Castle ruins are common in Germany. You can find them on just about every other high hill. However, my husband Steve and I recently explored one that holds special significance. The castle ruins in Flossenburg, Germany border the Czech Republic, and stand as a sentinel over the infamous Flossenburg concentration camp.
After a steep, rocky climb to reach the top of the hill, you then continue your trek over narrow granite steps to reach the summit of the castle itself. The residential tower on top of the granite rock, equipped with a fireplace, was located around 1100. In the Middle Ages the tower was rebuilt. These castles were always built on the pinnacle of a hill for security purposes and were the residence of the local town sheriff, or knight, who was employed to guard the surrounding villages. The walls of the castle were built with granite from the quarry located hundreds of feet below.
Upon arriving at the summit, there is an amazing view of the valley below and the town of Flossenburg itself, with its charming homes. There is a quietness that rests over the village, with the occasional ringing of church bells. Who could ever imagine that horrific atrocities against man had ever been committed in such a peaceful setting.
At the beginning of our trek, my first observation and comment to my husband was that we were being followed by “my white butterfly.” He’s used to hearing this from me, no matter where we go. It just so happens that I have been followed by white butterflies for years. He turned to me and commented, “You DO understand that it’s NOT your same butterfly that follows you everywhere!”
“Of course it isn’t,” I assured him…but who knows…maybe it is.
We continued to explore the surrounding ruins and came upon an arch. Steve was quick to point out the keystone.
After some exploration we made our descent into the valley…entering later into the “valley of death.” It’s hard to comprehend that such an idyllic, peaceful village was once
the location of a notorious Nazi concentration camp.
A short time later we made our way through the gates of the Flossenburg Concentration camp. The camp at Flossenburg was opened at the beginning of May 1938; its first prisoners were brought from Dachau. Many of these were political prisoners and hardened criminals. Later, they were joined by thousands of Jews. The violent criminals were often goaded to torment the other prisoners.The roll call ground formed the center of the camp. Every morning and evening the prisoners were counted here. Standing at attention, often for hours, meant an additional torture for the undernourished and inadequately clothed prisoners. A gallows was erected on the roll call ground so that executions could be carried out in front of all other prisoners.
One of the main reasons for the choice of Flossenburg for a camp was the significant granite deposits in the area. The aim was to make maximum use of prisoners’ slave labor to dig granite from the quarry to arm Nazi Germany. The stone they quarried was used to build many of the Nazi’s monumental buildings.
“In the evening, on the return march, each of us had to carry down an enormous roll-stone on our shoulders, because these stones were used to surface the camp yard. My shoulder was bloodied and my jacket was torn open because these sharp-edged stones had been chiseled out of the rocks.” (Quote from a prisoner)
“All day long, we had to drag up boulders of rock, throw them down again, and then drag them back up. If there was frost overnight, then water was poured over the stairs. The next day, we had to drag the rocks up over the slippery ice. It was horrible.” – Frantisek Sulak January 26, 1945
“Although, I left Flossenburg as soon as I could, Flossenburg never left me. For us, former inmates, the events of our past became the foundation of our haunted lives.” – Jack Terry
(Photos and commentary are from the small museum located on site.)
Inadequately clothed and lacking all safety precautions, the prisoners were compelled, no matter the weather, to excavate soil, carry out blasting of granite blocks, push trolley wagons, and haul rocks. Accidents were daily and routine events. Backbreaking labor, long work hours, freezing cold, severe malnutrition, and random SS violence led to the death of many prisoners. A work day in the quarry lasted twelve hours, interrupted only by a single break when a thin soup was served. The SS forced prisoners to walk in circles for hours, hauling rocks. Only a few prisoners survived. At the end of the work day, the prisoners carried the bodies of the dead back to the camp.
After touring the museum, we walked to the back of the camp, still followed by “a white butterfly!” I noticed there were a few carefully planted flowers, but the grounds were mainly covered by wildflowers…which seemed to me a silent memorial from the hand of God, himself. From a distance, we could see the surrounding guard towers.
An initiative by a Polish memorial committee led to the establishment of one of Europe’s first concentration camp memorials. This memorial site was laid out to resemble a Christian Stations of the Cross. The entrance is located above the crematorium. The pillars of the camp gate were moved there to to represent the beginning of the prisoners’ suffering. This path leads through the hollow called the “Valley of Death,” past the stations of the execution site and “Pyramid of Ashes.”
Throughout this walk you could feel a “holy awe” and I just fought back the tears. Those visiting the camp spoke in hushed voices. I couldn’t bear to take a picture of the ovens. It just seemed too sacred to be trivialized with a camera. On our walk back out of this sad valley, Steve and I were pleasantly surprised to find this memorial plaque on one of the walls:
Dietrich Bonhoeffer was a German theologian who refused to pledge allegiance to the Nazi cause. He is most well remembered for his book “The Cost of Discipleship.” At the break of dawn on April 9, 1945, Dietrich Bonhoeffer was hanged. As they prepared him for his death, he preached his final sermon. His words were remembered, and later retold, by a captured RAF pilot: “This is for me the end, the beginning of life.” Only two weeks later, April 23, 1945, Flossenburg camp was liberated by the American Army.
The following quotes are all from Dietrich Bonhoeffer
The exclusion of the weak and insignificant, the seemingly useless people, from a Christian community may actually mean the exclusion of Christ; in the poor brother – Christ is knocking at the door.
When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die.
The first service that one owes to others in the fellowship consists of listening to them just as love of God begins with listening to his Word, so the beginning of love for our brothers and sisters is learning to listen to them.
The biggest mistake you can make in your life is to be always afraid of making a mistake.
We must be ready to allow ourselves to be interrupted by God.
Silence in the face of evil is evil itself.
The person who’s in love with their vision of community will destroy community. But the person who loves the people around them will create community everywhere they go.
So…according to Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the “keystone” for preserving community is love. Without this keystone, the arch of community and society will collapse! Jesus Christ summed it up in the two great laws: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength. The second is this: Love your neighbor as yourself. There is no commandment greater than these.” (Mark 12:30-31 ) When I look at this photo, I see one half of the arch as the first commandment and the other half as the second commandment, and the “keystone” is the Lord Jesus Christ Himself who holds it all together, and upholds life itself!
I am very grateful to the nation of Germany for preserving these concentration camps and memorials as a reminder to us all of the importance of loving our God and loving, serving and caring for our fellow man. There is wisdom in learning from history.
By the way, the white butterfly followed us all day. Was it the same one? Who knows.