Zöschen Forced Labour Re-Education Camp

Country Germany
GPS 51° 21' 4.4604" N, 12° 6' 51.0444" E
Address An der Windmühle, 06237 Leuna, Germany
Dates Active 7 August 1944 – 15 April 1945

Channel Islanders Imprisoned in Zöschen Forced Labour Re-Education Camp:
Clifford John Cohu, Joseph James Tierney

By Roderick Miller

At least two Channel Islanders were imprisoned in Zöschen Forced Labour Camp (Arbeiterziehungslager Zöschen) located in Zöschen, now a part of the administrative district of the city of Leuna in the German state of Saxony-Anhalt. On 7 July 1944, allied bombs destroyed most of Sperrgau Forced Labour Re-Education Camp. Its mostly Dutch forced labour prisoners were moved to a temporary location in nearby Schkopau and the camp administration ordered the construction of a new camp in Zöschen. Construction began on Zöschen camp on 7 – 18 August 1944, using the 50 Dutch forced labour prisoners from Schkopau under the supervision of building contractor Otto Schweigel, and construction continued through September 1944. Zöschen camp consisted of four to six long barracks made of brick and concrete, each of which could hold 200 – 250 prisoners, and a headquarters barracks for the camp’s SS guards. This headquarters had sleeping quarters, a kitchen, a dining room, and an office. The camp was surrounded by a barbed-wire fence, and the headquarters and men’s and women’s sections were all separated from each other by barbed wire as well. A double-winged entry gate stood between the SS barracks and the prisoners’ section. Guard towers stood at intervals along the camp’s outer perimeter.

Although the brutality and terrible living conditions in SS-run Zöschen were nearly as bad as many concentration camps, it is important to note an important difference between a concentration camp and a so-called ‘labour re-education camp’: in most cases, the only way ‘out’ of a concentration camp was by dying. Prisoners in a ‘labour re-education’ were, in many cases, released after having served their sentences. After June 1944, the Channel Islanders were an exception to this, since civilian travel to the Channel Islands was stopped after the allied D-Day invasion. This meant that in essence, the Channel Islanders had no home to which to return and were therefore kept in custody after June 1944.

By mid-September 1944, Zöschen was filling up with prisoners who were transported there from other prisons and camps throughout Nazi-occupied Europe. Prisoners had their heads shaved and wore striped prison garb with their serial numbers and a large letter ‘E’ (for Erziehungslager or ‘re-education camp’) printed on the back, a cap and wooden shoes. When spoken to by an SS guard, the prisoners were required to remove their cap and stand at attention. Most of the prisoners were forced to live in so-called ‘silo tents’, of which 20 to 25 had been built. These were round huts, 6 to 7 metres in diameter, with walls of fibreboard 1.6 to 1.8 metres tall and a ceiling apex of about 2.4 meters with an air hole in the centre to allow smoke from the stove to escape. The floors were bare earth covered in 10 to 15 centimetres of straw, and the sole accommodations for sleeping were one horse blanket per person and a bare sleeping pallet, though overcrowding soon had most prisoners sleeping on the floor. The huts barely sheltered the prisoners from the cold and were insufficiently heated, if at all. As with most prisons and camps in Germany, there were no air raid shelters for the prisoners, and during allied bombing attacks the prisoners were fully exposed, both in the camp and in their place of forced labour.

Roll calls took place morning and evenings starting at 6 a.m., with prisoners being driven out of their huts and barracks by clubs. The prisoners fell into even rows of the same number of prisoners, with any left over prisoners standing in the last row. A number of survivors testified to the horrible stench emanating from many of the prisoners who were too ill to control their bowel movements any longer. The prisoner numbers were called out, first in German, then in French, then in Polish and Russian, and the prisoners were expected to answer ‘yes’ or ‘here’ in their respective languages when their number was called. Each roll call, which took place out of doors in all weather conditions, lasted three-quarters to a full hour. If there were irregularities in the roll call, it could last up to two hours or more. The count of prisoners had to be the same in the evening as it was in the morning, and when prisoners had died on a work detail during the day, as was often the case, then the corpse of the prisoner had to be returned to the camp after the forced labour detail and identified at roll call by the prisoner number on the back of his or her uniform.

