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3. Excerpt from the memoir by Stanislaw Sterkowicz – a prisoner of Neuengamme concentration camp which was liberated in April 1945 by the British

The worst for the prisoners were the last months of the war, especially April 1945. [...]I was then a prisoner of Neuengamme concentration camp located near Hamburg. [...] The prisoners were exploited to work in the factories in Hamburg, to build fortifications, and above all to clear the city of debris after almost nightly air-raids. [...]

From mid-April 1945 they began to bring people to the barracks taking care to separate the prisoners from prisoners of war [people imprisoned by German troops – K. Czekaj supplement]. Prisoners were given starvation rations and they were kept in constant terror but they were not compelled to work every day. People split into two groups. Ones were dying out indifferent to everything. Others were strong enough to get food even by taking it from the weaker. [...] Under these extreme conditions even several hundred prisoners were dying every day – because of emaciation, pediculosis, bloody diarrhoea, starvation, and epidemics. [..] Nobody was moved by the sight of the moribund and dying. Bodies of people who died the previous night were thrown in front of the barracks. Some had their bellies torn apart with a knife. Prisoners degenerated by hunger secretly cut out the livers of the dead to cook food by frying it in empty tins. The prisoners caught on cannibalism were killed on spot by SS men. But pity and compassion expired in us – fellow prisoners.

On the night of 19 to 20 April 1945, the news that the SS men fled and left the prisoners under guard of the Wehrmacht began to spread in barracks. People physically able to move ran outside, though they were threatened with death. [...] Everybody wanted to take advantage of the situation and get to the camp kitchen or storehouse in order to win food. At the towers, however, soldiers of the Wehrmacht were watching with machine guns. [...] The guards opened fire with machine guns, pointing it at the square. [...] But the shooting did not stop the crowd of prisoners seized with hunger and the vision of winning food. In the kitchen they were pulling the gained treasures of each other in the dark. Who fell was trampled to death. Everyone could count only on themselves. [...]

April 20, 1945 around noon in our camp whistles were heard calling for an assembly. We lined up in long columns according to nationality. We were facing the door separating us from the POW camp. We were waiting anxiously. Who will appear in it – the SS or the Wehrmacht? And finally we were moved to see people in other uniforms than German. Polish, French, Russian, and the other officers went ahead. And behind them went more than a dozen soldiers that had something in blankets. I spotted an eagle on the cap of one of the officers. That Polish captain stood to attention in front of us, saluted, and began to speak: <>. And he intoned <>. We wept with emotion. After a while we heard "La Marseillaise" sung by Frenchmen. "The Internationale," which was sung by Russians joined the chorus. It was an unforgettable moment – the first gulp of freedom.

April 29, 1945 English tanks entered the camp. I was too weak to stand up and greet them. Englishmen saw macabre sight of several thousand people in striped uniforms, lying side by side on the square and in the barracks. As it turned out later, there were 8,779 prisoners, including nearly 1.3 thousand of Poles, 2.9 thousand of Russians, one thousand of Frenchmen and 17 other nationalities all exhausted, lousy, with diarrhoea. [...]

After regaining freedom many of us were dying from camp diseases for a long time. We were free, but marked by the stigma of death. For many, help came too late."

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Source: Sterkowicz S. Wyzwalanie półżywych. „Przeglad” 2005, issue 9 (Free translation by K. Czekaj).


Neuengamme concentration camp near Hamburg was organized as a large factory, which was using slave work of prisoners to produce military equipment for the German army. The prisoners of this camp, for many years were experiencing the unimaginable cruelty from the Nazis. Even in the last days before liberation often they were unaware that their nightmare was over. Knowing the methods of Nazis, they simply did not believe in any chance of surviving the camp. The account by S. Sarkiewicz shows how life in the camp distorted human psyche, and destroyed all the humanitarian reactions in the relations between human beings. Prisoners who were waiting for the liberation did not make plans for the future. They did not think about freedom and coming home. Their needs were limited to the animal instinct of hunger, which led even to cannibalism. These experiences prevented the survivor prisoners from returning to normal life. They were forever stamped with the camp stigma.

