By Roderick Miller
Two Channel Islanders, Jean Rossi and his son Marcel, are known to have been imprisoned in Oppeln Prison (Gerichtsgefängnis Oppeln, Areszt Śledczy), then located in the town of Oppeln in the Silesia district of Germany, but renamed Opole after the region was ceded to Poland in 1945. Oppeln Prison and an adjoining district court building were built between 1879 and 1881, and the prison was used to incarcerate remand prisoners awaiting trial. Oppeln Prison, like all prisons in Nazi Germany, was used to incarcerate criminal and political prisoners — the 1937 Oppeln address book listing for the prison even specifically mentions that visits with ‘political remand prisoners’ were allowed on specific days. Most of the testimonials left by former prisoners of Oppeln prison mention only very short periods of incarceration, so it is likely that the prison was functioning — for non-German political prisoners, at least — as a temporary stopover on the way to a place of longer-term incarceration. The prison was also likely used to incarcerate Jews after the November 1938 pogrom and prior to their deportation to concentration camps in November and December 1942.
Jean Rossi only mentions Oppeln Prison in passing in his application for registration as a British victim of Nazi persecution in 1965. The literature scholar Peter Demetz, a Czech Jew, was imprisoned in Oppeln Prison in 1944:
The next day they put me in a police car and drove me to the town of Oppeln, where they put me in a regular prison, though as a temporary guest so to speak, with no special privileges. It was an institution run by the Ministry of Justice, not the Gestapo, according to strict and ancient rules. The lunch potatoes were served hot, I participated in the daily walk in the courtyard, spending most of my working time pasting together paper envelopes and keeping my toilet spick-and- span, another basic rule… Being on transport showed me the underbelly of the Nazi system, and I was not surprised that they marched us from prison to the railway station early in the morning, when few people were about in the streets.
Another former prisoner, the Welsh translator John Elwyn Jones, later recounted some details of his incarceration in Oppeln Prison:
We were put together in a cell containing three low wooden beds on which there were two blankets. The only other article of furniture was a bucket for the usual purpose. There was no heating. The following morning we were awakened at the crack of dawn and ordered to empty the bucket into a large container in the corridor outside. We were given a broom and told to clean out our cell… We were given breakfast — a dish of ersatz coffee without milk or sugar and a slice of bread. At the same time we were given an armful of string tied in knots which we were to untie and arrange in neat bundles of ten lengths. The provision of supper was dependent on us completing this task by six o’clock in the evening. We set to without stopping and only managed to fulfill our tasks by a few minutes before six. Our fingers were almost raw. We got our supper — a dish of warm, thin soup and a slice of bread. We were some five days in the prison, five days that seemed like an age, the more so as we had no idea how long we were to stay there. —John Elwyn Jones
Soviet troops occupied the eastern half of Oppeln on 23-24 January 1945, but were only able to liberate the western parts of the city from the Nazis on 15 March 1945. The adjoining courthouse had been destroyed, but Oppeln Prison remained largely intact and was used by the Soviets to imprison suspected Nazis and Polish collaborators. Salomon Morel, indicted in Poland in the mid-1990s of crimes against humanity in the Soviet-run Zgoda Forced Labour Camp, was the prison director from December 1945 to September 1946. Morel had emigrated to Israel in the early 1990s and never had to account for the crimes of which he was accused. Oppeln Prison continues to function as a prison today.
Jean Rossi and his son Marcel were transported from Oppeln Prison to a series of camps, including Blechhammer Forced Labour Camp, Gross Rosen Concentration Camp, and Hersbruck Concentration Camp. They were separated when Jean was placed on a death march to Dachau Concentration Camp, and he spent the rest of his life searching in vain for facts about the place and circumstances of his son Marcel’s death. Like most camp survivors, Jean Rossi probably suffered from a variety of chronic physical disabilities and post-traumatic stress disorders for the rest of his 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.
Demetz, Peter: Prague in Danger: The Years of German Occupation, 1939-45: Memories and History, Terror and Resistance, Theater and Jazz, Film and Poetry, Politics and War, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2009, p. 212.
Gauverlag NS-Schlesien GmbH (publisher): Adressbuch der Stadt Oppeln, Oppeln, 1937.
Jones, John Elwyn: At the Fifth Attempt: An Escape Story, Pen and Sword, 1987, p. 142.
The National Archives (TNA), Foreign Office (FO):
TNA FO HNP/3237 (Rossi, Jean)
TNA FO 950/1767 (Rossi, Marcel)