From Odd Nansen’s diary, Tuesday, April 10, 1945:
“Today I went to see a band of Jewish children who are kept here [in Neuengamme concentration camp], as they were in Sachsenhausen—as guinea-pigs. At one end of the Revier [infirmary] hutments, with a concealed entrance, they live in a little room. There are ten boys and ten girls, from four to twelve years old. First one enters a small backyard, where there’s a big cage of actual guinea-pigs—for the same purpose as the Jewish children. The yard also contains a heap of coal and a rubbish heap.
There were hardly ten square meters [108 sq.ft.] to move about in. That was the only place where the children could get outside into the fresh air. Otherwise they lived in the small room inside; it was almost filled up by their beds, which were in two stories, and where they slept two in a bed. They were attractive little things, French, Dutch, Belgian and Polish. All of them came from Auschwitz. A boy of eight had spent four and a half years in concentration camps.
When I asked what kind of experiments were made on these human children, the Häftlingsarzt [prison doctor] who was “showing me around” put a warning finger to his lips: it mustn’t be talked about, but the children had had injections. What kind of injections? Again the finger on his lips, and out it came in a whisper: Tuberculose! Were the men who had conducted the experiments really competent scientists? Ach—ja—a German professor with some name like Wiesmeyer or Biesmeyer! But the children didn’t look as if they had taken any harm, and none of them seemed to have tuberculosis. None of the children who had been there were dead, nor had there been very much sickness. At the moment one of them, a son of the head of the Rothschild Institute in Paris, had pneumonia. But he was well cared for and apparently improving already. And they were obviously getting enough to eat and led a carefree life in a way, with no understanding of what was happening to them and around them.
My friend the Häftlingsarzt, who had obviously grown fond of the little ones, answered with a worried shake of the head when I asked what would become of them if the camp were evacuated. He wanted me to ask the Swedish commission if they couldn’t do something for them! I will—but am prepared in advance for that also being in vain, like most of what one tries to do for other fellow-prisoners.
As a matter of fact it isn’t only these children who are experimented on. The whole block at the end of which they lived turned out to be full of wretched creatures of the usual Muselmenn type, and they too are the objects of different kinds of experiment. Whether they die of these experiments or of something else, really in a sense doesn’t matter. For die they must! Indeed, if any good came of the experiments they wouldn’t have died in vain. And that’s more than one can say of million after million.”
Odd Nansen was uncertain about many things on April 10, 1945: when would the war end? would he survive? when would he be freed?
But after 39 months of captivity, Nansen was absolutely certain about the fate of the children he just met: “Die they must!” In this he was not mistaken. In fact, these children, leading “a carefree life in a way,” had only ten more days to live.
The Nazi doctor conducting the experiment, Kurt Heissmeyer, believed that “racially inferior” patients [i.e., Jews] had lower resistance to illnesses such as tuberculosis than did racially superior ones [i.e., Aryans]. With no training or expertise, he set out to prove that tuberculosis of the lungs could be combated by artificially inducing live tuberculosis cultures into the skin. Had Heissmeyer the requisite expertise, he would have known that this thesis had already been discredited, and thus—contrary to Nansen’s hopes—his experiments were, in the later judgment of a medical panel, “useless for scientific research and . . . they in no way enriched it.”
The children were cared for by two Dutch orderlies, Dirk Deutekom and Anton Hölzel, as well as two French doctors, René Quenouille (age 60), a radiologist arrested for hiding British paratroopers, and Gabriel Florence (age 58) a professor of biology and a member of the resistance. A renowned scientist, he had previously been nominated for a Nobel Prize. I believe that Florence was the Häftlingsarzt to which Nansen refers—he spoke German well enough to be used in the camp as an interpreter, and Nansen spoke German as well (but not French or Dutch).
On the night of April 20, upon orders from SS headquarters in Berlin, the twenty children, as well as their orderlies and doctors, were driven from Neuengamme into downtown Hamburg, to a school on Bullenhuser Damm Street that had been converted into an auxiliary SS camp. All were taken to the basement. The adults were hanged in one room; the children taken to an air-raid shelter in another part of the basement, each given an injection of morphine, and hanged, two at a time, from hooks affixed to the wall. Those whose body weight was insufficient to do the job were grabbed around the waist and pulled down. Their names:
Alexander Hornemann, age 8, Holland
Eduard Hornemann, age 12, Holland
Marek Steinbaum, age 10, Poland
Marek James, age 6, Poland
W. Junglieb, age 12, Yugoslavia
Roman Witónski, age 7, Poland
Eleonora Witónski, age 5, Poland
R. Zeller, age 12, Poland
Sergio de Simone, age 7, Italy
Georges André Kohn, age 12, France
E. Reichenbaum, age 10, Poland
Surcis Goldlinger, age 11, Poland
Lelka Birnbaum, age 12, Poland
Ruchla Zylberberg, age 10, Poland
H. Wassermann, age 8, Poland
Lola Klingermann, age 8, Poland
Rywka Herszberg, age 7, Poland
Blumel Mekler, age 11, Poland
Mania Altman, age 5, Poland
Jacqueline Morgenstern, age 12, France
During the war Nazi doctors conducted experiments on more than twenty thousand prisoners; several thousand died in the process, or shortly thereafter, others, like the children of Bullenhuser Damm, were murdered to hide the crime, and still others suffered lifelong disabilities as a result of their experience.
Some, but not all, of those responsible for the murders at Bullenhuser Damm, were apprehended, tried by a British Military Court soon after the war, convicted and sentenced to death, including the Commandant of Neuengamme, SS Obersturmbannfϋhrer Max Pauly. While on death row Pauly wrote to his son: “I want to emphasize today that I am not aware of any fault of mine, and that I always acted in the interests of the prisoners, doing my duty to the end.” Apparently acting in the interests to the prisoners did not extend to trying to keep them alive—it is estimated that at least 43,000 of Neuengamme’s 100,000 prisoners died by the end of the war, due to exhaustion, malnutrition, disease and violence. Here’s how Nansen described his new living quarters when he arrived at the camp: “The misery passed all bounds and baffled all conception. In every bed there were three or four, indeed sometimes five or six men. It sounds incredible, but I saw them. Certainly they were lying on top of each other, but most of them were nothing but skeletons and didn’t take up much room. . . . The whole interior of the building was one inferno, a waiting room of death worse than could be conjured up in the wildest fantasies.”
Much of the above story comes from The Murders at Bullenhuser Damm, written by German journalist Günther Schwarberg (trans. Erna Baber Rosenfeld with Alvin H. Rosenfeld, Indiana University Press, 1984). There is also a website maintained by The Children of Bullenhuser Damm Association, with more information, here.
Sometimes in a book there is a turn of phrase, a description, a contrast, that simply stabs one right in the heart. In Schwarberg’s book, in addition to the truly tragic story of these young children, it is a juxtaposition that jumped out at me. On page 104 of the book, Pauly, again writing to his son from death row, reminisces:
“Please remember my favorite dish—pancakes and chocolate pudding. If I could only eat my fill once more!”
Earlier in the book the author, in describing life for children in Auschwitz [where all the Bullenhuser Damm children came from] quotes a prison doctor’s conversation with a nine year-old shortly before the boy was to be sent to the gas chamber. The boy explains:
“My shoes are still very good. Maybe you can find someone who wants to exchange them with me for a bread ration. I won’t need them anymore. I’m sure I won’t. And I would really like to eat my fill once more before I die.”