STALAG VI A
STALAG VIA memorial and info point Hemer
1.What is a “STALAG”?
In the German Wehrmacht (the armed Forces) STALAG used to be the abbreviation for “Kriegsgefangenen Stammlager” (prisoner of war basic camp). The individual name of the camp indicated the region of defense as a Roman number and the alphabetical sequential order of instalment. All STALAGs had been under control of the OKW (Highest Military Command) until November 1944, when the SS became in charge of the prisoner of war camps.
STALAGs had been installed for recruited soldiers and lower rank officers.
In the beginning of the war the nominal size was scheduled at 10.000 prisoners, later it could rise up to 30.000 prisoners. In the Third Reich we count 80 STALAGs. In the region VI (based at Münster) which Hemer in the Märkische Sauerland belongs to- there had been eight STALAGs installed. The objective of each STALAG was the regional administrative and logistic control of placement of POW for the exploitation of their workforce and all individual matters.
After collection of individual data and a first health check the prisoners reached by placement through the Arbeitsamt (the official civil workforce organisation) their work place within a couple of days. This work place could be in industry, mining or farming. Some 90% of the members of a STALAG lived near their work place in barracks; on the premises of the STALAG only such prisoners could be found who were not fit for work and the ones fallen ill, being put under quarantine or having just arrived.
2. STALAG VIA installed in Sept. 1939
Because of the rapid occupation of Polonia in a short time thousands of prisoners had to be dealt with. The numbers reached had been estimated far too low by the OKW. This was the reason why in all the ‘regions of defense’ miltitary objects were screened for suitability for PoW camps. Because the premises in Hemer Jüberg, a future military camp for some 10.000 soldiers, was still in the construction phase and not yet available for the Wehrmacht, it came into focus. Hemer had, which was important, a railroad connection and was situated near the Ruhrgebiet industry. In agreement with the westfalian regional Arbeitsamt (workforce organization) in Dortmund the decision to instal the first PoW camp in Hemer was taken in Sepember 1939. Some weeks later the massive 3-story stone barracks received a roof, windows and doors so that the Polish PoWs, until then being put into a camp of tents on a sports field in Ostenschlahstreet nearby could move in. Since the buildings still were under construction prisoners had to sleep on concrete floors until later on two-to three layer bunk beds had been constructed. A lttle later wooden barracks had to be put up in order to reach the target occupancy of the camp. Around the premises a double fence had been erected, an inner fence of 1.5 m height and an outer fence of 3.5 m height. For better surveillance wooden watchtowers were built. A regional bataillon had the command of custody.
3. Polish, French, Belgian and Italien PoW
Until November 1939 some 12.000 Polish PoW had been brought into STALAG VIA.
Although, according to the racist ideology “Slawes” like people from the Soviet Union, they had been treated less worse than the Soviets later on. Many of the Polish PoWs had been, by authority of the Arbeitsamt, declared to become civilians and were forced to work – a bureaucratic procedure to not have to count these people as PoW. After 1942 most Polish PoWs had been transferred to other camps due to the disclosure of a cell of resistance in STALAG VIA.
With the number of almost 28.000 PoW from France in 1942 Frenchmen were the largest group in the camp. Comparably correctly treated in the camp and also during work outside they had been allowed to write letters, receive parcels from home and have their own religious services in a small chapel in building No 5. They published an internal news-leaflet called “Pour Nous”. Theater as well as music presentations made their stay less boresome. After consultation with the Vichy-government of Southern France, the not occupied part of France, agreed to trade repatriation against the inclusion of France into Germanys wartime-economy. Thus the number of French PoW reduced to some 5.000 at the end of 1942.
From 1943 on some 1300 Belgians belonged to STALAG VIA and were treated like the French, working in crafts and industry nearby.
Italy changed from being allied to Germany into a “traitor-foe” after Mussolinis defeat in 1943.Up to 15.000 PoW reached the STALAG VIA from Sept.1943 onward. Germany treated them as traitors and similarly bad like Soviets. After a 1944 campaign to “declare civil” their number dropped down to a couple of hundred PoW, the rest becoming scattered into the forced workforce .
During WorldWar II some 5.7 Mio Red Army Soldiers became imprisoned. It is estimated that 3.3 Mio lost their lives by execution, injury, illness and famine.
The Russia campaign had the goal to eliminate the soviet people completely: in the racist ideology of the Nazi the Soviets were not humans and not entitled to the right of life. Consequently international military conventions were not applied to them.