So-called ‘breakfast’ after morning roll call consisted solely of a tin bowl of malt ‘ersatz coffee’. Dinner, after a full day of forced labour and evening roll call, was a piece of bread of about 200 grammes (once or twice a week with a bit of butter) and a tin bowl of beet-leaf soup with a few half-rotting potatoes. Many prisoners would try and save their piece of bread to stave off hunger the next day, and bits of bread soon became a major black market commodity. Beatings and various forms of prisoner humiliation were part of everyday life for prisoners in Zöschen, often with fatal results for those who had already been severely weakened by malnutrition and disease.

By November 1944, winter had set in and prisoners began to die additionally from exposure. A typhus epidemic raged in the camp from January 1945 onwards. Many of the Zöschen prisoners were forced to perform labour in the Leuna-Werke chemical factory in nearby Leuna, or clearing the streets of rubble from allied bombing raids, removing destroyed steel pipes, filling bomb craters, and the highly dangerous work of removing unexploded bombs.

Pastor Clifford Cohu was released from Naumburg Prison on 30 August 1944, taken first to Halle Prison for a few days and then transported to Zöschen on 13 September 1944 along with 50 others. Czech prisoner Premysl Polacek testified after the war that Cohu was verbally abused and physically beaten on a consistent basis. A few days later after Cohu’s arrival, Dutch prisoner Frans Busschers witnessed the following:

On this day, Uncle Keesje was the head of the watch. As usual, he was giving out beatings left and right. Then he said [in German]:

‘Now I have a genuine pastor for you sacks of shit. He can pray for you and give a sermon – in English, of course. He is from England and was nabbed in the Channel Islands.’

The pastor seemed to have been imprisoned for a long time, which we could see since he was so extremely emaciated. Whether he had not understood Uncle Keesje or had purposefully ignored him, I don’t know, in any case he made no effort to give a sermon.

Uncle Keesje immediately gave him a brutal beating that left the pastor lying on the floor.

I saw the pastor one or two days later. He told me that he was very poorly and he could no longer walk. When I visited the hut the next day after roll call with Jupp Dyslag to talk with the pastor, a prisoner showed us a coffin, and when he lifted the lid, we recognised the dead pastor. [1]

‘Uncle Kessje’, Dutch slang for a ‘mean old man’, was the nickname of SS guard Wilhelm Gerbsch. Clifford Cohu probably died as a direct result of this last brutal beating that Gerbsch had given him. Premysl Polacek found a bible pressed tightly against Cohu’s breast when he was preparing the body for burial. Cohu’s remains were cremated, but it is uncertain where his body was cremated and what became of his ashes.

The parents of Joseph Tierney wrote a post-war letter searching for their son, and mentioned that a Belgian named Albert Sauvage had written to them after the war that he was with their son in Zöschen:

In July 1945 we received a letter from a Frenchman [Albert Sauvage, actually Belgian], stating that from Naumburg/Saale my son was taken to a camp at Soechen [sic] near Leipzig. On the 10th of April 1945 they left Soechen as the Germans thought the Allies would soon be there. On the 23rd of April, 1945, the Frenchman, my son and others escaped, they soon became separated. — Letter dated 9 August 1946 from Joseph Tierney, the father of Joe Tierney, to the Case Office of the Search Bureau

Another report states:

Monsieur Sauvage knew Monsieur Tierney in the camp of SOECHEN [sic]. He says that they suffered very bad treatment there. (Monsieur Sauvage cannot bring himself to discuss the details because he is still very much affected by the memory of those terrible days.) On coming out of this camp they were crowded on a railway wagon with an almost complete lack of food which exhausted Tierney very quickly, who very soon felt himself become very weak and realised that his death was near. He remarked on this fairly often to his comrades. And in actual fact he died very peacefully on the 2nd May 1945 after having talked at length of his wife and child.

It can thus be established that Joseph Tierney was in Zöschen from approximately the date of his release from Naumburg Prison on 25 March 1945 until leaving Zöschen on 10 April 1945. Another letter from a Dutch survivor testifies to their being an Englishman on the transport out of Zöschen on 9 [sic] April. Dutch survivor Frans Busschers states that on 10 April the first sounds of battle between the allies and the Germans could be heard in the distance, so it is small wonder that the Nazis were evacuating the prisoners.

