‘Everywhere lay the dead,’ wrote a U.S. soldier at Dachau concentration camp in April 1945. ‘But to our great surprise among the 30,000 prisoners, we found seven Jewish mothers and their babies.’
This week is the 65th anniversary of the liberation of Dachau. To mark the occasion the KZ Gedenkstätte Dachau is opening of an extraordinary exhibition about an extraordinary event. Between December 1944 and February 1945, seven Jewish women brought children into the world amidst the terror of Kaufering I, one of Dachau’s eleven satellite camps. ‘They gave us hope again’ (‘Sie gaben uns wieder Hoffnung’) is a deeply moving retrospective about the women, and the remarkable fortune of their and their children’s survival. It is dedicated to all female prisoners – especially those who were pregnant -- of the Third Reich.
Dachau was one of the Nazi’s first concentration camps. It opened within weeks of Hitler’s seizure of power, serving as a model for all later camps as well as an SS ‘school of violence’. In the twelve years of its existence over 200,000 Europeans were imprisoned within its barbed wire, of whom 41,500 were murdered.
Earlier this week Dr. Sabine Schalm, co-curator of the exhibition, told me, ‘What is for me extremely moving about this story is, that in a place where hundreds of prisoners died every month, there was this wonder of seven new-born babies who survived not only the camp but are still alive today. In a way -- excuse me for being a bit pathetic -- they are a little triumph over the Nazi system.’
While pregnancies were not uncommon in the camps, women and their children were usually murdered. The exhibition traces the story of these seven survivors: their lives before deportation, their arrival and imprisonment in the terror camps, their experiences as female prisoners, the discovery of the pregnancies and birth of the children, the reaction of the SS, and finally forced evacuation, liberation and their lives following the Holocaust.
After giving birth, the mothers Eva Fleischmannovà, Sara Grün, Ibolya Kovács, Elisabeth Legmann, Dora Löwy, Magda Schwartz and Miriam Rosenthal – who now lives in Toronto -- formed a so-called Schwangerenkommando (pregnant unit). They were forced to work in the prisoners’ laundry. As late as 13 March 1945, the head SS camp physician issued an order for the mothers to be transferred from Dachau to the Bergen-Belsen death camp. Thankfully the order was not carried out.
Sabine Schalm’s co-curator is Eva Gruberová whose new film ‘Geboren im KZ’ (Born in a Concentration Camp) is produced with Martina Gawaz and broadcast this week.
‘Last summer Eva and I decided that we would like to work together to curate an exhibition to bring this story to the public,’ said Sabine Schalm, who trained as an historian in Regensburg, Berlin and Edinburgh. ‘Dr. Gabriele Hammermann, director of the Dachau Concentration Camp Memorial Site, liked our idea and agreed to support the exhibition.’
The Memorial Site was established in 1965 on the initiative of surviving prisoners who had formed the Comité International de Dachau. The Bavarian state government provided financial support. Every year 700,000 visitors come from around the world to the site.
Schalm went on, ‘This terrible history is part of my professional life and it is very often hard to bear. But it is exactly these kind of stories and meetings with survivors that are so very fulfilling and encouraging. The opportunity for me to meet these six “children” at the exhibition is a miracle -- and it is for me personally a very strong motivation for my work.’
The Dachau Concentration Camp Memorial Site lies a short S-Bahn ride outside Munich. The exhibition ‘They gave us hope again’ will run throughout the summer and autumn. Everyone who is able to visit the site, and see the exhibition, should do so, if only to understand how the abdication of personal responsibility led to so many of the twentieth century’s greatest crimes.