By Roderick Miller
At least four Channel Islanders were imprisoned in Diez Prison (Zuchthaus Freiendiez, Strafanstalt Freiendiez, Strafgefängnis Diez, Strafanstalt Diez, Justizvollzugs- und Sicherungsverwahranstalt Diez) in the city of Diez on the Lahn River in the Rhein-Lahn district of the state of Rhineland-Palatinate in Germany. The prison was built from 1907 until 1912 in a Panopticon architectural style (meaning a single guard could observe all of the prisoners in their cells), at which date the first prisoners were incarcerated there. The part of town where the prison is located was an independent community named Freiendiez until it was incorporated into the city of Diez in 1938. The prison was used in the Nazi era to incarcerate political prisoners and to deport them to various concentration camps. The prisoner of war camp Limburg/Diez Stalag XIIa was located in nearby Limburg, and a number prisoners sentenced by the Nazis to death there were taken to Diez Prison and executed.
In the August 1943, Channel Islanders Paul Gourdan and Jack Harper escaped from Neuoffingen Prison Camp in southern Germany. Harper was soon caught, but Gourdan managed to make it to the Belgian border before being denounced to the Nazis by a farmer. Gourdan was returned briefly to Augsburg Gestapo Prison Katzenstadel before being sent for six months to Mannheim Prison. He probably arrived in Diez in the spring of 1944 and was placed into a forced labour work group (‘commando’) that was brought back to Diez Prison by US forces two days after liberation.
I eventually arrived at a large Nazi prison named Diez-Lahn, situated near Frankfurt, West Germany, where I served two years in solitary confinement in the same cell, on the top floor. The treatment by the Nazi guards was at all times vicious and brutal, especially during the latter twelve months when aerial bombardments became more frequent by day and by night. The guards would enter my cell quite frequently and beat me up and often leave me without food for one whole day and on numerous occasions even deny me drinking water. I would have to remove all my clothing at the end of each day. The clothing was then taken from the cell and returned in the morning. The only covering for my naked body during the night was one thin tattered blanket. I was also denied heat in my cell. I was forbidden all reading material. I requested several times to be allowed to write to my wife and children but was refused each time. I asked to see a church representative and put in a request for the Holy Bible, this was also denied me…
I was given a half hour exercise each day in the prison yard, but the latter four months before liberation this was also denied me, due to the fact that we were subjected to a heavy air bombardment in December 1944, which demolished the east and west sides of the surrounding prison walls. Food consisted of a semi-starvation diet and during the latter six months was at its lowest. One thin slice of dry black bread with a small bowl of watery cabbage soup (Sauerkraut) daily. It was a case of being slowly starved to death. My weight when liberated was five stone, ten pounds [about 80 lbs.] (my height is six foot, my normal weight thirteen stone [about 182 lbs.) I was the only Britisher in this prison Diez-Lahn and, when liberated, was too weak to walk without aid due to malnutrition. —Frederick Short, 15 January 1965
Channel Islander Sidney Ashcroft arrived in Diez Prison from Bernau Prison (via Amberg Prison) in September 1943, where he remained until his transfer to Limburg Prison, probably in February 1945. Documents from Diez Prison record that he performed a total of 316 days of forced labour in an optics factory there. The work at the optics factory at the prison was considered to be especially heavy labour, with work days as long as 11 to 13 hours. Ashcroft and Short had met in Bernau Prison, but Short was apparently unaware — no doubt due to his having been put in solitary confinement — that Ashcroft was in Diez Prison at the same time that he was.
Guernseyman James Quick arrived in Diez Prison from Bernau Prison and was transferred next to Metz Prison, which at the time was slated to be annexed away from French Lorraine and into the German Reich district of Lothringen. His length of stay in Diez is unknown.
As the end of the war approached, the prison was overcrowded with 700 to 800 prisoners, many of them non-German political and Nacht und Nebel (‘Night and Fog’) prisoners. These NN prisoners were part of a secret hostage programme devised by the Nazis as a means of controlling potential resistance in occupied territory, and the action was declared a crime against humanity during the post-war Nuremberg trials.
Frederick Short first encountered Paul Gourdan in Diez Prison two days after the US Army liberated the city of Diez, on 27 March 1945, and Short stated that Gourdan
…was brought under escort of American armed forces and then informed me that the Germans had had him on slave labour building fortifications in some part of Germany, I believe not far from the prison. He then informed me that he, with a large number of French prisoners, had been caught up in the cross-fire of German and American forces due to the fact that the German forces had abandoned them and fled. They (the prisoners) sought refuge in slit trenches etc. until such time as they were taken prisoners by the American Forces. After having identified themselves to the Americans, they were then escorted to Diez-Lahn prison.—Frederick Short, 29 January 1966
Paul Gourdan thus survived in a work commando near Diez and was liberated by US troops near the battlefront. A total of at least 129 deaths (62 of them French prisoners), including executions, occurred in Diez Prison. Sidney Ashcroft died in Straubing Prison one week after liberation in 1945 due to the effects of his incarceration by the Nazis. Frederick Short was liberated in Diez Prison, and like most survivors, he and Gourdan probably suffered from a variety of chronic physical disabilities and post-traumatic stress disorders for the rest of their lives.
