A Personal Memory of Flossenburg
by Leslie A. Thompson
Chaplain (Lt. Col.) United States Army (Ret)
14 January 1989
I am a retired Army chaplain with twenty-six years of service dating from 1940-1967. I served in Europe in World War II and in Korea and Japan during the Korean conflict. In this account I am trying to recall my memories of contacts with the German concentration camp at Flossenburg, Germany, in the closing days of World War II.
In writing this account I have had to rely on memory and several snapshots which were given to me by a young soldier who happened to have a camera available. My notes were lost in moving about; and in the closing days of the war, we were moving very fast and I did not have time to make an adequate account of happenings. At the time, I regarded my contacts with Flossenburg as a normal part of military duty, although the shock of seeing this concentration camp at firsthand and the memory of it is unforgettable.
I was the Division chaplain of the 97th Infantry Division which was in combat near the Czechoslovakian border, later crossing the border to Cheb and Pilsen in Czechoslovakia.
Since retirement from Army service in 1967, I have become interested in reading the books written by and about Dietrich Bonhoeffer. In several of them I found references to Bonhoeffer having been put to death by hanging in the Flossenburg concentration camp on April 9, 1945. My interest in this changed from a wartime event to a very personal experience having great significance. A dedicated, widely known Christian pastor had been killed by the Nazi regime. An interesting account of the death of Bonhoeffer is given in the closing chapter of the book Dietrich Bonhoeffer: Letters and Papers from Prison, edited By Eberhard Bethge and published by the MacMillan Company (paper edition).
In April, 1945, the 97th Division Headquarters moved to Wunsiedel, Germany, and the Division combat teams took up positions along the Czechoslovakian border. Division Rear, the service section of Division headquarters, was located at Weiden. A day or two after arrival at Weiden, the Jewish chaplain of XII Corps visited the chaplain’s section. The news had come that a concentration camp had been liberated in our combat area. This was at Flossenburg, a few miles from Weiden. I regret that T do not remember the chaplain’s name. The Jewish chaplain, along with my assistant, Ervin Royse, and I drove to the camp at Flossenburg. I expected to find some of our troops in charge, but none were there due to the fact that the camp had just been liberated. We found a Jewish lad of about thirteen or fourteen years of age who had been a prisoner. Fortunately, he and our Jewish chaplain spoke in Yiddish, which became our language of contact. Since this young boy seemed to be the only child around, I supposed the German guards had not harmed him. He was nicely dressed and not emaciated as the other prisoners. This young boy became our tour guide. We saw one of the barracks where the prisoners stayed. He told of sleeping on the bare wooden bunks. Sometimes the person sleeping next to him bad died in the night. He told us that there were prisoners marked for death by starvation, but in whom the will to live was strong, and these were eliminated by holding their heads under water. He showed us the path from the main buildings where the prisoners had to remove their clothes before walking down a number of steps into a small open area where they had placed the gallows. Near this were buildings in which they stacked the bodies until they had time to burn them. There was a stack of many bodies here. Near this I observed a large cistern-like area with an opening of about six or eight feet in diameter. The furnaces were nearby. Looking down, I saw that it was almost full of small bones. I realized that this was the remains of all the bodies of persons who had been cremated. I wondered how many thousands of bodies had been cremated in this manner. As I looked down, I prayed that God would have mercy on those who had been so mercilessly treated.
While at the camp, we toured the working area where the prisoners had been forced to manufacture wooden parts for airplanes. This was a small camp compared to the size of Dachau and the larger camps. It had the worst reputation of all as a death camp. It seems to have been under the control of the Gestapo who were committed to killing Jews and enemies of the State as were the SS controlled camps. Flossenburg was one of the eighteen camps in Germany. The total number of concentration camps was 146. The small number of camps in Germany in comparison to the total number is noted. Two days later a mass burial ceremony was held for the unburied dead. The chosen site was a vacant area in the town of Flossenburg. The Jewish chaplain gave the ceremony for the Jewish persons, the Catholic ceremony was given by Chaplain John Tivenan, and I gave the Protestant ceremony. The townspeople were ordered to attend by the American military in charge. I was aware that they attended unwillingly. I remember that it was a spring day with an invigorating coolness. The sky was partly cloudy and nature seemed to be awakening after winter napping. I received word that the emaciated prisoners remaining in the camp were put in the temporary care of a surrendering German medical unit.
