Channel Islanders imprisoned in Württemberg Workhouse for Men
Dermot Bonas, Thomas John Gaudion
Only two Channel Islanders are known to have been imprisoned in the Württemberg Workhouse for Men in Vaihingen-Enz (Württembergische Arbeitshaus für Männer Vaihingen-Enz, Arbeitshaus Schloss Kaltenstein) in the city of Vaihingen an der Enz in the German state of Baden-Württemberg. Originally a medieval fortress, in 1842 Kaltenstein Castle was turned into a state-run workhouse for local minor criminals and so-called ‘anti-socials’, mostly people suffering from the side-effects of extreme poverty such as homelessness and alcoholism. Until 1924, the workhouse was administered by state authorities in Ludwigsburg, but the city overtook administrative duties from that point onwards.
As early as March 1933, immediately after the Nazi takeover in Germany, the workhouse was used as a sub-camp of Heuberg Concentration Camp. From autumn 1942, the Nazis used the workhouse in Vaihingen to incarcerate political prisoners from throughout the Reich. By the end of the war, transferred prisoners were the majority of those incarcerated there, and not the ‘local vagrants’ for whom the workhouse was originally intended. In December 1943, the Reich Justice Ministry decided that the Vaihingen workhouse should be used to ‘unburden’ the regular prisons in the Reich of those male prisoners who were considered ‘unfit for work’ in the standard prison forced labour facilities. The first transport of such ‘unfit’ prisoners to Vaihingen took place on 13 July 1944, with a transport of 50 prisoners from Brandenburg-Görden Prison.
Local Vaihingen Nazi group leader Christian Walther, the commandant of the workhouse from 1937 onwards, was a vehement supporter of transferring prisoners there in order to create a ‘profitable production facility’.  Prisoners were forced to perform labour in the workhouse itself, on local farms, and in local factories. The Vaihingen workhouse made work contracts with local industry as a means of exploiting the forced labour at their disposal for profit. By way of example, the prisoners made foot-mats and assembled small electronics parts for Daimler-Benz. From mid-March to mid-October, prisoners were forced to labour 12 hours per day, and in the winter months 10 hours per day, with only Sundays off work.
Prisoners testified after the war that the living conditions in the prison were filthy and lice-infested. Reduction of food rations was a typical punishment and beatings from the guards were a daily occurrence. Prisoners were made to strip in freezing weather outdoors in winter and had buckets of cold water poured on them. Solitary confinement in an unheated dark basement was one of the most extreme punishments. Anyone who had attempted to escape was forced to wear a ball and chain around their ankle night and day.
By autumn 1944, 2 to 3 prisoners per day (out of the total of 600 inmates) were dying from poor living conditions and malnourishment. The corpses of the dead prisoners were carried outside of the castle on carts to some woods nearby and covered with branches until such a time as they could be buried. In March 1945, the workhouse commandant received the order from the Württemberg State Prosecutor to prepare for the execution of over 100 political and criminal prisoners in the workhouse. A local police officer named Georg Grau refused to carry out the execution orders, thus saving the lives of these men. In 1944 and 1945, a total of 127 prisoners died or were killed in Vaihingen Workhouse.
Channel Islander Thomas Gaudion was transferred to Vaihingen from Bernau Prison on 6 March 1944. In his application for compensation as a British victim of Nazi persecution, he wrote:
I was reduced to skin and bones, and got so weak that I couldn’t stand up when I fell down. I had to be assisted by my prison comrades, some who I am very sorry to say collapsed later and died. Eventually I was put to work sewing buttons on garments. After a few weeks of that work, I was sent with 30 or so prisoners to an old castle at Vaihingen-Ems, near Strasburg, where I was given the job of sorting feathers out in different sizes. I was then so weak that I couldn’t move a small sack full of feathers when I was told to get one… After a few weeks of this I was released on July 25th 1944, being the end of my sentence. I was escorted to Biberach internment camp, where my wife and young daughter had been taken because of my act against the German regime. When I arrived at the camp, I was put under medical care for some weeks, my weight which, was originally 12 stone was around 6 stone [84 pounds]. — Thomas Gaudion, 31 January 1965
Channel Islander Dermot Bonas must also have been in poor physical condition, as he was transported from Ludwigsburg Prison to Vaihingen on 12 December 1944. On 4 April 1945, the Vaihingen prisoners were placed on a forced march to Ulm, about 60 miles distant. Any prisoners who were deemed unfit for the march were killed by the Vaihingen guards. Dermot Bonas – and presumably the other Vaihingen prisoners – ended up in Ulm Court Prison. Ulm was liberated by US troops on 24 April 1945 where, according to other Vaihingen prisoners who were liberated from Ulm Court Prison, the political prisoners were set free between May and July 1945.
Vaihingen an der Enz was liberated by French forces on 7 April 1945, by which time the Vaihingen workhouse was empty of prisoners and Nazi personnel alike, Commandant Walther having fled the scene of his crimes after ordering the prison’s records destroyed. He was arrested by Allied forces on 5 May 1945 and sentenced in 1953 to six years and six months’ prison by a court in Heilbronn for the crimes he committed at Vaihingen workhouse.
After liberation, Kaltenstein Castle was used as a transit camp for German refugees who had been forcibly expelled the eastern districts of Germany. It was closed on orders of the US military government in 1949, and a Christian youth centre has been active in Kaltenstein Castle ever since. The workhouse as a form of legal punishment was only abolished by the German government in 1969.
Dermit Bonas and Thomas Gaudion survived the war, but like most survivors, they would suffer from a variety of chronic physical disabilities and post-traumatic stress disorders for the rest of their lives.
After the war, a memorial was made for the prisoners of Vaihingen Workhouse in the form of cross and two stones with the names of many of the prisoners who died there. In 2012, a memorial stone was unveiled on the burial listing a much higher number of victims.
 Quote (translated from German to English) from Sommer (see Sources below), p. 210.
Carr, Gilly; Sanders, Paul; Willmot, Louise: Protest, Defiance and Resistance in the Channel Islands: German Occupation, 1940-1945, Bloomsbury Academic, London & New York, 2014.
Landesarchiv Baden-Württemberg, online reference to documents relating to Württemberg Workhouse (in German). LINK
Scheck, Manfred: Zwangsarbeit und Massensterben – Politische Gefangene, Fremdarbeiter und KZ-Häftlinge in Vaihingen an der Enz 1933 bis 1945, Metropol Verlag, Berlin, 2014 (in German).
Sommer, Jasmin & Steffen, Nils: ‘1944–1945: Ein Tod auf Schloss Kaltenstein – Das Arbeitshaus für Männer in Vaihingen/Enz’ in Aus Gründen der inneren Sicherheit des Staates: Ausweisung, Verfolgung und Ermordung des Bremer Arbeiters Johann Geusendam (1886–1945), published by Sigrid Dauks and Eva Schöck-Quinteros, Bremen 2009, pp. 205–222 (in German). LINK
The National Archives (TNA), Foreign Office (FO)
TNA FO 950/1373 (Gaudion)