Channel Islander imprisoned in Schweidnitz Prison:
By Roderick Miller
Only one Channel Islander, Peter Hassall, is known to have been imprisoned in Schweidnitz Prison (Gefängnis Schweidnitz, Haftanstalt Schweidnitz, Areszt Śledczy w Świdnicy, Świdnica Detention Centre). In 1944, the city of Schweidnitz was in the Lower Silesian Province of the German Reich, but after the war was acceded to Poland and henceforth called Świdnica. Schweidnitz Prison was built in 1882 by architect Stanisław Gorgolewski, a Polish national with Prussian citizenship. It was modeled after the ‘Prussian model prison’ in Berlin-Moabit. Like most German prisons in the Nazi era, Schweidnitz Prison was used to imprison political prisoners and those racially persecuted by the Nazi Regime.
Peter Hassall was a Nacht und Nebel (NN, ‘night and fog’) prisoner of the Nazis, 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.
Hassall had, as an NN prisoner, been placed under the jurisdiction of the Breslau court system in Silesia, which operated in prisons in Jawor, Schweidnitz, and Hirschberg. On 23 July 1944, Hassall and other NN prisoners in Breslau Prison were told they were being transported out of the prison, and feared they were being sent to Gross-Rosen Concentration Camp. Fortunately, under the circumstances, they were instead transported to the relative safety of Schweidnitz Prison. Peter Hassall left what is probably the most detailed extant account of a prisoner in Schweidnitz Prison in his memoirs:
On 26 July, we set out on foot for Schweidnitz. We made slow headway, because of the thousands of German refugees and military vehicles. We were obliged to spend a miserable night outside in the rain, and the following morning, we were put on police trucks then driven to the town of Schweidnitz, just a few miles from the Czechoslovakian border. Our first sight of the prison quickly told us that it would be dirty and badly administered, and when we stepped inside, we saw that it was the same as all German prisons, but as we had suspected, it was very filthy. It was designated as a ‘security prison’, which meant that it was neither hard labour nor maximum security. This was good news, as it the work regimen would not be too brutal, however, one look at the warders told us that they were suffering from the ‘Russians are coming’ syndrome.
After the usual head count, we again lost our civilian clothes; were read the riot act, then herded into cells throughout the prison ranges. Some cells were large, and housed six to eight NN, while others were standard size and housed from three or four NN. This was a definite health hazard, because some of our friends had TB, and this meant that there would soon be more cases of TB, as the Schweidnitz authorities did not give us a medical inspection and made no effort to isolate those with TB.
The routine at Schweidnitz was the same as that in the Kletschkaustrasse prison, but the quantity of food was less and tasted even worse. This meant that criminal prisoners and guards were stealing our rations, as usual. More bad news took place when we discovered that the Schweidnitz bed bugs were as voracious as those in Breslau.
There was a workshop on the prison’s ground floor, where about seventy NN prisoners manufactured square boxes, which, it was rumoured, were the outer cases for anti-personnel mines. No one really knew what they were for, and in keeping with the NN Decree, it was no small wonder, as the civilian supervisors said nothing beyond work related matters.
We learned that one small group of NN braided straw, and when each braid measured a certain number of metres, it was wrapped around a large jackboot-form, where it was stitched together, and made into a ‘snow boot’, to be worn on the outside of German jackboots – they were supposed to protect soldiers’ feet from the cold on the Russian Front, but we had no idea how long the boots lasted, however, those who braided the straw told us how boring the job was, not to mention the effects on their tired and arthritic hands.
The overcrowding in the cells became more acute when more of our NN comrades arrived from Breslau; bringing our numbers to just over two hundred. TB increased throughout our ranks, but still no action was taken to segregate the contagious men; despite representations made to the prison administration. In our weakened state, and given the highly contagious nature of TB, there was no chance of escaping it, and as there was no hospital in the prison, those with TB died slowly and painfully in their cells, but as they waiting to die, they passed on the little microbes to their cell mates. When death occurred, the bodies were carted away, and we were not told where, nor did we hear of any burial services. Schweidnitz was a faceless, impersonal prison, which lived up to our initial expectation!
