Channel Islander Imprisoned in Hirschberg State Court Prison
Peter Denis Hassall
By Roderick Miller
At least one Channel Islander was imprisoned in Hirschberg State Court Prison (Landgerichtsgefängnis Hirschberg) in Hirschberg im Riesengebirge, Lower Silesia, Germany, which became Jelenia Góra, Poland after the war. Hirschberg Prison was built in the late 19th century as a remand prison for the state and district court building. The exact date that the prison was built is unknown, and the official Polish governmental website for the prison states that it ‘dates back to 1945’, as if there were no prison there prior to the post-war Polish resettlement there. In fact, both the court building and the prison building used by the Nazis continue in the same capacity and as a district court and prison under the Polish administration. Like all prisons in the Third Reich, Hirschberg Prison was used to incarcerate political prisoners. 65 Jewish residents of Hirschberg were deported to their deaths in concentration camps, and it is very likely that a number of them were imprisoned in Hirschberg Prison prior to deportation.
Hirschberg Prison was also a place of incarceration for a number of Nacht und Nebel or ‘Night and Fog’ (NN) prisoners. These NN prisoners were part of a secret hostage program devised by the Nazis as a means of controlling potential resistance in occupied territory. The NN program was declared a crime against humanity at the Nuremberg Trials after the war. Channel Islander Peter Hassall was an NN prisoner in Schweidnitz Prison in February 1945. As the Red Army approached Schweidnitz [Świdnica] on 17 February, Hassall and other NN prisoners were placed on a forced march through ice-cold weather to Hirschberg, many of them wearing insufficient clothing against the cold. It took three days for the exhausted prisoners to make the 40 mile trek, and along the way they passed dozens of corpses of other victims of Nazi forced marches. Luckily they were able to take a train the last few miles of their journey. Hassell recounts:
When we left the crowded train, we did not walk too far before we reached the town of Hirschberg, and it was not long before we were marched through another prison portal. The prison’s courtyard was not dissimilar to all the other Nazi prisons, except in Hirschberg there was a stack of emaciated bodies piled in one corner of the courtyard. The dead men had obviously been executed, given the bullet holes in their chests, backs and necks, and the pile of corpses made us ponder over our futures – the date was 20 February, 1945.
In the prison, which was even smaller and dirtier than Schweidnitz, the usual procedure took place: strip down, bundle up and hand in our civilian clothes, even though they were soaking wet; a cold shower; then into prison uniforms, after which we were locked up four to a cell. The next morning we were given a bowl of ersatz coffee, a thin slice of bread and a smear of jam, but that morning, the ersatz coffee tasted like pure Columbian. We had been without a hot drink for three days, having lived on snow, but we were very fortunate to have had Schupo [standard police, as opposed to SS] guards, without whom we would have perished along the road, or in the terrible concentration camp near Landeshut [Kamienna Góra].
There was nothing to do in Hirschberg, and we languished in our cold cells. The thunder of guns receded instead of getting louder, and we asked ourselves what had happened to the Red Army. There was no prison grapevine, as the prison was populated by hard-core German criminal prisoners, who did not communicate with us.
Mealtimes were positive nightmare… starvation had made predators of us… Other than wait for our starvation rations, three times daily and sometimes only twice, there was nothing to do – not even a book from the library. The food was awful, and consisted of turnip soup and a small piece of black bread and synthetic margarine daily. We sat around and watched each other slowly die of starvation. It was a dismal prison, the cells were overcrowded, and we had only one cold shower since our arrival. The invisible prison administration did nothing to ease our lot, despite the knowledge that Germany was close to losing the war. They did not even attempt to isolate the TB cases; they simply let them die in the tightly packed cells, and when they died, their emaciated bodies were carted away. No one knew where, or if they were given any form of burial. — from Peter Hassall’s memoir Night and Fog Prisoners.
One morning in early May 1945, after over two months’ imprisonment in Hirschberg, Peter Hassall and his fellow NN prisoners found their prison cells unlocked, had their civilian clothing returned to them, and were given 5 Reichsmark by a warder still following protocol for the release of prisoners. The prisoners were set free, despite the fact that the town had not yet been occupied by Soviet troops. Hassall wandered out of town on foot and found shelter with a kindly German family until managing to reach British troops in Liegnitz (Legnica). Like most survivors, Peter Hassall probably suffered from a variety of chronic physical disabilities and post-traumatic stress disorders for the rest of his life.
After the Red Army liberation of the Hirschberg on 8 May 1945, the German state of Silesia was ceded to Poland and the Poles used the prison to incarcerate suspected Nazi war criminals. The prison continues in operation today with a capacity for 309 prisoners. There is no memorial on the site for those who suffered and were killed there in the Nazi era.
Carr, Gilly; Sanders, Paul; Willmot, Louise: Protest, Defiance and Resistance in the Channel Islands: German Occupation, 1940-1945, Bloomsbury Academic, London & New York, 2014.
Hassall, Peter D.: Night and Fog Prisoners, self-published testimonial, Canada, 1997. LINK
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.
Olawski, Bruno: Das letzte Jahr in unserem lieben Hirschberg im Riesengebirge, Januar 1945 bis August 1946, (in German). LINK