Breitenau: Research in Local History

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details place/state: Hesse INSTITUTION: Breitenau Memorial AUTHOR: Gunnar Richter age group: 14 years and older learning activities Learning by research at memorial sites Linking past and present Preparing field trips to memorial sites Researching local history Visiting an exhibition Working with archives topics Breitenau Concentration camps Forced labor

Unlike Buchenwald, Ravensbrück or Dachau, where foreigners and Germans were imprisoned together, the concentration camp in Breitenau was used primarily for Germans from Hesse and Thuringia. When they visit the Breitenau memorial, students and others can learn a lot about regional history. The visitors have access to archival records about the prisoners and the camp administration, as well as to local historical publications.


The Breitenau memorial focuses on explaining the local consequences of the National Socialist era. For the past decade, educational programs at Breitenau have used archival records as resources for exploring the history of the camp.

Local Function of the Camp at Breitenau during National Socialism

As a regional camp, Breitenau differed from the other camps, such as Buchenwald, Ravensbrück, and Dachau, which held both German and foreign prisoners. While the other camps took prisoners from throughout Germany, Breitenau's German prisoners only came from Kassel and Thuringia. Breitenau was an early concentration camp, holding political prisoners from the summer of 1933 to March 1934. During World War II, the Kassel Gestapo used the site as a labor "education" camp. The Weimar Gestapo, which had jurisdiction over the state of Thuringia, also sent its female prisoners to Breitenau. The total number of prisoners during this time was about 9,000, of which 6,500 were foreigners and 2,500 were German nationals. Among the German prisoners, about 200 were Jewish. After the November 1938 pogrom (Kristallnacht), twenty-four Jewish men were imprisoned at Breitenau.

The existing archival documents allow us some insight into the fates of individual prisoners. These records all provide the last known residence of more than 4,000 prisoners who had ties to more than 1,000 cities and towns in the Kassel area. For the German prisoners, these addresses were generally their permanent home addresses. For most foreign prisoners, the addresses were places of forced labor. Many German prisoners had been arrested for "crimes" against the community, whereas foreign prisoners were generally arrested for violating regulations governing forced labor.

Regional Focus in Education at the Memorial

During the last few years, visitors to the memorial have visited the permanent exhibition and the former convent church (whose east side was used as a church, while the middle and west sides were converted into prisoner cells). They have also worked with archival records that give the opportunity to examine the fate of individual prisoners as well as regional references to the hometowns of visitors and students [see Documents].

This local history linkage has a special place in our educational programs. Visitors learn not only about the history of Breitenau as a Nazi concentration camp, but also about ist connection to their hometowns. This link is established through archival records about the prisoners and camp administration, new acquisitions, reference books, and numerous local historical publications. Close cooperation with the university in Kassel is particularly important for the memorial.

We incorporate this regional connection in introducing the memorial to visitors. Overhead transparencies are used to show photographs and documents that provide a survey of Breitenau's evolution during the Nazi era. In presenting the early history of the camp we include local data on the visitor's hometowns, the fate of Jewish prisoners in November 1938, and the forced labor camp. We establish this relationship by providing specific examples of local victims imprisoned by the Gestapo at Breitenau, those deported from other satellite labor camps, those in other towns and regions, or of those in Jewish communities obliterated by Nazi persecution.

Memorial Houses Folders

The memorial houses folders compiled with regional materials for visitors from northern and eastern Hesse searching for specific local information. The files are subdivided into five subject areas:

1. the early history of the Breitenau concentration camp and the first phase of Nazi persecution;

2. persecution of Jews, Jewish prisoners, and Jewish communities;

3. the war years, including forced labor, foreign and German prisoners, and deportations;

4. the postwar period and the legacy of the Third Reich;

5. recent initiatives for understanding history linked with commemoration.

The files contain copies of documents, contemporaneous newspaper articles, photos, and other materials. These files are meant to be considered works in progress and do not provide a complete history, but instead provide highlights to stimulate research. The memorial has increased its library holdings. It includes local history publications as well as unpublished school reports and dissertations.

Research Projects

The memorial's main mission is to commemorate the victims and to offer insight into the history of the Nazi dictatorship. Another objective is to compel visitors to confront issues about Nazi policy that are still relevant today. It is desirable to create an atmosphere that enables visitors and school groups to question their own beliefs and behavior. The regional emphasis provides this impetus for many visitors and students. Archeological clues and investigative research projects also offer interaction with visitors for topic exploration about the past as well as the present. Research of survivor interviews or clues from buried artifacts may also provide insight into the past and our experiences with this history today.

The memorial site supports projects that uncover the past. In the past few years, many students, young people and adults have carried out such projects with our support.