Still with us, were those NN who had been tried and acquitted, or had served out their sentences. The rumours had been right – no one was allowed out of the Night and Fog, unless feet first or headless.
The grapevine was practically inactive, but on occasions, a German criminal prisoner gave us news about the war, which, unfortunately, was usually restricted to ‘the Russians are closing in on us’. We were delighted when Soviet Air Force planes raided the Schweidnitz railway station and marshalling yards, which were about a mile away. The sounds of plane engines and explosions were morale boosters, but they were not positive symbols for us, as we were being starved to death, and needed the Red Army to batter down the prison walls before it was too late. Our rations would not have kept a dog alive for too long, but the criminals and prison staff looked robust enough.
In September, 1944, about thirty-five young NN were selected to work in a small workshop on the second floor of the prison, and I was among them. The workshop was run by the German firm, Siemens, which made electrical components for the military. We were told that we would be taught to make dies, which would stamp out little metal components used in electrical engines and radios. We were processed for the job by an elderly German doctor, who gave us a cursory glance, then pronounced us fit or unfit for work in the small factory. For some reason, only one adult was selected to work in the Siemens factory.
Our ‘Meister’ (foreman), Herr Snider [sic, probably Schneider], a short, not-unpleasant man, was in charge of the factory. I was happy to see
that most of the Breton group were there, as they always livened things up, by German baiting or other forms of mischief, such as “organizing” things for themselves, as well as for the common good of their comrades. My closest friends and cell mate, René LeClerc, from Meulan, near Paris, joined me in the factory, where we worked side by side. René and I had become very close since Breslau. He was able to keep up my morale when it sagged, and I did the same for him. We had become almost inseparable.
Our indoctrination into the tool making process began with a demonstration on how to file a square piece of steel to within 1/1000 of a centimeter tolerance – all sides had to be exactly equal and perfectly flat. We were also shown how to use large files, medium files, rat tail files, bastard files, as well as very fine, finishing files and all grades of sandpaper. Moreover, there were lathe machines and drills to master.
When we felt that we had filed the perfect cube, the Meister was called, and he measured all six sides with his micrometer, then placed a steel ruler along each side, and inspected them against an electric light bulb. If light showed under his ruler, it meant that the side was either slightly concave or convex. It also meant that we had to file the cube down, until the Meister was satisfied that we had produced the almost perfect cube. It was not difficult nor demanding work, and within two or three days, we had all filed our cubes. It was to our advantage to make the cubes to the exact specification, because if they were rejected more than once, the “offender” was sent back to the general prison population to languish in TB infected cells.
As we were making the cubes, other pieces of equipment arrived in the little factory. There were: large and small lathes, drill presses, an electrically heated vat in which the steel was to be tempered, and many other pieces of equipment I could not identify. We were issued with: a set of files, micrometer, varying grades of sandpaper, and finally a blue-print of the tool we were expected to make for the Third Reich.
Two of the Breton group had previous mechanical expertise, and were able to help others, however, I was content with my progress, feeling that I caught on quickly. I found the work interesting, and more importantly, it was time consuming and better than being in a cell, where one inhaled TB microbes and lived in a fantasy of French recipes. I was determined to stay in the factory as long as possible, therefore, I worked as diligently as I could at making the little dies, which were not unlike dies which stamped out coins in national mints. No two dies were the same, and we never really knew what they were intended for, although it was rumoured that they were used in German armaments.
I took about three weeks to finish the first little stamp, which was accepted by the Meister. Not all were as fortunate, as some were unusable, as too much had been filed off them. We had to be very careful not to ruin the dies, as the word ‘sabotage’ was often mentioned by the Meister and warders, and we knew sabotage and death to be synonymous.
When the Meister was satisfied with the measurements and quality, the finished product was tempered, but before any die left the work benches, we gave each one a sharp rap with our hammers, hoping to damage it ever so slightly. After tempering, the dies were assembled and tested by the Meister, who pushed thin strips of metal through their slots, then stamped out a few pieces, which he carefully measured. If satisfied, he packed the dies in cardboard boxes, and took them with him after work. We understood that the little dies were then driven to a Heliowatt Inc. factory, where, no doubt, they stamped out thousands of little pieces, for whatever machine or weapon they were intended. Our alternate to co-operation was death on the ranges, therefore, none of us felt guilty about making the little dies; besides which, there was a distinct possibility that they were not used by the German war industry.
