The children of Bullenhuser Damm

April 20, 1945. In a little over two weeks World War II will be over. The Nazis are under no illusions anymore: the war was lost a long time ago. They will use the time remaining to destroy as much evidence as possible. That does not only include the vast administration, but also the still living witnesses of Nazi crimes. Twenty Jewish children (the youngest not even five years old, the oldest barely twelve years old) are murdered in the night of the 20th of April together with their caregivers in the former school at the Bullenhuser Damm in Hamburg. They are known as the ‘children of the Bullenhuser Damm’, and the memorial dedicated to them is only one of the many places in the harbour city trying to keep the war memory alive.

A couple of months earlier the children – ten boys and ten girls – had been carefully selected from among hundreds. Unlike the others they did not directly go to the gas chambers of the German concentration camps. Instead they were selected for the medical experiments of Dr. Kurt Heißmeyer. For the doctor it was only a small step from guinea pigs to Jewish children. In Neuengamme, nearby Hamburg, he continued his tuberculosis experiments until the last days of the war. As witnesses to the most severe Nazi war crimes the children and their caregivers could not be allowed to live. During an operation lasting over two hours they were hanged one by one in the basement at the Bullenhuser Damm.

After the war life in Germany continued. A number of key participants received the death penalty, but the people who had ordered the operation were not brought to justice. Until 25 years after the end of the war Dr. Heißmeyer had his own medical practice in Eastern Germany, where he continued to provide medical services under his own name. Until 33 years after the end of the war it were mainly the other Neuengamme prisoners remembering the children. Only at the end of the 1970s the larger public regained interest in the case when journalist Günther Schwarberg started a major investigation and published about it in Stern. The first commemoration service was held on April 20, 1979 – 34 years after the murders. Over 2,000 Hamburg inhabitants were present. The monument at the Bullenhuser Damm was unveiled shortly afterwards.

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Günther Schwarberg in 1982 at the opening of the exhibition about the children of Bullenhuser Damm. Source: http://www.kinder-vom-bullenhuser-damm.de

A Scandinavian fellow-prisoner noted down the initials, surname and country of origin of each of the children. 30 years later, Schwarberg started to match this information to faces, and a number of Jewish families heard what had happened to their sons and daughters, brothers and sisters, nephews and nieces for the very first time. The Vereinigung Kinder vom Bullenhuser Damm, established by a number of family members and Neuengamme prisoners, continues this work. Idenfifying the victims is not an easy task: until today four of the twenty children are not idenfied.

With the passing of time, the chances that these children will ever be more than an initial and a surname decreases. Of all children pictures were taken, but every year there are fewer people left who can recognize them. The Association does not stop however: by pure coincidence the identity of a 15th victim was discovered a year ago, over 70 years after the murders. The mothers of the children turned out to be all on the same transport list, and W. Junglieb from Yuguslavia was identified as Walter Junglieb from Slovakia. His sister had survived the Holocaust, and for 70 years she had thought Walter had been murdered in Auschwitz. Sometimes the truth is worse than your imagination.

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The stories of the children in the exhibition room. Source: http://www.kz-gedenkstaette-neuengamme.de

Although not as well-known as Sachsenhausen, Bergen-Belsen or Dachau, this memorial is fascinating because of its simplicy. Entering the school building, one never would imagine the tragedy that has happened here in April 1945. An exhibition informs about the participants as well as the victims, the medical experiments, that horrible April 20th and the trials after the war. And finally there is the basement itself, where the twinty children and their caregivers were murdered. Here are the memorials to the children as well as to a group of Soviet soldiers – killed for unknown reasons that same night.

On a total of five to six million Jewish victims, the twenty Jewish children of Bullenhuser Damm form a relatively small group. The monument dedicated to them however symbolizes the darkest pages of the Nazi history: medical experiments on innocent children. Their death was so futile, only weeks before the end of the war. This is a human tragedy without equal.

More than 70 years on, the children are not forgotten. Projects around the memorial are organized in many schools in Hamburg as well as in the countries of origin of the children, including the Netherlands. The few dozen volunteers of the Association are mostly German, and they organize international projects and provide information about the events of April 20th, 1945. In this way the memorial is not only a national and international memorial, but also a local, where inhabitants of Hamburg and surrounding areas reflect on the horrors of the Second World War in their own city.

The original article in Dutch was posted on Jonge Historici.

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