Excavating One of the Nazis' First Concentration Camps

A nearly forgotten camp, built right after Hitler took power, served as a place to develop new torture methods and train people who later ran camps all around Europe.
(Free University of Berlin)

BERLIN - Berlin's Tempelhof airport is remembered today as the site of the Air Lift, the effort by Britain and the United States to fly in food and supplies to West Berlin during a year-long Soviet blockade starting in 1948. But a decade earlier, it was the site of unspeakable atrocities at one of the Nazis' earliest concentration camps -- and a husband-and-wife archeologist team has begun an excavation at the site to shed light on its troubled past.

Susan Pollock and Reinhard Bernbeck began their dig at the Columbia Concentration Camp earlier this year. Though most of their previous work had brought them to the Middle East and Turkey, they decided to explore the Tempelhof site two years ago after taking up professorships at Berlin's Free University.

"We learned about this 'history' that Tempelhof had at a conference," Pollock told me. "The consensus was that excavations should be done some time soon, since a lot of development of the site is planned over the coming decade."

The Nazis created Columbia in 1933 from what had been a military jail. The site came to house political prisoners and forced laborers for the airline Lufthansa and plane builder Weserflug -- one of the companies that eventually became European aerospace giant EADS.

Columbia served as a training center to teach and perfect new torture methods that would later be employed to run Germany's huge network of concentration camps around Europe.

"This was not just a place where people were terrorized and tortured, but a school of torture," Bernbeck added. "The people who had been commanders of Columbia later turned into commanders of other concentration camps - at Buchenwald, at Sachenhausen, at Majdanek, in Auschwitz, so once you had gone through concentration camp Columbia, apparently this was this perverse career step in order to stay in the SS and become a commander elsewhere."

The Nazis used the camp until 1936, when it was deemed too small. They sent here anyone whom Hitler considered an enemy: opposition politicians, Communists, union members, Jewish people, intellectuals, and homosexuals.

Bernbeck and Pollock said people who were not murdered here were kept for short stays of two or three weeks, and then released. Inmates were bussed every day from Columbia to the SS Headquarters (known today as the Topography of Terror museum, where they were interrogated.)

"The Nazis let people out purposefully after short periods of time so that word of how they were treated would spread." Bernbeck said. "It was a way to terrorize opposition groups, to shut them up."

The Columbia Concentration camp is also where the Germans perfected a system of classifying the people whom they enslaved.

"This is where they began to 'categorize' people. People from Poland had to wear a P; anyone from the Soviet Union wore 'O' for Ost, or east. There were Jewish forced laborers, then they were all deported from Berlin. There were French, Czech, Bulgarian forced laborers. People from Italy, Belgium, Netherlands -- from all over Europe, basically. We know that they lived in different barracks. But to what extent archeology can reveal the conditions -- which are to some extent known from documents -- we need to find out," Bernbeck explained.

Presented by

Michael Scaturro is a reporter based in Berlin.

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