niedziela, 8 maja 2016

The liberation of the concentration camp Stutthof

When the last two evacuation transports left Stutthof about 150 prisoners remained in the camp, among them a 30-person group with engineer Hans Vey in the machine factory owned by G. Epp, a group that escaped from the last evacuation transport from Mikoszewo. Some of them operated the machines in the camp, others who were very ill stayed in the barracks in the Old Camp. After the last transport of prisoners left, P. Ehle ordered to blow up the crematorium building.

Before Ehle left the camp with a group of SS men, he gave some prisoners certificates of liberation form the camp with the date of 15 April 1945, that is according to the decision of the Concentration Camps Inspectorate to close the camp. The certificates were given out to the prisoners by Ehle himself in the commander’s office. Their text was copied and the names of the prisoners (without their numbers) were written on a typewriter. A seal of the third guard company of KL Stutthof was affixed to the document.
P. Ehle left Stutthof probably on 5 May 1945 in the night. According to the former prisoner Marian Pawlaczyk, Ehle was still in the camp on 5 May because on that same day he organized a farewell dinner in the commander’s office, on which he invited several prisoners employed in the office and offered them also to go with him from Hel to Germany on a motor boat. None of the prisoners accepted that offer, which was as dangerous as immoral. The power in the camp was given to Wehrmacht under the command of a major, commander of the unit which stationed in Stutthof.

On 26 April 1945, the Soviet armies landed in the Vistula Split. Moving forward was hindered by difficult terrain conditions between Vistula, Nogat and the Vistula Lagoon. Germans destroyed the irrigation systems in Żuławy which lead to flooding a big part of the region and significantly delayed the liberation of this territory. The 2nd Guards Army attacked from Piława (currently Yantarny) along the Split, while the 48th Army of the 3rd Belorussian Front stroke from Nowy Dwór Gdański. 60.000 German soldiers and several dozen forced workers, prisoners of war and civilians were surrounded by the Soviet armies. Most of the civilians, soldiers and prisoners found themselves in the Stutthof camp in the abandoned barracks.

On 3 May 1945, Krynica  Morska was liberated. On 8 May, the Soviet armies reached the German defense line at the beginning of the Vistula Split. About 22.000 German soldiers were taken prisoners. The remaining forces were surrounded near Stutthof. On that same day, leaflets printed by the staff of the 2nd Belorussian Front and signed by General K. Rokossowski were thrown down over the camp from Soviet planes. They informed about the signing of the instrument of unconditional surrender of the German armed forces, which took place on 8 May. The text of the leaflet ended with a call to lay down the arms till midnight, under the threat of a general storm of the German positions.

Before midnight, the German troops left the camp forced out towards the sea by the Soviet forces. In the night of 8 May after the assault of the Soviet army from Katy Rybackie and Nowy Dwór Gdański, the troops which were defending the Vistula Spit surrendered. At 3-4 am, two Soviet scouts entered the camp and a few hours later, between 7 and 8 am, entered the troops of Col. Siemion G. Cyplienkow from the 48th Army of the 3rd Belorussian Front lead by Sasha Jegorow from the 3rd Battalion of the 717th Regiment. The death gate has been opened by the second in command of the foreign affairs battalion Piotr Michajłowicz Sliusarenko together with a group of soldiers, among who were present B. S. Baliukowicz, A. I. Iliasow, A. K. Manochin, N. Mamedow, N. A. Barinow. A group of 150 Stutthof prisoners and 20 000 civilians evacuated from Pomerania and East Prussia and prisoners of war from different countries were still present in the camp at that moment. The Stutthof prisoners cheered when the Red Army entered the camp and they remembered this moment for a very long time. Antoni Bizewski recalled this day in those words: “The moment of the liberation of Stutthof was unexpected and quick. After the shellfire, which lasted for a couple of hours, suddenly everything went silent. After a while, a Soviet officer came up to us and said that the war was over, that we were free and we could go home. We were extremely happy. Stutthof’s surroundings were flooded, the only road lead to Elbląg. We found a cart and a horse and set off in that direction…”.

