Saturday, December 10, 2016

Documenting the Nazi Years in Cologne

Have you ever wondered what a Gestapo prison looked like?  At the NS Documentation Center of the City of Cologne (in German, Köln), you can visit one in the basement of a building that was the headquarters of the city and district Gestapo from 1935 until 1945. It has ten cells that held prisoners brought in for what the Gestapo called “intensive interrogations,” the Gestapo's preferred euphemism for torture.
Sign for the
NS Documentation Center of Köln
In one of the ironies of war, despite intensive Allied bombing of Cologne, the Gestapo's building survived with little damage, leaving, according to the Documentation Center, “one of the best preserved detention centers from the Nazi period in Germany.” The dark and squalid cells are sobering enough by themselves, but the walls pack an emotional punch: on them are about 1,800 inscriptions left by the prisoners using pencils, chalk, lipstick, nails, screws, and fingernails. 

These inscriptions bring home the sober realization that thousands of people were tortured in this basement. The prisoners were not only Germans, but included many men and women brought from Eastern Europe and Russia to be slave laborers. Of the 1,800 inscriptions, about 600 are written in Cyrillic. The inscriptions include messages of desperation, despair, frustration, and anger. Some were written just to tell people the writer had been there, maybe hoping someone would read it and let their friends and relatives know.

From the cellar cells, a passage leads to the inside courtyard. According to the Documentation Center, this courtyard is where executions were carried out. There, during the eighteen months of the war, about 400 prisoners were murdered.
Example of Inscriptions on the Gestapo Prison Cell Walls 
The Gestapo Prison Memorial was first opened in 1981. In 1988, the NS Documentation Center moved into the building. In addition to the prison museum, the Center has a permanent exhibit “Cologne during National Socialism” and it also hosts shorter-term special exhibits. When I was there in late October, the special exhibit was on Hitler Youth. The nicely-designed exhibit examined the rise of Hitler Youth and its activities. One of its features was interviews with several older men and women who had been members of Hitler Youth describing why they joined the organization and its roles in family, school, leisure and other aspects of life.. The exhibit’s photographs and artifacts are titled in both German and English, but the interviews are only in German.
Part of the Hitler Youth Exhibit. To the left is a post about HJ advertising to the right is propaganda on
"Race Types" used in school

Poster for Hitler Youth special exhibition

One purpose of Hitler Youth was to prepare
young men to be dedicated and disciplined solders; this
poster "We all pitch in" was intended to urge HJ members
to take part in the war effort
The Center has a large research library and offers numerous lectures and discussions. Also, it has an excellent website, including a 360-degree tour that offers visitors a chance to travel around the center and see its exhibits as well as the prison. The website is available in many languages, including English. Go to
Courtyard of the Gestapo Prison where prisoners were executed

With its exhibits, well-preserved Gestapo prison, library, active research program, and lectures, the Center appears to be an excellent resource for educating people, Germans and visitors, on the horrors of the Nazi period.

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