In December, one of my cell-mates, who worked in an outside kommando, told me that a group of English prisoners had been brought to a nearby creamery to work, and that they had contact with them. As soon as I heard this, I sat down and wrote an open letter to them. I explained my situation, and asked the recipient of my letter to try and get a Red Cross message to ‘Mr. and Mrs. Hassall, Winchester House, Winchester Street, St. Helier, Jersey, Channel Islands’, and to let them know that I was in Silesia, and still alive in December, 1944. A week later, I was given a small note from Gunner Hancil, of Cardiff, Wales. He wrote that he would do his best to get some news through to my parents. I was ecstatic, and hoped that I had made a small hole through the Night and Fog of Nazi Germany.
The winter 1944/1945 was extremely cold. More than a foot of snow lay on the roofs and streets of Schweidnitz. Our cells were ice-cold and our two thin blankets did little to keep us warm. Worse still, the food ration was cut again: the morning slice of bread was thinner and the turnip soup now included the peels. It was a pleasure to leave the cold, crowded cell to the workshop, where the hot oil vat kept the place warm, and where we did not have to think of food and TB, as we concentrated on making the little stamps.
At bed time we pushed the iron bed into a corner, and made room for our mattresses on the floor. That way, two of us had four thin blankets and the benefit of one other’s body-heat. It was not uncomfortable sleeping next to my friend René, who entertained me into the night with stories of his childhood, his mother’s cooking and his father’s work.
It was obvious that the Soviets were getting closer, because the main road, leading to the Schweidnitz train station, was constantly jammed with German refugees. Some were on horse-drawn carts, others dragged little carts behind them, while others walked, burdened down by large suitcases. The refugees were mainly from East Prussia and areas east of the River Oder, which were threatened, or had been overrun by the Red Army. We took note that the refugees were mainly older people, women and children, and that gave us some indication where the able bodied men were. They were frozen and covered with snow, and while we felt badly for them, it told us that the end of the Third Reich was near.
The refugees kept glancing backward, as if expecting to see Red Army cavalry charge down the main street. They all made for the railway station, where trains waited to take them to the west. Our cell was on the second floor overlooking the road leading to the station, and we were able to see the refugees in the early morning before we left for work. When we returned of an evening, they were still streaming towards the station. As we did not work on Sundays, we watched them shuffle past all day long, however, it was not a very pretty sight, even for convicted ‘terrorists’.
One particular day, the Schweidnitz air-raid sirens screamed their warnings of approaching enemy planes. We looked out the factory windows in time to see stubby fighter planes, with red stars on their wings, roar down the main street, almost at roof-top level. Then came the sound of machine guns – the resulting carnage was gruesome: bodies and body parts were scattered all over the road and the snow was no longer white. Some crumbled forms twitched, and the cries of the wounded, particularly the cries of children, were haunting. Then the chatter of machine guns sounded again as the little planes came around for another pass.
Some NN workers on the ground floor were sent out to help clean up the terrible carnage, however, the refugees turned on them when they heard French and other foreign languages being spoken. Fortunately, the warders had presence of mind to herd the prisoners back into the prison before the refugees were able to lynch them from the nearest lamp posts. The refugee columns continued through January, 1945, but thinned out in February. We remained in the work shop making our little metal stamps, the food worsened and more of us died of TB.
In the first week of February, 1945, we awoke to a strange rumbling sound, which was distinguished as artillery fire – the Red Army was nearby. We speculated, across the ranges, on how far away they were – some said ten kilometres, while others said twenty, but we were not artillery experts. Our ranks had already thinned out, as most of our NN comrades from the ground floor had been shipped out, but no one knew where.
On the road leading to the station, the flow of refugees increased again. The newcomers were in worse shape than the earlier groups, as they had escaped the Soviets with only the clothes on their backs. There were no horse-drawn carts, and only a few hand carts. They were dazed and disorganized, but were fortunate, as there were no Soviet air attacks on the station; from which they all got away safely to the west.
