Channel Islanders Imprisoned in Hersbruck Concentration Camp
By Roderick Miller
Jean Rossi and his son Marcel Rossi were the only Channel Islanders imprisoned in Hersbruck Concentration Camp K (Z-Außenlager Hersbruck, Lager Hersbruck). Hersbruck was a sub-camp of Flossenbürg Concentration and was created in May 1944 to force prisoners to construct a series of tunnels in the nearby mountains for the creation of an underground aeroplane engine plant for the Bayerischen Motoren Werke (BMW), the same BMW known today for its automobiles. The war ended before the engine factory could be placed in service.
The main camp consisted of 15 overcrowded prisoner barracks, three barracks for the infirmary, a camp office, a kitchen, the toilets, mortuary, and an open square for roll call. In addition, there was a building called a “mercy block”, where prisoners who were near death were executed or left to die. Forced and standard civilian labourers worked along side concentration camp inmates. From around 1,900 prisoners in August 1944, the number of prisoners rose dramatically with nearly 6,000 inmates by the end of March 1945. Hersbruck required a constant stream of new prisoners as up to 30 prisoners died each day as a result of poor living conditions, hunger, executions and beatings by the SS guards and Kapos. The chances of a prisoner surviving Hersbruck was about 50%; every second prisoner in this concentration camp died there or on the ensuing death march.
According to official court transcripts from a trial of Hersbruck officials in 1950:
Prisoner kapos, SS guards, and civilians from the construction firms beat the prisoners with their bare hands, clubs, dog whips and rubber hoses, and kicked them with their feet. On many occasions, prisoners were bloodily beaten down to the ground. The prisoners were forced to perform heavy labour with no consideration whatsoever for the poor state of their health, which just got worse. Most of the prisoners were subject to such conditions.
A gallows for the execution of prisoners was erected on the roll-call square of the camp on 31 August 1944. It was later moved to a less visible location behind the barracks. The official cause of death listed on the death certificates of hanged prisoners was ‘heart weakness’ (Herzschwäche), a typical Nazi tactic to cover up their crimes. Most of the deceased victims in Hersbruck were cremated in Nuremberg.
Jean and Marcel Rossi arrived in Hersbruck on 15 February 1945 from Gross-Rosen Concentration Camp. In 1965 restitution testimonials, Jean Rossi recounted that Hersbruck was “very very bad”, but unfortunately left no other descriptions of the conditions there. Of his son Marcel, he wrote:
My son Marcel Fortune Rossi, born in Sutton Bridge, Lincolnshire, December 14th 1921. Last time I saw him, I was in Hersbruck Concentration Camp. In February 1945 he fell ill with pneumonia. We were in the same camps till this camp was evacuated, we were then parted. By what I have gathered, he was sent to Flossenbürg with other sick [people]. I have made many enquiries but without results.
Marcel Rossi, suffering from pneumonia, was placed on a forced foot march in the direction of Dachau — not Flossenbürg, as his father had presumed — on 7 April 1945 with around 600 other prisoners. Many of the prisoners did not survive the 90-mile march. It is presumed that Marcel Rossi died somewhere along this route and was buried in an improvised grave, as were so many other prisoners. His father spent years trying without success to learn of his son’s fate.
Ten former Hersbruck staff members were put on trial in the State Court of Nuremberg-Fürth in 1950 and given sentences ranging from release after time served to ten years. One of the former guards in Hersbruck, a Luftwaffe sergeant who later became an SS-Hauptscharführer in the Waffen-SS, was alleged to have crushed the skull of a French prisoner with a pistol “until his blood was splattered all over the walls and he collapsed”, which led to the prisoner’s death. He was also accused of having shot three prisoners on the forced march towards Dachau in April 1945. The prisoner had cried “don’t shoot me, I am German” and was upon his knees, in no way attempting to escape, and the guard shot him once and then once more when he lay upon the ground. Because of “mitigating circumstances” such as the fact that the guard’s father was supposedly an alcoholic and that he had “no moral guidance” in his upbringing, and the fact that the camp circumstances were brutal for all concerned, led to this SS guard receiving a sentence of five years’ prison for the four murders he committed. Another SS guard received a sentence of 2 years’ prison for shooting a prisoner who had attempted to steal some potatoes.
SS detachment leader Ludwig Schwarz was put on trial in Nuremberg in 1951 and was sentenced to death, but most of the other camp functionaries were given light sentences. The camp commandant, SS-Hauptsturmführer Heinrich Forster, went into hiding after the war under the alias Hans Reich and died in 1955 in Hanau as a result of a cycling accident.
The Hersbruck camp barracks were razed in 1951 to make way for a new suburb and tennis courts. The former SS Headquarters of Hersbruck were used as the city’s finance office after the war and razed in 2007, despite being the last remaining relic of Hersbruck Concentration Camp, where at least 4,000 people — primarily Hungarian Jews — perished under brutal conditions. In 2009, the city erected two information plaques at the camp’s former site.
Jean Rossi was placed on a forced march from Hersbruck that left between 5-13 April 1945, and was liberated by American troops later that month in Schwandorf, a town about 36 miles southeast of Hersbruck. He was the only Channel Islander of four to survive Gross-Rosen and Hersbruck concentration camps. Like most survivors, Jean Rossi probably suffered from a variety of chronic physical disabilities and post-traumatic stress disorders for the rest of his life. The location where his son Marcel died and where his mortal remains are located remain unknown.
Carr, Gilly; Sanders, Paul; Willmot Louise: Protest, Defiance and Resistance in the Channel Islands: German Occupation, 1940-1945, Bloomsbury Academic, London & New York, 2014.
Sanders, Paul: The Ultimate Sacrifice, Jersey Heritage Trust, Jersey, 2004.
Weinmann, Martin (editor): Das nationalsozialistische Lagersystem, Zweitausendiens, Frankfurt am Main, 4th edition, 2004. A reprint of Catalogue of Camps and Prisons in Germany and German-Occupied Territories, published by the International Tracing Service (ITS) 1948-1952.
Klee, Ernst: Das Personenlexikon zum Dritten Reich, Wer war was vor und nach 1945 (The Lexikon of People in the Third Reich, Who was what before and after 1945), S. Fischer Verlagn, Frankfurt am Main 2007, p. 159 (in German).
Lenz, Hans-Friedrich: Sagen Sie Herr Pfarrer, wie kommen Sie zur SS? [‘Tell me Father, how did you come to join the SS?’), Brunnen Verlag, Giessen and Basel, 2nd edition 1983 (in German).
Megargee, Geoffrey P. (editor): Encyclopedia of Camps and Ghettos, 1933–1945, Vol. 1 , Part A. United States Holocaust Memorial Museum , Indiana University Press, Bloomington and Indianapolis, 2009, pp. 610-611.
Rüter-Ehlermann, Adelheid (editor): Justiz und NS-Verbrechen, vol. 6, University Press Amsterdam, 1971, pp. 696-722 (Trial of former Hersbruck officials in the State Court of Nuremberg-Fürth, 13 July 1950).
United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, Alphabetical list of Flossenbürg inmates, microfilm RG-30.005M, via ancestry.com (Jean Rossi listed as “John Rossi” at this source).
The Wiener Library, London: file on Marcel Rossi, , document reference 89592047.
The National Archives (TNA), Foreign Office (FO)
TNA FO HNP/3237 (Rossi, Jean)
TNA FO 950/1767 (Rossi, Marcel)