In Germany the words 'protective custody' have a double meaning. Originally the term meant the incarceration of people who were threatened by others and who were guarded for their own safety so that they might be protected from their enemies. Now, however, men in protective custody are mostly those who are brought, for the 'protection of the people and the State,' into a concentration camp without hearing, without court sentence, without the possibility of redress, and for an indefinite time. Frequently people sentenced by a court are taken into protective custody by the Gestapo after serving their prison sentence, often directly from the prison gate. Such, for example, was the fate of Pastor Niemöller, who, after being released from prison, was taken into the camp Sachsenhausen near Oranienburg, the camp with which we shall be concerned here. He is in solitary confinement there, and I never saw him.
I was taken into protective custody in connection with the murder of the German attaché in Paris, Ernst vom Rath, by the seventeen-year-old Polish subject, Grynszpan, who had been expelled from Germany first and then had been ordered to leave France. I do not want to justify this political murder in any way, but I can understand it as the act of a hopelessly desperate person.
I do not understand, however, the attitude of Hitler and his followers in this matter. To atone for the Paris murder, the Nazis imposed a collective punishment upon all German subjects of Jewish origin. First they organized a 'spontaneous' outburst of popular rage on the eve of November 10, 1938, throughout Germany at almost the same hour, and everywhere by the same methods. Abuses and tortures, even manslaughter, destruction of Jewish shops and apartments, arson of synagogues with gasoline brought for the purpose—such was the program.
The destruction of valuable property, of irretrievable art treasures, as well as of valuable tapestries in Munich, of Rembrandt pictures in Hesse, was not enough. The decision was made to bring a great number of Jews into camps for protective custody. Rough estimate places the number of victims at about sixty thousand males. In the camp with which we are dealing there were probably about six to seven thousand men.
The arrests took place in various ways, partly through the S.A. or S.S., partly through uniformed police, partly through plain-clothes men or secret police. It was the latter in my case. There appeared suddenly at our door a group of three men in civilian clothes, identified by their badges as policemen, who took us away in a car after having established through questioning that we were 'non-Aryans.' They also arrested a gentleman who happened to be visiting us. They had no warrants, and declined to give any information about our further destiny; our families for days were without any idea of what had happened to us. We were brought into the courtyard of the police headquarters, our names and addresses were taken down, and without any further hearing we were loaded into large trucks covered with canvas, in which benches had been placed. For the older people—and the majority were over fifty—a chair had been provided so that they might climb into the truck more easily. We mention this here especially because the treatment of the uniformed police in charge of the transportation differed pleasantly from the treatment we suffered in the camp at the hands of the S.S. The crowds in the streets took little notice of the police trucks driving in a row. Only a few urchins around the police headquarters greeted us with howling.
Our trip, full of suspense, took us past the baroque palace of Oranienburg, built at the time of Frederick the Great, through the sand of Brandenburg and through deserted pine forests, thence to a large settlement. Suddenly we saw in front of us high walls (about fourteen feet) which, at intervals of two hundred yards, were crowned by watchtowers, so that the whole camp gave the impression of a Chinese city as we knew it from pictures. We drove through an iron gate, and soon after through a second gate in a second inner wall about a hundred feet from the first one. In the space between the two walls there were barracks with administration and treasury buildings, and vegetable and other gardens. The inner gate, which led through the main watchtower, bore the inscription 'Work Makes Free'—an inscription which many inmates of the camp, after years of work and vain hope for release, will probably take as sarcasm.
If, up to now, we had interpreted our fate only as a privation of liberty, our experience changed rapidly. We had to jump down from the truck without the aid of a chair, and the request for a helping hand was denied with abuse. One of our comrades, an older man lacking the agility of youth, fell in this enforced jump and hurt the back of his head so badly that his skin had to be sewed with several stitches. Hardly were we standing on the ground when a pack of young men in S.S. uniforms, with yells and abuse, chased us to the other end of the large, inner, so-called inspection ground, which is surrounded by the barracks of the prisoners. Those who couldn't run fast enough were kicked.
We were first placed in deep rows, ordered to take off our hats and gloves, arid told not to stir. Then some of us had to step out and carry through our rows signs mounted on poles with the following inscriptions: 'We are the chosen people' (with the David star over the inscription); 'We are the murderers of the diplomat vom Rath'; 'We are the destroyers of German culture.' The camp lead evidently coming from Saxony, a slender and somewhat coquettish man with the rank of an officer of the S.S., ordered me to pick up a large paper bag, which an S.S. man put on my head as a cap, and I had to stand like that for some time. This was a harmless attempt at humiliation. Less harmless was the attempt to frighten us through the announcement that we should have to stay in the camp for twenty years. For some these threats were a cause of serious depression even of attempted suicide.