On 14 April 1945, camp commandant, SS-Unterscharführer Wilhelm Winter [2] left the camp with other SS-personnel and was not seen again. Most of the remaining prisoners were placed on a march in the direction of Leipzig, but Frans Busschers reports that many of them were periodically set free by the guards. The few remaining guards in Zöschen were ordered to let the few remaining prisoners free and they promptly fled the camp. The remaining prisoners attempted to raise a white flag over the barracks so as to avoid allied artillery fire, but they were fired upon by Hitler youth from a nearby windmill. The prisoners spent the night in local basements and were awakened early the next morning, on 15 April 1945, by US Army troops of the 2nd Infantry Division, who were already in the village.

Dutch survivor Frans Busschers testified after the war that of the 50 prisoners he arrived there with in August 1944 to build the camp, only 24 were still alive by early December. A total of 5,019 prisoners were imprisoned in Zöschen in the short period (252 days) of the camp’s existence, and 517 of them died there. A further 866 prisoners were transported from Zöschen to Auschwitz, Buchenwald, Dachau, Flossenbürg, Gross-Rosen, Herzogenbusch, and Neuengamme concentration camps, in which the chances of survival were very low. No research has as of date been undertaken to see how many of these 866 prisoners survived. 1,439 prisoners finished serving their sentences in Zöschen and were released, and around 1,000 were found alive in the camp when liberated by US troops. Thus of the 5,019 prisoners in Zöschen, 28.7% were released after serving their sentences, 20% survived to see liberation, 10.2% died, and the fate of the remaining 58.9% of the prisoners remains unknown.

Camp commandant Wilhelm Winter and other high-ranking SS officers were never brought to justice for the crimes against humanity committed in Zöschen, and their post-war whereabouts and fates are unknown. A Dutch capo (voluntary prisoner guard) named J. L. Kiesouw was sentenced to death in Amsterdam in 1947 for murders committed in Zöschen. SS Guard Wilhelm Gerbsch, who had given Pastor Clifford Cohu an ultimately fatal beating, was arrested by US troops and extradited to Holland. The Dutch prosecutor asked for the death penalty for murders that Gerbsch had committed in Zöschen, but in the end he was sentenced in 1948 to 15 years’ prison. In a revision trial in 1950, this sentence was reduced to 8 years.

An honorary graveyard memorial was created in the GDR era on the main square of Zöschen – and not at the actual location of the camp graveyard, due to local coal mining at the time – but was later moved to the actual location of the graves just north of Zöschen, and re-dedicated in 1992. An additional memorial plaque is to be found in Zöschen cemetary. The non-profit history group ‘Heimat- und Geschichtsverein Zöschen e.V.’, which has been primarily responsible for most of the documentation and memorialization for Zöschen camp, has tried for years to procure funding and a suitable location for a memorial centre in Zöschen, but their goal remains as of date (2017) unrealised.

[1] From Pabst (see Sources below), pp. 26–27. Translated from German to English by Roderick Miller.
[2] Camp commandant SS-Untersturmführer Wilhelm Winter, born 10 January 1902 in Uchtdorf.

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: The Jersey islanders who died in German prisons and concentration camps during the Occupation 1940-1945, Jersey Heritage Trust, Jersey, 2004.

Pabst, Martin: Der Tod ist ein täglicher Gast: Holländische Geiseln und Widerstandskämpfer 1944/45 in den Arbeitserziehungslagern Zöschen, Schafstädt und Ammendorf, Galgenbergsche Literaturkanzlei, 2007 (contemporary eyewitness account of Zöschen camp in German).

Göhricke, Susanne: ‘Erster Versuch einer statistischen Auswertung der drei Gefangenenbücher des AEL Zöschen (Stand 06.03.2014)’ in the newspaper Leunauer Stadtanzeiger, No. 5/2014, pp. 48-50. (prisoner statistics from Zöschen, in German). LINK

Private papers belonging to the family of Joseph Tierney, courtesy of Patricia Fisher.

Schaaf, Edda: exerpt from article ‘Arie-Kooiman-Gedächtnismarsch’ in the newspaper Leunauer Stadtanzeiger, No. 6/2013, pp. 48-51. (contemporary eyewitness account of Zöschen camp by Arie Kooiman, in German) LINK

Szumiński, Konrad & Sułek, Dr. Edward: Erinnerungen eines polnischen Zwangsarbeiters Nr. 10.433 – AEL Zöschen – 1944 – 1945. Tredition Publishers, Siemianowice Śląskie / Sennewitz, 2016 (in German)

United States Holocaust Memorial Museum (publisher): Honoring American Liberators, pp. Link