The US Army took over the operation of the prison in the days following liberation, releasing the non-German political prisoners first. Under Nazi control, between December 1937 and 14 March 1945 only 17 prisoners had escaped from Diez Prison, but under allied control 81 prisoners escaped from 17 April to 29 May 1945. Three former prison staff, Karl Müller, Jakob Bromm, and Hubert Schmidt, were imprisoned in Diez Prison after the war and found dead — hanged in their cells. It was not entirely clear if they were murdered by former prisoners or allied guards, but later evidence from an eyewitness suggests that they probably committed suicide. A court inquiry into the case in 1966 was unable to reach a conclusion.
Only 14 of the total 79 Diez Prison personnel were brought to trial by a French military tribunal in Rastatt after the war. The judge spoke of Diez Prison and Stalag XIIa in Limburg as two places ‘with the worst conditions, the poorest care, and the highest illness and death rate in the entire German Reich. Even today it is not known how many people really died in these two places.’ These statements may seem exaggerated today in light of later historical research, but nevertheless show that Diez Prison was a particularly brutal place. It is doubtful, however, that those Diez prison personnel responsible for the autumn 1944 execution of 16 young men from Luxembourg were never brought to justice, since the execution of army deserters was considered ‘legal’ even after the war — despite the fact that those who were executed were residents of a Nazi-occupied foreign country who had been forcefully conscripted into the German Army.
The former director of Diez Prison, Ernst Gamradt, was punished only insofar that he was declared to have been a ‘level II Nazi’ under denazification proceedings in 1950, with the result he was retired immediately and his pension reduced by 25%. In 1951, Peter Altmeier, the president of Rhineland-Westphalia, granted Gamradt a pardon and a full pension from the state government, which Gamradt continued to receive until his death in 1958 in Diez. Ten other former Diez Prison personnel were given prison sentences, but it is unknown whether they were later set free as part of typical amnesty proceedings in the mid to late 1950s.
Frederick Short noted in his mid-1960s statements that Paul Gourdan had told him that ‘his mind has not been so good since the Nazi ordeal, and of later years seems to be getting worse. He cannot seem to remember anything, and his general demeanor, when he spoke to me, also gave me that impression.’ Short also noticed that Gourdan’s right arm was disabled. Short wrote of his own health.
I would say that I am suffering from a permanent mental disability, in the respect that my outlook towards my fellow beings has very much changed. For after all these years since my imprisonment, I am still inclined at times to become very callous towards them and have got to take a firm hold on myself. It is something I have been fighting ever since my prison nightmare of torture and suppose will have to go on fighting until such time when I reach my allotted span. —Frederick Short, 15 January 1965
Diez Prison is currently still in operation with a capacity for 557 male prisoners. There is no memorial at Diez Prison for the political prisoners who were incarcerated, died or were executed on the site, but in 1998 a memorial was dedicated to the 16 executed Luxembourg prisoners at the place where they were originally buried, in Robert Heck Park.
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Sanders, Paul: The Ultimate Sacrifice: The Jersey islanders who died in German prisons and concentration camps during the Occupation 1940 – 1945, Jersey Heritage Trust, Jersey, revised and updated edition, 2004.
Dittmann, Rainer (editor): Strafvollzug in Diez: 100 Jahre Strafanstalt Freiendiez, Justizvollzugsanstalt Diez 1912-2012, Druckerei der JVA Diez, 2012, pp. 27-107 (in German).
Form, Wolfgang; Schiller, Theo; Seitz, Lothar (editors): NS Justiz in Hessen: Verfolgung, Kontinuitäten, Erbe. Marburg, 2015, pp. 190-193, 204-212 (in German).
International Tracing Service Arolsen, Catalogue of Camps and Prisons in Germany and German-occupied Territories, 1949-1951.
Morlang, Adolf: Zwischen ‘Schutzhaft’ und KZ, Strafvollzug im ‘3. Reich’ am Beispiel der Strafanstanstalt Freiendiez (heute Justizvollzugsanstalt Diez), JVA Diez, Diez, 2007 (in German).
Morlang, Adolf & Schlegelmich, Dana: Von Zwangsarbeit, Gefangenschaft und Tod — Ein Rundgang zu NS-Tatorten in Diez und Limburg, as quoted in the Nassauische Neue Presse article ‘Ohne Vergangenheit keine Zukunft’ by Rolf-Peter Kahl, 30 March 2015 (in German).
The National Archives (TNA), Foreign Office (FO)
TNA FO 950/1263 (Gourdan)
TNA FO HNP/1358 (Harper)
TNA FO 950/1224 (Short)
Wiener Library, London. Collections of the International Tracing Service (ITS), Diez prison records, archive no. 121266