In April I was invited to the 75th anniversary of the liberation of a POW camp near Hamburg called SANDBOSTEL.
I had only recently found out that my father was a Polish Prisoner of War there, sometime in 1945. I recall my father telling me there was a death march toward Hamburg. But he never mentioned the name of the place. So I didn’t really think too much of it, as he had given me various names of the other camps he was in. The information is still vague, but through extensive research a document was found with his name on it, and he was at this Sandbostel Camp. Even though I knew about various camps he was in, I never knew about this one.
After seeing photos of the camp after liberation I understood why he blanked it out of his brain and his consciousness. He never mentioned it. And it was clear why.
I don’t want to focus on my father, but I mention it as that is how I came upon the simple yet thoroughly moving portraits of former prisoners of the camp that still are very much alive. Several survivors attended the memorial and spoke and just their presence was one of dignity and deep respect for having endured such a time and such a place.
A document center and memorial exists now after several years and probably years of struggle to appropriate funding for the site. One can see the rundown and disintegrating huts and I sense more funding is needed and desired! The small permanent exhibit is beautifully organized and extensive. For such a small space I was impressed at the beautiful design and the curatorial choices.
Walking into the memorial center one finds just a small wall where these photos of Sarah Mayr were found.
Info found on Sandbostel:
The camp was established as a prisoner of war camp just outside of Sandbostel in 1939. At the beginning of the war, the Wehrmacht imprisoned thousands of Poles here. During the course of the war, prisoners of many other nationalities were held captive here: from Italy, France, Yugoslavia, Belgium and Russia. From 1941, Soviet prisoners constituted the largest prisoner group. At times there were as many as 50,000 prisoners at Stalag X B. However, for most prisoners, the Stalag X B Sandbostel was merely a transit camp: they had to conduct forced labour at farms or arms factories and were deployed to so-called labour commandos and housed in barracks not far from their places of work. Many of the prisoners died of hunger, exhaustion or diseases. In April 1945, the SS additionally brought about 9,000 concentration camp prisoners from Neuengamme and its satellite camps ─ after those camps had been dissolved ─ to Sandbostel, where they were accommodated in a separate part of the camp. When a typhus epidemic broke out, a large number of concentration camps prisoners died at Sandbostel. On April 29, 1945, British troops liberated the »Stalag X B Sandbostel«.
From October 1944 on, over 500 Polish women who had fought in the Warsaw Uprising (August to October 1944) were incarcerated at Sandbostel. Between 3,000 and 9,000 of the concentration camp prisoners who were brought to Sandbostel by the SS in April 1945 died in the time period between April 12 and 29 and in the first weeks after liberation. Exact numbers concerning the total number of prisoners and victims at Sandbostel remain unknown.
I enclose some images of the very stunning images of these men who were imprisoned and sat for these portraits.
Sarah Mayr gave an interview about the photos and how she came about this project of SANDBOSTEL. I read it and took what I could understand from the interview and parapharased what I took from the article and interview:
Sarah Mayr came about this project as her mother lived in the area near the POW camp. She saw how the barracks were falling apart and began photographing the site.
In her first year of studying photography her black and white photos of the site formulated the beginning of this project and the research involved inspired her to know more and go in quest of some of the survivors.
She began to search for survivors by working with the Sandbostel Memorial Center and began to write letters to introduce herself to the survivors if she can take a portrait of them and also to speak with them.
She was given support by Neuengamme, Bergen-Belsen and Sanbostel and began to find the survivors and interview them while also taking their portrait.
She didn’t just want to talk about their prison time, but also other subjects. In the exhibit, one can find the portraits and also headphones in order to hear some of the text from these moments.
In the interview she would ask them about their life before the war and then as a soldier or a resistance fighter after their being captured. She would ask them their time in the prison camp, their liberation time and their life as a survivor today. The survivors were very direct and took a lot of courage to place themselves back into that horrible time.
The interviewer mentions that the story of the POW CAMP SANDBOSTEL after 1945 was very much not spoken about. In 1992 a memorial center was founded and in 2013 a new memorial organization was set up with a permanent installation/ exhibit and information center with archives. This organization deals with the history of the camp and includes a teaching center for students in the area and a document/archive opportunity for scholars/researchers. They take great effort on the day of liberation to be as inclusive as they can, inviting not just survivors but students and neighbors, and people who live in the area and surroundings. They try to involve as much of the public as they can and that is extremely important to them.
Something that moved me tremendously were the small tiny cards of the photographs. I took a whole bunch home and showed them around to people I knew. I loved this subtle idea. Just small photos to show, with the name of the person in the photo, the date and the name of the photographer. Very respectful and elegant and dignified. The viewer could sense a deep nobility in these men, and deep self respect for their time in the war and what this all stood for on a deeper and higher level. What sacrifice meant. If you go to the site you could read the personal stories of each subject. Each man exuded a deep sense of commitment in such values that I think are dying a slow death right now. Respect for home, respect for self and mostly respect for democracy and freedom. Fighting for a free world and a legacy for future generations. Freedom was the key word!
The exhibit was held 2015:
Wednesday April 1 – Thursday April 30, 2015
Foyer im Ausstellungsgebäude
Fotoausstellung »Sandbostel« von Sarah Mayr (Berlin)