For example, students at the Konrad-Adenauer school in Fulda focused on the life of the Catholic priest Konrad Trageser, who lived in Marbach, near the city of Fulda. He was imprisoned in Breitenau for Wehrkraftzersetzung [subversion of national defense]. He was subsequently deported to Dachau, where he died in January 1942. The students began their research in the prisoner records at Breitenau. They then interviewed Trageser's contemporaries and wrote to other archives. They used this material in an exhibit that was subsequently praised by local church groups.

Students from the König (King) Heinrich School in Fritzlar, participating in the Students Competition on German History for the President's Award of the Körber Foundation, researched the fate of Polish laborer Johann Nowak and the German girl Marie Mäding. Both were imprisoned in Breitenau because their love affair had resulted in the birth of a child. As punishment for this relationship (which violated Nazi racial laws), Marie Mäding was sent to the women's concentration camp at Ravensbrück. Johann Nowak was executed in a public hanging. The students also interviewed eyewitnesses and consulted additional archives for further information. Their work received an award in the Körber Foundation competition.

A class from the comprehensive school in Guxhagen studied the fate of the Jewish residents of their town. They used documents from the archives at Breitenau as well as municipal archives. They interviewed older residents of the town and photographed the remnants of Jewish life in Guxhagen (the former Jewish cemetery, and the former synagogue, which had been converted into apartments, and the former homes of Guxhagen's Jewish residents). This resulted in a small exhibit that was shown at their school as well as at the memorial.

Locating fragments of local and regional history appeals not only to students and youth, but also to adults. In 1992, a group of senior citizens compiled a narrated slide show about the development of the Agathof district in Kassel-Bettenhausen during the Nazi period. For the chapter on labor camps in this section of Kassel during World War II, the memorial contributed numerous photos and accounts received from former Dutch forced laborers. A professional later edited the narrated slide show and it is now available on video.

While the projects described here are among the more exceptional ones, the memorial also assists students in preparing homework assignments about their towns or communities under the Nazis. We share relevant reference materials, contact addresses, and experiences with them.

Preparation of Trips to Concentration Camp Sites

The regional role of Breitenau is also important in the preparation of trips to other concentration camp sites. Breitenau served as the initial assembly camp from which 1,800 prisoners were taken to other sites, such as Buchenwald, Ravensbrück, Sachsenhausen, Dachau, Flossenbürg, Neuengamme, Mauthausen, and Auschwitz. The memorial holds 570 prisoner files about these prisoners. These sources provide the opportunity to follow individual fates while highlighting the regional connection of these events.

Schools have repeatedly used the Breitenau memorial to prepare students for visits to other camps, such as Buchenwald and Auschwitz. Individual prisoners that were sent to other camps can be traced. One example is the fate of fifteen-year-old Russian forced laborer Alexsiej Ch., who was arrested in Bebra for escaping via train (without a ticket) after fleeing from his work site. Ch. was initially arrested and transferred to Breitenau in January 1942, and subsequently deported to Buchenwald two months later. Further information concerning his fate is unknown. Another example is Sofie Schnitzler, a Jewish citizen of Kassel. She was arrested and sent to Breitenau because "she was insolent and defiant to a police officer." On November 23, 1942, she was deported from Breitenau to Auschwitz. Barely four weeks later she was dead. Her date of death in the memorial book published by the German Federal Archives in Koblenz lists her death on.December 26, 1942.

A church youth group from the Schwalm-Eder district prepared for their 1996 week-long trip to the Terezin/Theresienstadt ghetto memorial by researching the September 7, 1942 deportation list from Kassel to Theresienstadt in the Breitenau archives. Kassel was an assembly center for deportations. The youngsters found numerous references to the names of Jews deported from their hometowns.


When students research the fate of individual victims and then personally visit memorial sites, they have the chance to make connections that would otherwise be more difficult. This knowledge about the lives of individual victims changes the students' understanding of events, and uncovers the anonymity of the enormous numbers of dead. The victims are, moreover, former members of the students' own towns, and might have even been neighbors. Students become aware that they travel the same roads taken previously by the victims. Without this emotional connection, visitors experience the sites of Auschwitz, Buchenwald, or Theresienstadt and are stunned, shocked, or stricken. However, they fail to make the connection between the sites of mass extermination and their own local history. The visitors view events as having taken place in a distant, foreign world without any association to their own milieu. The local, regional focus identifies Auschwitz and other camps as the conclusion of a long path of persecution that began at the front door of all German citizens. The regional component also makes clear that a large bureaucracy was present and consisted not only of the Gestapo but also of other civilian agencies. This refines the issue of defining the "accomplices." They were not only the brutal SS killers, but also ordinary citizens of Nazi Germany, such as mayors, local government and finance officials, and local workers. This raises questions about how such "normal" people could become accomplices to evil. It also provides students and adults with an opportunity to analyze the interaction of bureaucracy and society today.


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