Many soldiers remember the surname of the commander of the 3rd Battalion of the 717th Regiment, Sasha Jegorow, who was the first one to enter the camp. There were no fights in the camp, small groups of Wehrmacht still fought on the night of 8 May near the sea and in the woods surrounding the camp. During the day, after surrendering to the troops of the 48th Army, the German soldiers laid down their arms in the camp in front of the commander’s office. The German prisoners of war left the camp at 1 pm and set off to Elbląg by the only road that was left after the Germans flooded the Żuławy region. At the same time, groups of prisoners left the camp heading towards their homes. Some of them tried in vain to reach Gdańsk but they had to go back and head to Elbląg because the bridges and roads were flooded.

The prisoners of the Stutthof camp, prisoners of war and civilians who were sick and needed medical care were located in the field hospital no. 692 of the 48th Army and soon transferred to the military hospital no. 4363 near Elbląg.

In the group of about 150 prisoners who survived in Stutthof until the end of the war were mostly Poles (women and men), some Germans, Russians and Czechs. Among them were: Mikołaj Antoniewicz, Czesław i Jan Będzińscy, Teofil Białowąs, Antoni Bizewski, Mieczysław Borowski, Małgorzata Chabowska, Jó­zef Chmielewski, Edmund Depolt, Bolesław Dobke, Piotr Drzewiecki, Władysław Dullek, Kazimierz Dymczyk, Tadeusz Gańczarczyk, Adam Gawłowicz, Kazimiera Jackowska née Piątkowska, Zofia Jackowska, Krystyna Jaworska, Walentyna Jaworska, Stanisław Kędzierski, Adam Kostrzewa, Wanda Kotłowska, Jan Kroplewski, Józef Kuchar­ski, Alfred Stefan Kwapuliński, Zofia Lewandowska, Tadeusz Lewan­dowski, Irena Miller, Bogusław Nogajski, Bronisław Nogajski, Stanisław Olczak, Bernard Opiekuński, Marian Pawlaczyk, Zofia Piasecka, Tadeusz Płużański, Agnieszka Przybielska, Helena Przytarska, Ger­truda Puzdrowska, Rabski, Hubert Ruzicka, Stanisław Ryger, Augustyn Sikorski, Słowiński from Łódź, Helena Stawska-Gieysztorowa, Ed­ward Szuta, Barbara Szymańska, Wanda Śliwińska, Henryk Smierz-Chalski, Hans Vey, Stanisław Wawrzyniak, Maria Weiznenerowska, Franciszek Włodarczyk, Wiktor Woźniak, Stefania Zaborowska, Zyg­munt Zając, Witold Zbaraszewski.

The Soviet forces immediately began to preserve the traces of documents found in the camp. At the request of the Extraordinary State Commission, composed of Major General Istimin, Major General Michalczuk, Colonel Brezgin, Colonel of the Medical Service Firsow and Assistant of the Chief Military Prosecutor Major Swinariew, a preliminary investigation on the crimes committed in Stutthof has been carried out in May and June 1945. It was conducted by special commissions lead by military doctors: the military surgeon Colonel of the Medical Service Professor Dobyczin, the forensic medicine expert, chief of the 48th Army pathology-anatomy laboratory Major Popow, and engineers: Major Fiedorow and Captain Kapustin.

This special group of investigation officers began preserving the documents and collecting testimonies from the former prisoners of the camp. The results of the work of this and other commissions of the 48th Army have been included in the reports of the USSR Chief Military Prosecutor Office on the crimes committed in Stutthof concentration camp, which in 1966 have been handed over to the Commission for the Prosecution of Hitler's Crimes in Poland. The over 200 pages long collection of reports, evaluations and testimonies of the former prisoners constitutes an extremely valuable source, which documents the Nazi crimes committed in Stutthof. It is also one of the few documents that shows how the camp looked like during the last moments of its existence.