On May 9, 1945, the war was declared ended. Through the years I have wondered about the people who were so cruelly put to death. At the time I was in Flossenburg, I regarded my participation in the ceremony at the burial of the victims of the concentration camp as part of my military duty, but after my retirement and Later return to my home city of Springfield, Missouri, in January of 1970, I began reading books written by Dietrich Bonhoeffer. I found his books strongly challenging. As I read about his life, I read that he had been a prisoner of the Nazis and that he had been put to death April 9, 1945, at the Flossenburg concentration camp. On learning this, my participation in the burial ceremony became a very personal experience, as this happened just a few days after April 9. I do not know if the Bonhoeffer body was buried in the mass grave or whether the body had been cremated and the ashes put in the hole in the ground where it seemed so many other ashes had been disposed of.
My prayers, however, included all who perished there. I prayed that God in His infinite wisdom would bless and receive to Himself these souls who had been so cruelly put to death and those who had resisted the Nazi barbarism. The life of Dietrich Bonhoeffer was a strong testimonial to his dedication to serve his Heavenly Father. A brief summary follows:
Dietrich Bonhoeffer was born in Breslau on February 4, 1906, of distinguished parents. He studied at Tubingen and Berlin Universities. In 1930 he attended Union Theological Seminary in New York for a year. He pastored churches in London before returning to Germany in 1935. On May 29-31, 1934, the Confessional Evangelical Church met in Barmen with members of the Lutheran, Reformed and United Churches present. The Confession reaffirmed their desires to stand together in their Confession of Jesus Christ as “the way, the truth and the life.” They reaffirmed that Jesus Christ was the head of the church. They rejected the effort of the State to rule over, control and dominate the church. In other words, they rejected Hitler and the Nazi Party. It was a courageous statement against the excesses that were being perpetuated. Bonhoeffer enthusiastically supported the concept of the confessing church and worked as one of its leaders. He is credited with effectively keeping the conference on track and from turning it into an ineffectual discussion.
Bonhoeffer made a lecture tour in America in 1939. His friends urged that he not return to Germany, but he wanted to return to support the confessing church and the Resistance Movement.
Through his brother-in-law, Hans von Dohnanyi, he learned of the conspiracy to overthrow the Nazi government which involved Generals Werner von Fritsch, Ludwig Beck and several prominent government officials. Bonhoeffer came to believe that his ideas of pacifism were inadequate and that it would take a resistance movement to free Germany and the world from the inhuman and criminal activity of Hitler and the Nazi Party; so at the insistence of his sister and brother-in-law, he joined the conspiracy against Hitler.
The Resistance Movement is credited with many attempts on the life of Hitler. One was on March 13, 1943, when General vonTreackow and an aide planted a bomb on Hitler’s private plane. The detonator failed and the bomb was discovered. Another attempt was on March 20, 1943. Colonel Rudolf von Gertsdorff planned to detonate a bomb close to Hitler at the Zeughaus in Berlin. Hitler left the hall before the bomb exploded. On April 5, 1943, Bonhoeffer with his sister Christel and her husband Hans von Dohnanyi were arrested and jailed in Tegel, a military prison.
The most serious attempt of the resistance group to which Bonhoeffer belonged failed on July 20, 1944. The bomb left Hitler dazed and slightly injured. Five collaborators were executed. In the investigation, implicating documents and interrogations of prisoners under torture indicated a nationwide network. Hitler became convinced of this and gave orders that their trials be prolonged in order that they might find .other conspirators. After Tegel, Bonhoeffer was transferred from one Gestapo prison to another in Berlin, Buchenwald, Schonberg, and finally Flossenburg, and all contact with the outside world was severed.