The first prisoners came during Oktober 1941 into STALAGVIa and were processed on to the coal mines of the Ruhrgebiet. By the end of that year the camp administered already 47.000 prisoners from Russia. The increase of numbers went on especially in fall 1942. The idea of the military administration was to stabilize all soviet prisoners after being screened as fit for work in the STALAG and after a short stay to send the to their slavery work. But nutrition never had been satisfactory. Their stay in the STALAG and in the different working camps turned out to be a constant struggle for survival. In accordance with the nationalsocialist ideology these prisoners were entitled to the worst provisioning compared with other nationalities. They could not receive mail from home, no parcels from international organizations, not even the Red Cross was allowed to care for them. Failure at work lead to being sent back to the STALAG. So for the soviet prisoners STALAG VIA developed into a “Jama” (hole), a terrible place to die.
5. Everyday life in STALAG VIA
More than 500 persons had been in charge of security and aministration of the camp. Some 150 guards formed the sentinel squad. The bataillon consisted almost exclusively of elder soldiers not fit for combat or younger but disabled soldiers. Some treated the prisoners correctly but there also were many to torment or even murder the prisoners.
The field office of the Arbeitsamt (work force authority) inside the camp assigned the prisoners to the different work commands of their region. The military hospital was in charge of the disabled, the sick and the treatment of the undernourished prisoners. In some times this medical treatment due to lack of medicine, lack of food resources, and the constant malnutrition was not taken care of. The rate of casualties rose to unbelievable numbers- corpses had been brought to a special cellar and evey morning transported to mass graves.
This situation was baleful and degrading. In the tents it was hot in the summer and much too cold and wet in winter time. In the large massive buildings no heating was available and it was so fully packed so that prisoners suffered from tuberculosis and vermin in clothes and beds.
Every morning there was a roll call. Meals were not sufficient – coffee made of rooasted malt, watery soup of beet and raw potatoes, 250g bread a day, sometimes a little fat, simple wurst or treacle. Prisoners from the West and some from Poland could ameliorate their food by the content of parcels sent to them from home. Fierce fights were reported among the sentinels and Russian prisoners who sometimes tried to get a second helping.
6. Exploitation of the workforce
For the economy of the Reich the reservoir of workforce from STALAGs was of eminent importance. According to the Geneva Convention of 1923 PoWs could be sent to work in all economic spheres except in the military. In the beginning the prisoners were indeed sent to agriculture and factories nearby – later on, despite the Geneva Convention, also in war economy. On Nov. 4th1942 STALAG VIA was dedicated as special camp for mining. By Fall 1944 90% of the roughly 100.000 PoW had been sent to the mines of the Ruhrgebiet.
Mortality increased because of malnutrition, heaviest and dangerous work of 12 hours a day.
In the course of war, from 1943 on PoW and forced labour replaced more and more German workers. For war economy they became indispensable. Some 13 Mio persons had been in the forced labour force- Forced labour surpassed the number and work efficiency of PoW.
Individual fate in both groups could vary a lot. Some were lucky to work in small handicraft workshops or in farming, the worst fate though hit the people in heavy industry, steel and coal. Throughout PoW from the West were treated much better than the Eastern prisoners from USSR or Poland.
7. Surrender of the camp
Beginning of April some 325.000 German soldiers become encolsed in the Ruhr region. Some 30.000 in the east near Iserlohn when US troops reached from the East Deilinghofen, the border of Hemer on 12th/13th of April.. There was the order of field-marshal Model to hold on but General-Lieutenant Bayerlein gave the order to surrender. It was captain Weller, in charge of the camp, who decided to meet the US roops in order to prevent the massive invasion and bloodshed after the last Tiger tanks had left Hemer for good. Without action the camp had been surrendered to the US troops on April 14th. The Americans found 23.302 prisoners in meserable condition and instantly started a food program and medical treatment. Shortly after the liberation many soviet and italian prisoners raided the region for a couple of days after their break-out until they could be sent back by US troops.
Casualty rate still stayed hight in the first days after liberation but due to the better treatment by the Americans could be drastically reduced.
During the last days before the liberation the disposal of corpses did not function any longer, In the basement room for the corpses the US troops found 250 corpses and cared for instant burial in a mass grave near the camp in the Haseloh road.
