For years Flossenbürg has been regarded as one of the "forgotten concentration camps" of World War II. Now, a new exhibition has opened which tells the story of those who were incarcerated and who lost their lives there.
Flossenbürg gets a permament memorial exhibition some 60 years after liberation
A postcard in one of the first display rooms of the new museum reads: "Greetings from Flossenbürg." The friendly greeting is positioned under a picture of the historic castle ruins for which the small town on the German-Czech border is still well known for. In fact, while the postcard is from the 1920s, it could be from the present day.
What Flossenbürg is less famous -- or notorious -- for is that it was the location for one of the Nazis' 12 largest concentration camps; the camp where German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer died along with tens of thousands of other victims. After the war, the camp and its history slowly slipped into oblivion.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer was one of the tens of thousands to be killed at Flossenbürg
But the new exhibition, which opened to the public on Sunday, more than 60 years after the camp was liberated, aims to commemorate those who lost their lives at Flossenbürg and its surrounding camps and return its role in the "Final Solution" to the modern history books.
After being liberated, the camp became the site of residential buildings and a toy factory moved into its empty warehouse. Only in the 1980s did a small exhibit about the camp first appear.
One of the main reasons it took so long for the camp to be remembered has much to do with the demographics of those who were imprisoned there.
"Two thirds of the prisoners were Eastern Europeans," said Christian Omonsky, the press coordinator of the Flossenbürg exhibit, adding that the process of recounting the stories and compiling the evidence could only begin after the Iron Curtain fell and the former prisoners were able to visit the camp in 1995, on the 50th anniversary of its liberation.
Since then -- with the help of survivors, local people and historians -- Omonsky, museum director Jörg Skriebeleit and the rest of the museum's staff have created a memorial for the concentration camp.
Painstaking research to create memorial
Family photos show lives about to be changed forever
The exhibition is the result of four years of extensive research by Skriebeleit and his team. Their research included hundreds of interviews with former prisoners to fill in the gaps of the camp's history. The work recreates an authentic snapshot of everyday life in the camp, one which not only shows the suffering of the prisoners but also the lives of those responsible for the suffering. For example, photos of SS officers enjoying leisure time feature alongside pictures of emaciated inmates.
During World War II, Flossenbürg was an administrative center for 90 camps in Bavaria, Bohemia and Saxony. Jews, Sinti and Roma were locked up in these camps along with political dissidents, prisoners of war, homosexuals and "professional criminals." In total, the camps held around16,000 women and 84,000 men.
In Flossenbürg and its surrounding camps almost 30,000 prisoners died as a result of murder by SS officers, hard labor and accidents in the nearby stone quarry, frostbite or illnesses such as pneumonia and tuberculosis. Until recently, those who died were only numbers in a ledger.
"We would like to give these victims who had disappeared from the public consciousness for decades a human face," said Skriebeleit.
The central hall of the exhibition attempts to do just that with a selection of personal photographs from prisoners, taken before they were deported. The images of families, holidays, young lovers, weddings and smiling youths give a clear indication of what was taken from these people when imprisioned within the confines of the camp.
Ordinary lives swapped for horror and death
Skriebeleit and a model of the war-time camp
Texts accompanying the photos explain the victims' fates and artwork from survivors depict the horrors they may have experienced. One drawing shows the execution of five prisoners in front of a Christmas tree while the rest of the camp looks on.
While it has taken many years to bring Flossenbürg out of the shadows of history, the survivors of the camp have visited regularly since they have been able to.
"For the survivors, returning always reminds us of the past," said Lisa Mikova from Prague. "But we want to tell school children, for instance, about our history in the hope that we can warn them about the dangers of fascism."
Mikova was sent to the camp in 1942 because she was Jewish. Her parents, her parents-in-law and a brother-in-law were killed in Auschwitz. She was sent to a camp in Freiberg.
"There we had to work extremely hard in an airplane factory, for 12 hours a day," Mikova said. "Then we had to go through the town to get to the camp huts. It was very cold, because we were dressed very poorly, without underwear and we only had clogs. Our heads were shaved bald. And there was not a lot to eat -- only a little bit of brown water that they called coffee as well as weak soup and a piece of bread."
Sunday's opening attracted a number of prominent figures. Bavarian Premier Edmund Stoiber and German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier attended along with Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko, whose father was a prisoner in Flossenbürg. Charlotte Knobloch of Germany's Central Council of Jews, Romani Rose from the Central Council of the Sinti and Roma and Israeli ambassador Shimon Stein were also there.
There were also 84 former prisoners among those viewing the exhibition, an experience that was difficult for many. Mikova, however, was one of those ready to face the past. "Of course there are things which remain with us, things that one can never forget or get over," she said. "But I am very curious about the exhibit."