On Sunday, April 8, 1945, Pastor Bonhoeffer conducted a service of worship. As he ended his last prayer, two men came for him. He spoke to an English officer, “This is the end, but for me it is the beginning of life.” The next day, April 9, 1945, he was hanged in Flossenburg. Among those who died with Bonhoeffer were fellow participants in the Resistance Movement: Admiral Wilhelm Canaris, Major General Hans Oster, Judge Advocate General Carl Sack, Captain Ludwig Gehre, and a man named Strunk. Also executed on the same day was Bonhoeffer’s brother-in-law, Hans von Dohnanyi at Sachsenhausen. It is difficult to understand the persistence of revenge at the time the German armies were falling apart. The allies were rapidly advancing, resistance was crumbling. Huppenkothen, a magistrate, was sent from Berlin with instructions to conduct a summary trial and to execute Canaris, Sack, Oster, Gehre, Strunk and Bonhoeffer, all prisoners in Flossenburg. The prisoners were ordered to remove their clothing and were led down the steps under the trees to the secluded place of execution. Naked under the scaffold, Bonhoeffer knelt for the last time to pray. Within five minutes, his life was ended. Memorial services for Bonhoeffer were held at Holy Trinity Church in London on July 27, 1945, at the instigation of the Bishop of Chichester. The announcement of this service over the radio was the first word of Bonhoeffer’s death that his family had received. Another memorial service was held in Berlin on April 9, 1946.
On Easter Sunday, 1953, the pastors of Bavaria unveiled in the church in Flossenburg a tablet with the simple inscription: “Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a witness of Jesus Christ among his brethren. Born February 4, 1906, in Breslau. Died April 9, 1945, in Flossenburg.”
This was my brief contact with the liberation of the camp at Flossenburg. It was a small camp compared to Auschwitz, Dachau or Buchenwald. I do not know how to estimate the number of persons killed there. I would estimate it at several hundred thousand. Auschwitz is estimated as having killed 2,000,000. At one period, 24,000 Jews a day were received for mass laughter.
After hostilities ended and the 97th Division completed its mission in Czechoslovakia, with the capture of Cheb and Pilsen, the Division was pulled back to Bamberg. At this time one of the regimental chaplains requested that a Jewish soldier be taken to Munich to visit his high school. He had managed to escape and make his way into the United States where he joined the U.S. Army. He had pleasant memories of his high school days. I desired to visit the chaplain of our next higher headquarters (y Corps) and arranged for Chaplain Edwin Settle, the Jewish soldier whose name I cannot remember, my assistant, Ervin Royse, and I to drive to Munich.
First, we left the young man off at his high school. After a visit at Corps Headquarters, we returned for our passenger. He was disappointed. He had expected a pleasant visit to his school, but especially was he displeased as he met one of the teachers he had known before, and he was a Nazi. We asked him if he wanted to find anyone else. He said he would very much like to visit his former music teacher. We drove him to the residence, and he invited Chaplain Settle and me to go in with him. His music teacher was genuinely glad to see him. They had a pleasant visit. He asked her if she would play the piano for him. She graciously refused, then held up her hands to show us that they were gnarled and twisted. She explained that she had been forced to work in a factory. She then asked her former student to play for her, and she led us into an average sized room in which was a large grand piano. The young man seated himself and played. I listened and thought how the lovely bond of music could reunite two people after all that they had both suffered. It was a moving experience, and I never forgot it.
World War II was an expensive war, as to cost of lives and money. It was more expensive in its damage to the human spirit of mankind. The volume of hatred generated and released in the world affects us even today. Hate used as a political weapon is dangerous to the future of mankind. Somehow we must learn to use love as an instrument in our lives and relationships. May God forgive us and help us to build our lives. It is the only way. We cannot afford another Holocaust.
Originally published at http://www.97thid.com/97thid/flossenburg.html. Original link now dead. Republished here to keep this important memory alive.
Return to my post Bonhoeffer at Flossenbürg.