The commissions began their work just three days after the cam had been taken over. On 12 May an inspection of the concentration camp took place. The commission drew up an examination act, which stated: “The camp consists of 139 one-storey barracks for the prisoners, of the capacity of 500-600 persons each. Thus, the whole camp could accommodate up to 75 thousand persons. The camp was protected by a task force of the SS. The SS-Sturmbannführer Hoppe was in charge of the camp […] Almost all documents have been removed from the camp offices by the Germans and among the remaining documents were found: 1) a briefcase with the daily reports on the state and movement of the prisoners; 2) a copy of a report addressed to the chief of the camp Sturmbannführer Hoppe and 3) several hundreds of prisoner register cards…”

The preliminary investigation of the Stutthof camp demonstrated that between 1940 and 1945 “the camp has been a place of mass extermination of Soviet prisoners of war and citizens, who were forced to move to German Reich, as well as citizens of other countries. The camp was controlled by the Gestapo and was one of the typical «death camps» created by the German Government to exterminate prisoners of war and citizens of the occupied countries”. To estimate the  number of crimes committed in the camp and to reveal the names of the perpetrators, the commission agreed to send a group of investigation officers to the camp in order to collect testimonies of the witnesses of all the events related with the Stutthof concentration camp.

Between 17 May and 13 June 1945, a commission investigated the causes of death of the prisoners. It proved that “the overall mortality in the camp caused by exhaustion, diseases and different types of violent deaths was of 200-250 persons per day, an sometimes reached the number of 700 persons or more. The high mortality in hospitals was caused not only by diseases but also was due to violent deaths”.

Five ways of killing the prisoners have been classified: shooting, poisoning in the gas chamber, injecting into the body an unknown liquid due to which the person died after 2-3 minutes, hanging and baiting in case of attempted escape.
A technical expertise, carried out in the camp on 14 May, demonstrated the existence of three cremation furnaces and a gas chamber, what once again confirmed that the people imprisoned in Stutthof concentration camp were condemned to extermination…  The unsanitary conditions, the unheated barracks, the completely insufficient and scarce alimentation, the extremely exhausting physical work for 16-17 hours a day, the lack of appropriate clothes and shoes especially during winter – all this lead to extreme exhaustion of people, to creating conditions for mass extermination by using the above-mentioned methods.

Between 9 and 11 June 1945, the Soviet commissions composed from the staff members of the 48th Army examined the bones found north-west from the camp, the piles of shoes and the store of toxic materials.

Basing on the examinations, documentation, testimonies of the former prisoners and other witnesses and demonstrative evidence, the commission stated that “the Stutthof concentration camp indeed has been a death camp”. The general sanitary conditions in the camp were “completely insufficient”, there were numerous typhus, dysentery and typhoid fever epidemics; ill prisoners were not isolated from the rest of the camp which facilitated the quick spread of diseases that killed an enormous number of prisoners. The insufficient alimentation, exhausting work and strict discipline increased the number of deaths.

The prisoners were killed „ in a gas chamber, with toxic gas called «Zyklon». The implementation of this method has been confirmed by the witnesses’ testimonies. The existence of the gas chamber has been confirmed by finding in its surroundings empty cans of used «Zyklon», discovering in one of the storages in the camp (…) 27 boxes with 50 empty «Zyklon» cans and one box with opened «Zyklon» in the pharmacy”.

In the ending part of the judgment, it is emphasized that apart from cases of natural death caused by diseases there have been also cases of conscious and intentional murders of the weakest and the most exhausted prisoners, which increased even more the already high mortality in the camp.
The Extraordinary State Commission completed the preliminary investigation of the crimes committed in Stutthof in the last days of June 1945. The gathered documentation and the work of the commission has been registered on film stock and photographic film, which confirm the final conclusions of the reports. In the last days of August 1945, on the request of the Commission for the Prosecution of German Crimes in Poland, the commissions returned to collect evidentiary material for the trials of the staff of the camp and other persons responsible for the crimes committed in Stutthof.

 Source: M.Orski „Ostatnie dni obozu koncentracyjnego Stutthof” [“The last days of the Stutthoff concentration camp”], Stutthof Museum, 1995.

Tłumaczenie: Katarzyna Flis

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