Channel Islander Imprisoned in Gommern Prison:
By Roderick Miller
Only one Channel Islander is known to have been imprisoned in the city of Gommern in the German state of Saxony-Anhalt. Gommern Prison (German: Strafgefängnis Gommern, Gerichtsgefängnis Gommern) was part of a castle that was built in the late 16th century and was called the Wasserburg zu Gommern, or ‘Gommern water fort’. Around 1900, a district court was established on the castle grounds, and in 1927 a new prison wing, under the administration of Magdeburg Prison, was added. After the Nazis came to power in 1933, the prison was also used, as were all prisons in Nazi Germany, to incarcerate political prisoners. From 1942, Gommern Prison was used predominantly to incarcerate female prisoners as part of the so-called Nacht und Nebel (‘Night and Fog’) action. 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.
Emma Marshall was transferred from Magdeburg to Gommern Prison, most likely in February or March 1945, but was only there for a short time according to her 1965 claim for compensation as a victim of Nazi persecution. According to the Catalogue of Camps and Prisons published by the International Tracing Service in 1949, 70 prisoners were transferred from Gommern Prison to perform forced labour at a munitions factory at Schönebeck Prison in March 1945. Emma Marshall was transferred to Schönebeck on 3 April 1945. It is not known if Marshall herself had been labelled an NN prisoner or if she had simply been placed into a group of non-German political prisoners, among which other female NN prisoners were to be found.
Gommern was liberated by the Red Army on 5 May 1945. The British-Belgian NN prisoner Hilda Atkinson weighed just 6 stone (85 pounds) when she was liberated from Gommern prison, evidence of the kind of treatment that prisoners there had received. German aristocrat Martha von Rosen, forced to act as a translator for the Soviets just after liberation, reported that all of the prisoners in Gommern Prison had been set free and the only prisoners still incarcerated there were the prison’s former staff. The prison continued to function post-war as a place of incarceration, albeit for political prisoners of the Soviets. Rainer Hildebrandt, anti-communist resister and founder of the Checkpoint Charlie Museum in Berlin, wrote in his memoirs that a Soviet lieutenant named Rakit Kaschtanoff was executed by the Soviet Army for having allowed German political prisoners to be freed from Gommern Prison during the 1953 uprising in East Germany, although according to eyewitness accounts of the event, the Soviet Army was not yet present when citizens entered the prison and freed 100 prisoners.
By the mid-1950s, the prison was used as a social welfare institution, and from 1969 until 1989 as a centre for vocational training. After German reunification, the castle was privatised and became a hotel and brewery, and was renovated to its current state as the four-star ‘Hotel Wasserburg zu Gommern’ in 2009. A history of the castle is published on the hotel’s website, but no mention is made whatsoever of the Nazi era and the site’s former use as a prison. There is a memorial plaque in Gommern Cemetery in memory of ten Soviet prisoners of war who died in Gommern in 1941-1942 and are buried there, as well to the memory of 41 Red Army soldiers who died liberating the town. 14 of the town’s German civilians who were killed during the battle are also memorialised with a marble plaque there. There is, however, as of date (2017) no memorial at the site of the prison for the female NN prisoners who suffered there.
Emma Marshall was liberated on 12 April 1945 in Schönebeck, but like most survivors, probably suffered from a variety of chronic physical disabilities and post-traumatic stress disorders for the rest of her life.
Carr, Gilly; Sanders, Paul; Willmot Louise: Protest, Defiance and Resistance in the Channel Islands: German Occupation, 1940-1945, Bloomsbury Academic, London & New York, 2014.
Dreyer, Dieter: Gommern in alten Ansichten, Europäische Bibliothek, 1998.
Gruchmann, Lothar: ‘Nacht und Nebel-Justiz: Die Mitwirkung deutscher Strafgerichte an der Bekämfung des Widerstandes in den besetzten westeuropäischen Ländern 1942 – 1944’, in Vierteljahrshefte für Zeitgeschichte, 29th year, Vol. 3 (1981), p. 373 (in German). This work documents Gommern Prison as a place of incarceration for female Nacht und Nebel prisoners. Link
Hildebrandt, Rainer: Der 17. Juni, Verlag Haus am Checkpoint Charlie, Berlin 1983.
International Tracing Service Arolsen, Catalogue of Camps and Prisons in Germany and German-occupied Territories, 1949-1951.
Landeshauptarchiv Sachsen-Anhalt, Magdeburg
Rep. C 144 Magdeburg, A Nr. 10, The construction of the court prison in Gommern under the administration of Magdeburg Prison.
Rep. C 144 Magdeburg, B 02 No. 2, Sh. 6: Request by Magdeburg Department of Public Prosecution to Gommern court jail asking it to accept a prisoner, 25 November 1942.
The National Archives (TNA), Foreign Office (FO):
TNA FO 950/1185 (Marshall)
Viebig, Michael & Bohse ,Daniel (editors): Justice under National Socialism:
Crimes committed in the name of the German people, Saxony-Anhalt. Ministerium für Justiz und Gleichstellung des Landes Sachsen-Anhalt, Magdeburg Oct. 2013. Link
Von Rosen, Martha & JŸrgen: A Baltic Odyssey: War and Survival, University of Calgary Press, 1996, p. 61.