When we returned a month later I thought that I had been to the bottom of the Nazi’s inhumanities but I had not; it was at an obscure memorial in Hamburg not long after we came back from Poland where the full extent and enormity of the Nazis’ deadly rage flooded over us. Ruth Bains Hartmann, my wife, wrote about it in her journal:
Each time one thinks to have looked into the farthest depths of human cruelty, the abyss awaits. After all the horrible things I had seen, all the places of human suffering – at the hand of man – I had witnessed, how could I imagine anything worse?
There is a small rose garden in an industrial area of Hamburg, not far from one of the city’s many canals. Irregularly shaped, the garden’s wooden fencing separates it on one side from a busy highway, on the other from the play-yard of a nursery school where on a wintry morning brightly dressed toddlers splashed happily in frigid puddles until a teacher shepherded them towards less dangerous play.
On the far side of the playground is Bullenhuser Damm School, in the Nazi time a sub-camp of Neuengamme, the concentration camp near Hamburg, now renamed as the Janusz Korczak School, for the head of the Warsaw orphanage who died with his children in the Treblinka gas chamber.
A few days before the end of the war twenty Jewish children were taken by the SS to the Bullenhuser Damm School together with two French doctors and two Dutch men, their caretakers, all prisoners. In November 1944 these children, ten boys and ten girls (the Nazis were ever methodical) aged from five to twelve years, had been brought from Auschwitz to Neuengamme where they were subjected to medical experiments by the SS doctor Kurt Heissmeyer. The children were injected with TB bacillus, making them very ill, then their lymph glands were removed for analysis.
On the night of April 20, 1945, with British troops not far from Hamburg, the SS took these children, together with the four men, to the furnace room in the cellar of the school where they were hanged. Hanged. The youngest ones were five years old.
There were millions of victims at Auschwitz; one struggles to imagine even one million. The reality of these millions of tortured lives and horrible murders can hardly be grasped. In the atrocity of the hanging of twenty young children one’s imagination is vivid. Some of these children were perhaps as young as three when they were taken from their homes in Italy, France, Poland, Holland, Yugoslavia, transported hundreds of miles in filthy railroad cars, separated from their families, transported again, tortured methodically and lengthily and then destroyed, hanged in a cellar. This one can imagine; they can stand for the millions:
Marek James, six years old, from Radom in Poland
H. Wassermann, and eight-year-old girl from Poland
Roman Witonski, six years old, and his five-year-old sister Eleonora, from Radom in Poland
R. Zeller, a twelve-year-old boy from Poland
Eduard Hornemann, twelve years old, and his brother Alexander, nine years old, from Eindhoven in Holland
Riwka Herszberg, a seven-year-old girl from Zdunska Wola in Poland
Georges André Kohn, twelve years old, from Paris
Jacqueline Morgenstern, twelve years old, from Paris
Ruchla Zylberberg, and eight-year-old girl
Edouard Reichenbaum, ten years old
Mania Altman, five years old, from Radom in Poland
Sergio de Simone, seven years old, from Naples
Marek Steinbaum, ten years old
W. Junglieb, a twelve-year-old boy
S. Goldinger, an eleven-year-old girl
Lelka Birnbaum, a twelve-year-old girl
Lola Kugerman, twelve years old
B. Mekler, an eleven-year-old girl
Before the abominations of Treblinka, of Sobibor and Belzec, of Dachau, Birkenau, Chelmno and all the rest, one can feel anger, sorrow, pity, rage, nausea, anxiety for the human race, but in the rose garden behind the Bullenhuser Damm School one can only weep.
The weak winter sunshine picked out the bright green of the early shoots of spring flowers among the sleeping rosebushes. Then a black cloud came over and freezing rain poured down over the garden as I stood there reading the names on the memorial plaques that line the fence.
As the murders of these children can stand for the murders of millions, so can the inscription in their memorial garden speak for all the places of terror and death:
WHEN YOU STAND HERE, BE SILENT;
WHEN YOU LEAVE HERE, BE NOT SILENT.