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.
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(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.

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An estimated 10,000 inmates passed through Columbia during its three-year lifespan. It was just one of around 3,000 forced laborer camps in Berlin alone. Bernbeck and Pollock maintain that Germans and others living in Berlin were well aware of these camps' existence. They point to rare stories of compassion -- borne out by evidence found during excavations -- of Berliners passing shoes and supplies to the inmates through Columbia's fences.

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(Free University of Berlin)

In addition, underground groups distributed leaflets about the camp during the 1936 Olympics in Berlin.

"Obviously, we don't know who found and read the leaflets," Bernbeck said. "But when you think about it, such news spreads very quickly. People were fearful of being tortured in these places. Even people who were not in the opposition knew about these places too. That cannot be denied."

One inmate in the camp fled to Austria after his release and warned others of the Nazis' new detention methods.

"Surely, the place was known," Pollock added. "Exactly to whom and in exactly what ways, I certainly don't know. But it's clear that it was a known place of terror."

When the camp closed in 1936, the remaining inmates were brought to a huge new concentration camp outside of Berlin called Sachsenhausen. The Columbia site was then demolished in 1938 to make space for Tempelhof airport, which at the time was the largest building in the world.

Pollock and Bernbeck said the city of Berlin has provided financial support for the dig -- though that support has been a long time coming, since the site was actually discovered 30 years ago by two German scholars who wrote a book about it.

Local residents have also been supportive, and in some cases they even helped connect the researchers to survivors, three of whom are still living.

But Pollock said that these survivors' memories of events have faded over the years. Though some of their recollections have provided the team with clues, it is the dig itself that is helping help fill in the gaps in survivors' memories.

"Archeology can make a contribution here," Pollock explained. "There are very specific or negative events that stick in the memory. But lots of the everyday things one simply doesn't remember."

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Michael Scaturro is a reporter based in Berlin.

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