A School Becomes a Concentration Camp

Secret Project "Goldfish"

Assembly hall at the Genshagen enginge factory.
Assembly hall at the Genshagen engine factory. Foto: Daimler classic archive.

The Neckarelz concentration camp, along with several other concentration camps in the region, were developed in the year 1944, as a result of a strategic factory being transferred to Obrigheim on the Neckar.

In the spring of 1944, the Allied forces, (the adversaries of Nazi Germany) intensified their bombing on the Reich. German cities were not the only targets, but also industrial plants. In February and March 1944, the Allied armed forces attacked over 900 German air armaments - in what was later to be known as the "Big Week". On March 6, 1944 the first bombs were dropped on the Daimler-Benz Airplane Engine Plant in Genshagen near Ludwisgfelde (20 km south of Berlin). 

This factory was vital to the Nazi air force. Half of all fighter planes flew with Daimler engines. The Genshagen plant was the largest German airplane engine factory.

Therefore, at the beginning of March 1944, it was decided that the entire mechanical engine production would be relocated underground.

The gypsum mine near Obrigheim/Neckar was chosen as the new location. The project was given the code name "Goldfish".

A Concentration Camp Comes into Being

The elementary school in Neckarelz 1944/45 Concentration Camp Neckarelz I School. Photo: Heuberger
Sitting Room 3 in Neckarelz School Concentration Camp - drawing: Jacques Barrau

In order to develop the gypsum mine, 500 concentration camp prisoners from Dachau were transferred to Neckarelz. They were housed in the village´s elementary school. The new Neckarelz concentration camp was a satellite camp of the Natzweiler-Struthof concentration camp in the Alsace.

The elementary school was about 2 km away from the gypsum mine in Obrigheim. The prisoners were able to reach the mine on foot by walking through the village, and crossing the railroad bridge over the Neckar. Directly accross from the schoolhouse was the "Alpenrose" guesthouse, a dance hall that henceforth served as lodging for the watchmen.

After their arrival, the prisoners had to convert the school into a concentration camp. The necessary material was delivered with their arrival.

  • The put up a barbed wire fence around the compound, and equipped the six classrooms, each measuring about 70 square meters, with bunk beds made of planks of wood.
  • The sign "Neckarelz Work Camp" was hung at the camp´s entrance.
  • The office, the kitchen and a small infirmary ("Revier") were set up in the schoolhouse cellar.
  • The schoolyard served as the place for roll call.
  • The schoolyard was also where the lavatories were located. There were five simple toilets and ten faucets above a metal trough, into which unfiltered water was fed from the Elz. The unsanitary conditions would soon be the cause of the outbreak of illnesses.

During the course of the years 1944/45 more buildings were erected on the site of the camp Neckarelz I (school). The increasingly unsanitary conditions led to the rise of the number of sick prisoners. Those who were contagious were quartered in four small barracks in the school yard. Several workshops were placed in further barracks.

The Prisoners

Of the 500 prisoners that arrived on the first transport, 130 came from the Soviet Union, 83 from Poland, 72 from Yugoslavia, 71 from Germany and Austria, 53 from Italy, 51 from France, 17 from Czechoslovakia, 7 from the Netherlands, 5 from Croatia, 4 from Belgium, 3 each from Greece and Spain, as well as one from Lithuania. The mixture of countries of origin would become even more diverse over time. The prisoners came from over 30 nations, and soon the school house would no longer be able to accomodate them all.....

 Due to the location of the village school, it was impossible for the prisoners and the almost 1,700 residents of the the village of Neckarelz not to come in contact with each other, even though the watchmen tried to avoid it. A direct conctact did however develop between the family of the elementary school´s janitor, and the prisoners in the camp. Since no other accomodations could be found for the Horber family, they remained and lived on the top floor of the school, where they would witness the conditions that the prisoners had to face on a daily basis. 

The Commanding Officers

On March 15, 1944, SS-Obersturmführer Franz Hoessler was appointed as the first commandant of the Neckarelz camp. Before that he was the "first Schutzhaftlagerführer" in the women´s camp in Auschwitz. His duties were to organise the camp, and especially the work allocation of the prisoners. In the middle of May, Hoessler was ordered back to Auschwitz, and was replaced by SS-Hauptsturmbannführer Franz Hofmann. Both the living and working conditions of the prisoners became much worse with the arrival of the new Lagerführer. The steadily increasing number of prisoners, as well as the development of the camp into a camp complex also contributed to the worsening conditions.

Almost all of the executions that took place in the Neckar camps, occured while Hofmann served as commandant.

In mid October 1944, Franz Hofmann was transferred again. The new commanding officer was the Luftwaffe (German Air Force) captian Wilhelm Streit. He would remain in this position until the camp was disbanded. While he was in charge, the number of direct assaults against the prisoners was reduced. However, the challenging conditions in winter, and the increasing levels of exhaustion still claimed more and more victims.

historische Aufnahme SS-Obersturmführer Franz Hössler
SS-Obersturmführer Franz Hössler
historische Aufnahme SS-Hauptsturmbannführer Franz Hofmann
SS-Hauptsturmbannführer Franz Hofmann
Historische Aufnahme Hauptmann der Luftwaffe Wilhelm Streit
Hauptmann der Lufwaffe Wilhelm Streit
 

Development until the end of the War

The "Goldfish" project required more and more prisoners for the construction work.  In April, 900 prisoners arrived from the Groß-Rosen concentration camp. A further 600 arrived in May from the Sachsenhausen camp, and on July 23, 1,000 from Dachau. More than 600 arrived in August and September from the Natzweiler satellite camp Wesserling in the Alscace. In addition, there were many more smaller transports from various camps within the Reich. In order to accomodate these prisoners, a further five camps had to be set up.

When the camp was dissolved on March 28, 1945, and the prisoners were to be transferred by various means to the Dachau concentration camp, more than 5,000 prisoners had passed through the Neckar camps.