We felt it when he started crying…but let me tell you first what we were speaking about.

In 1969 J.Köhler got an appointment as a priest of the church community Neuengamme. He was living in Königsberg (nowadays it is a part of Russia called Kaliningrad) so he had to move here. And the point was HE HAD NEVER HEARD SOMETHING ABOUT HAMBURG NEUENGAMME. Ausschwitz for example was for him more well-known, but not Neuengamme. Only after a year he found out that there was a concentration camp before. Answering our question – “Why so late? Didn’t people talk about it?” – the direct answer was NO. So no one wanted to talk about Nazis. Of course there might be different explanations. J.Köhler believes people were afraid. But not only. They were full of fury. Fury about the thing the Nazis did here. And shame too. They were ashamed of having not tried to do something, to upraise in a sense. But not all of them. Herr Köhler told us a story about a woman named Gesa Pahl who also belonged to that church community. A nice woman, not taller then 1,6 m. What was really unpleasant for the SS the citizens could see what the SS-men were doing there, in Neuengamme. Especially when the inmates had to broaden and deepen the canal, staying for the half in the water or when new inmates arrived. She was really impressed and wanted to give the prisoners something to eat. When she saw an SS-man she ran to him and started hitting. The other man took her away. It was like an impulse because it was obviously that she could not do anything. Gesa Pahl was never talking about it. Only after her death Herr Köhler found it out, her daughter told it him.

Jürgen Köhler’s story (I can call it a story because he really knows how to talk to people) was not only about feelings. He told us that Hamburg Neuengamme was not the first concentration camp that was built here. The first one was called “Kulafu”. “Ku” for concentration camp,“la” for camp, “fu” for Fulsbüttel  – that was the name for both airport and prison. It was the initiative of the Hamburg senate (NOT ONE OF THE SS) to build in Neuengamme a prison which was supposed to be used for keeping political opposition. But after a while it became too small and in 1936-37 the senate asked the SS to use a bigger territory for broadening the prison. Actually it was about 70 hectares. Only after that the concentration camp was “born”. The information was quite interesting for both me and Gesa and although we already had some background we had never heard about “Kulafu”. On the question “Why is it actually not a well-known fact?” J. Köhler answered that the senate obviously did not want to take any kind of responsibility for the “birth” of Hamburg Neuengamme. But as we can see it still had some.

Then we moved to discussing the inmates’ activity. Taking into account practical reasons some firms settled close as to Neuengamme as well as to the other concentration camps so as the inmates did not have to make a long way through the city. The prisoners were actually not allowed to move far away from the camp. The working time was about 12-14 hours per day. Sometimes the inmates had to do some exact (careful work) so it was important that the hands did not shake. But you can imagine how difficult it is when a SS-man is staying near you and can hit you every time even if you have not done anything wrong. That is why the firm “Walter” put a condition that no SS-man could enter the room while the inmates were working. For the inmates it was some kind of a rest when they could feel them calm and safe enough.  

In spring 1945 the ships where the SS tried to carry out the inmates before the allies came were bombed. In the mid 1940-s Herr Köhler could not be an eyewitness of that tragedy, but his sister did. She was about 44 and could very clearly realize what happened. On that day she moved to Nordstein – a town close to the North Sea. Only after several decades she could start talking about it. You can imagine how much it impressed her.

After the war came to an end there were plans to build the prison on the place of former concentration camp, here in Neuengamme. The most awful thing is that it was supposed to be prison for youth. Actually the reason for that decision was just practical advantage, especially because they were going to use old bricks for it. There were active protests which J. Köhler and the other citizens took part at. Only a new mayor of Hamburg changed the situation and decided to establish here a memorial.

Actually these are the main points. I tried not to avoid any details making this summary. I hope that it would be useful and interesting for you Jürgen Köhler is a really nice person and making interview with him was just pleasure:)

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