"Poland Has Not Yet Perished" – Polish national anthem, lyrics by Josef Wybicki.

“La Marseillaise” – national anthem of France written and composed by Claude Joseph Rouget de Lisle.

“The Internationale” – a socialist song written by Eugene Pottier and Pierre Degeyter, which in the Russian version was the anthem of the Soviet Union since 1944.


  1. Who was imprisoned in Neuengamme concentration camp in spring 1945?
  2. How did prisoners behave while waiting for liberation?
  3. How did prisoners react having regained freedom?

Display teacher's view to find the answers.

Description and Analysis

  1. Who was imprisoned in Neuengamme concentration camp in spring 1945?
    Prisoners and prisoners of war captured by the German army were kept in the camp. Most of them constituted Poles, Russians, and Frenchmen.
  2. How did prisoners behave while waiting for liberation?
    Prisoners fell into extreme apathy, or fought for their lives. The letter ones did not hesitate to use violence against the weaker by e.g. taking food from them. Some of the prisoners experienced complete collapse of morality by committing cannibalism. The most important thing for all (except of liberation) was to satisfy the hunger, even at risk of life.
  3. How did prisoners react having regained freedom?
    When German soldiers and guards left the prison, each of the nations represented among the prisoners, paid tribute to regained freedom by singing national anthems. But many were too weak and ill to respond in any way to the liberation.

Geographical/Historical Context

Neuengamme labour camp was created in 1938 before the outbreak of war. During the war, it was regularly developed with new branches and sub-camps, which formed a dense network of plants that were using slave labour of prisoners transported here from Germany and occupied areas of Europe. This way camps grouped around Neuengamme became an important centre of production of arms during the war. The production was based on the forced labour of prisoners. The workers represented majority of nations that were objects of aggression of the Third Reich – Poles, Frenchmen, and Russians. About 100,000 people came through the main camp at Neuengamme and dozens of its satellites during the war. About 43,000 people died here. The extermination of the prisoners was associated primarily with the murderous conditions of work (extermination through labour), but also with the experiments that the Nazis made on the camp prisoners. These experiments were of paramedical nature, but also covered use of Zyklon B for mass extermination of Jews.

The author of presented material (Prof. Stanislaw Sterkowicz) came to Neuengamme camp near Hamburg in 1944. Before that he participated actively in the Home Army (Armia Krajowa). However, he came to a labour camp in Germany as a victim of street roundups. The dramatic experience of living in a Nazi concentration camp made him devote himself to documenting Nazi crimes after the war (in addition to his medical and scientific work). He concentrated on medical experiments conducted by Nazis on prisoners of concentration camps.

Paradoxically, for prisoners of Neuengamme (and many other camps) the coming liberation often meant losing the last hope for regaining freedom. The Nazis reaction on rapidly approaching defeat was covering all traces of the crimes committed by them. To achieve that goal they made hasty evacuation and liquidation of concentration camps in the last months of the war. Prisoners of labour camps together with all portable possessions were "evacuated" to the areas yet unoccupied by the Allies. For starving and emaciated prisoners it meant dozens of kilometres to march (so called "death marches"). Most of the prisoners were not able to survive this journey. Prisoners that remained in the camps were often simply killed by retreating Germans. Therefore, only very few lived to see liberation of camps. In his report Sterkowicz, however, points to the fact that even for these survivors coming back to life as a free people was often impossible.


http://www.dsh.waw.pl/hm/isfldp – webpage of the International Slave and Forced Labourers Documentation Project (“Dokumentacja losow zyciowych bylych robotnikow niewolniczych i przymusowych”).

http://hm.fotohistoria.pl/hm_presentations/forgotten_camps/index.php?ver=pl&content=temat&temat=Wyzwolenie%20obozu,%20powr%C3%B3t%20do%20domu – webpage that contains reports of survivors from the camps.

http://www.gazetalekarska.pl/xml/oil/oil67/gazeta/numery/n2008/n200803/n20080307 – webpage that presents the profile and work of Prof. Sterkowicz – the author of the cited memoirs.

http://www.kz-gedenkstaette-neuengamme.de – the Neuengamme Concentration Camp Memorial webpage.