8. From PoW(Prisoner of War) to DP (displaced Person)
The Allies counted as DPs all persons deported from their homeland before 1945 by the German military. The number of 18.4 Mio people comprised all prisoners of War and forced labourers. Most of these reached home by the end of 1945. The US troops changed the name of the STALAGVIa camp into a camp for Displaced Persons called “Camp Roosevelt” . From May to August 1945 it served as a major center for repatriation. A small number of former prisoners had the opportunity to emigrate from Europe into the USA, Canada or Australia.
Citizens of the USSR were not allowed to emigrate because the Soviet Union insisted on repatriation also in the cases where former prisoners did not want to get back..
In the Soviet Union all former soldiers having been imprisoned in Germany were treated suspiciously – they had been thought of being alienated from communism and treated like traitors or collaboraters. Near the border to Poland at Frankfurt/Oder all returning personel had to be screened and interviewed by counter spionage in many cases the painful interrogations led to a guilty plea: according to the outcome many had been shot, imprisoned or sent to a Gulag – the minimum fate was being for years and years under surveillance.
It lasted until the Gorbatschov era from 1987 on that rehabilitation started: For many this came too late since war, imprisonment, forced labour and afterwards proscirption abroad and at home had destoyed their life.
9. The victims of STALAG VIA
The first casualties of STALAGVIa, French and Polish, were buried in a special field at the communal burial place. Beginning 1942 a new burial field had to be opened for the Russian prisoners adjacent to the protestant burial place at Höcklingser Weg where 3.400 found their grave. In spring 1943 inside of the military premises on the other side of the town, hill called “Duloh” a big burial place had been installed for mass graves. The corpses wrapped into wax paper were brought by a horse cart through the town on to the hill and put there without any ceremony into the mass graves in three layers. As far as we know today 8.000-9.000 prisoners, (present research might still lead to different numbers) mostly Russians died in Hemer. Having been sent back from the mines to their home- STALAG as not any longer being fit for work they there could not be cared for and were bound to die. Chances to survive were low since neither correct medical treatment nor normal nourishment had been available. Casualties near the workplaces in the Ruhr Region by illness, air raids and arbitrariness were taken care of locally.
Lacking exact numbers until today (2009) it is assumed that from 1939 to 1945 almost 200.000 prisoners had been enrolled in STALAG VIA.
Many survivors suffered from this distress and sorrow, wounds and illness for the rest of their life.
Both large burial places, after some reshaping throughout the years, today are in a solemn dignified condition. A memorial put up in 1967 replaced an original soviet memorial erected and inaugurated already in 1945, which today found its place at the Duloh burial place. It shows a low relief with three suffering prisoners, on top the Soviet Star and kyrillic inscriptions at the base. In the northeast corner of the Duloh Burial place we find a stele, chiseled by a French soldier for his comrades in 1942.
After the war the existance of the camp had been suppressed for decades. Not more than the looting and the distress of prisoners after the liberation had been talked about
An examination of this story about STALAG VIA did not happen. A Penitence Walk of the catholic and protestant churches took place in 1975. Until 1982 when the brochure of the “Initiative for peace and disarmament “ about the STALAG VIA was edited and the first commemoration took place at the Duloh cemetary, many citizens of Hemer felt offended by this as indignation or provocation. In the years to come many more commemorations with renown speakers, embassy members etc. changed the attitude of representatives of the town towards this dark chapter of town history, of the Bundeswehr (the German Army, which had their barracks on the premises, then called “Blücher Kaserne”) and finally even of the majority of the citizens of Hemer. 1992 a memorial was dedicated right in front of the Blücher Kaserne. 1995 the Bundeswehr in collaboration with a citizens initiative called “Arbeitskreis STALAG VIA” installed a small memorial room with an exhibition about the life and death of the prisoners right at the entrance of the Blücher Kaserne. Since that time not only all soldiers serving there until the Bundeswehr gave up this location for good, but also thousands of visitors and among them some former prisoners or relatives from different, mostly European countries informed themselves there. The same year the Volkshochschule and city of Hemer edited a major documentation as a book. In 2001 the WDR (West German Radio) made a TV documentation about the “mass grave in the Sauerland”. Every Year the citizens initiative “action 365” invites on April 14th , the day of liberation, to a commemoration at the memorial. Todays information center has been installed on the premises of STALAG VIA by the “Verein für Hemeraner Zeitgeschichte e.V.” in 2009.
Text: Peter Klagges, Hans-Hermann Stopsack, Eberhard Thomas; translation: Dr.Helmut Fritsch