In the second week of February, we were told that we did not have to report to our little factory. Later that day we learned that German technicians had taken away most of the equipment on Sunday – there was to be no more die making, which was unfortunate, as it had been life-saving work, due to the warmth in the workshop. The fact that we might have helped the enemy’s war effort was of no consequence to us, as life, after what we had been through, was more important than a few pieces of metal. The most important aspect was that we had no shed too much of our precious body weight.
On the morning of 17 February, we were herded to the ground floor, where we were re-issued our civilian clothes. I heard a guard confirm that one hundred and thirty terrorists (NN) had already been shipped out, and all but a handful of high-risk, German criminal prisoners and ourselves remained in the prison.
We asked where we were being sent, but the warders were, as usual, tight-lipped. We were each given a half-loaf of bread and a piece of sausage, which had to last us three days, then, after the food was distributed, a little over sixty of us, mostly juveniles, were marched into the prison courtyard, where, thank goodness, Schupos waited. Some had rifles, while others carried machine pistols. Many of them pushed bicycles, to which suitcases and bundles were tied. This told us that that they did not intend to return to wherever they had come from.
The Red Army must have been very close as we stepped out the prison gate, because the artillery sounds were loud and crisp – however, the Schupos chose not to elaborate. We had learned very little from the Schweidnitz warders, who had been faceless, mute men, who had hardly said a word to us during the entire time in Schweidnitz. They certainly knew what was going on, but there were no friendly guards at Schweidnitz, only very frightened ones, who continued to enforce the NN Decree, and as we were leaving Schweidnitz, I hear a Schupo say that the Soviets was less than ten kilometres away – they had missed us by only a few hours!
It was an ice-cold, snowy day when our evacuation began.
By mid-February 1945 most of the Schweidnitz residents had been evacuated, except for officials who, on pain of capital punishment, were obliged to remain. The few remaining teenage boys and old men were forcefully recruited in the Volkssturm, or ‘peoples’ army’. The city was ordered to be completely evacuated on 6 May 1945 and the city’s munitions depots, bridges and railroad tracks were destroyed by remaining Wehrmacht troops. The Soviet Army entered a deserted Schweidnitz on 8 May 1945.
German residents of Schweidnitz began to return to a Soviet-occupied city in mid-May 1945, and within several months the city had swollen to population of 17,000, still a far cry from its pre-war population of 40,000. On 9 July 1945, all German residents without residence permits were ordered to leave the city. By the end of 1945, there were over 11,000 Polish ‘pioneers’, who were sent there to occupy Schweidnitz, which had been ceded to Poland. Many remaining Germans were imprisoned by the militia and Soviet security in Schweidnitz Prison, where many of them died. According to contemporary witness testimonials, the prison was also used for court-ordered executions of German citizens.
The final expulsion of the remaining Schweidnitz Germans followed between July and November 1946 as they joined 12 million other Germans from the former eastern German provinces who were forcibly expelled out of the newly Polish and Russian areas of the German Reich to the remaining districts of Germany.
Schweidnitz Prison continued to house prisoners with longer sentences until 1966, when it became a detention centre. Around 80 Solidarność prisoners from the trade union uprising in Poland were imprisoned there in 1981. Schweidnitz Prison continues in operation today under Polish administration.
Peter Hassall survived the march to Hirschberg Prison, from which he was set free by guards in early May 1945. Like most survivors, Hassall probably suffered from a variety of chronic physical disabilities and post-traumatic stress disorders for the rest of his life.
Breslauer Verlags- und Druckerei GmbH (publisher): Einwohnerbuch für den Stadt- und Landkreis Schweidnitz mit allen Gemeinden und einschl. der Städte Striegau und Freiburg Schl., Breslau, 1942 (Schweidnitz address book). Link
Hassall, Peter D.: Night and Fog Prisoners, Canada, 1997. Link
International Tracing Service Arolsen: Catalogue of Camps and Prisons in Germany and German-occupied Territories, Bad Arolsen, 1949-1951, p. 272.
Statischer Reichsamt (publisher): Amtliches Gemeindeverzeichnis für das Großdeutsche Reich auf Grund der Volkszählung 1939, Berlin, 1944.