Sunday, 29 March 2009

Jørgen Kieler - "Resistance Fighter"

I mostly translate fiction and poetry. However, one book that I originally translated for the money but ended up being fascinated by was Resistance Fighter, the memoirs of the Danish Resistance fighter Jørgen Kieler. I do not know whether it has sold well, so here is an excerpt to draw it to the attention of potential readers. My translation appeared in 2007.

At the start of WWII, Kieler was a medical student whose parental home was on the main square of the small Danish town of Horsens. He went to study in Copenhagen. When war broke out and Denmark was occupied by Germany, Kieler joined the Resistance, first helping to smuggle Jews over the sound to neutral Sweden, then helping to run an underground newspaper. He later joined a team of dedicated Resistance fighters whose task it was to sabotage the factories of Danes collaborating with the German Nazi occupation. He was finally caught by the Germans and sent to the underground aeroplane factory Porta Westphalica.

The passages below describe that underground factory, which employed slave labour.


In February 1944, the Royal Air Force and the US Air Force changed their tactics. Instead of systematically carpet-bombing the German industrial districts of cities they began to employ precision bombing of the German aircraft industry. This was made possible by advances in radar techniques, and had catastrophic consequences for the Luftwaffe. The German Ministry of Supply therefore found an answer to this threat. They planned the construction of 20 underground industrial plants, each of between 5,000 and 50,000 square metres in area. The head of the concentration camp programme was now Himmler, and he became the biggest supplier of cheap labour, which he termed "die neuen Höhlenmenschen" (the new cave-dwellers).

One of the first of these plants to be established was at Barkenhausen, near Minden, where the River Weser breaks through what are termed the Westphalian Alps on its way to the North Sea, dividing these hills into an eastern ridge called the Wesergebirge and a western one, the Wiehengebirge. This is where Porta Westphalica (i.e. the Westphalian Gateway) is situated. Before the Second World War, it was known for its natural beauty and its spas. The labour camp Porta Westphalica was established here, an outsourcing camp of the main camp Neuengamme. At first, an old sandstone quarry was exploited - Jakobsberg - in the Wesergebirge on the eastern bank of the River Weser. Then the underground parts of this mine were expanded to also include the Wiehengebirge. Galleries - what the Germans termed Stoller - were bored out of the rock at a total length of 20 kilometres. These galleries connected factory workshops and machine halls of varying sizes with ceiling height of up to 40 metres to enable large cranes to work there. This was where the fuselages and technical equipment of new fighter planes were assembled. But first of all, an underground city had to be prepared.

For this purpose, professional mineworkers from the Saar were called in. Himmler gave these professionals an auxiliary workforce consisting of some 1,500 concentration camp prisoners. The first 250 or so of these came from the Soviet Union and Poland. They had been sent to the concentration camp Buchenwald as early as March 1944 and their first task was to prepare the hall to receive prisoners. This was part of Hotel Kaiserhof, a rather elegant timber-framed building where the SS had occupied all the rooms themselves. The restaurant continued to cater for the local population who were therefore well acquainted with the prison camp in the banqueting hall behind, where large banquets had taken place before the War for up to 2,500 guests. This was the place where the "cave-dwellers" were to work for the German aircraft industry.

Over the spring and summer, the number of prisoners had increased to around 1,000. These were from various East European countries, and in September, 500 extra prisoners arrived mostly from Denmark, France and the Netherlands. The Danish prisoners, 98 in number, were members of the Resistance and were regarded as political prisoners. We represented various political affiliations within the Resistance, but there were, in fact, few Communists. Most of these had ended up in Sachsenhausen or Stutthof.


As we were marching over the bridge, we saw ahead of us a two-storey timber-framed building with bay and dormer windows and small turrets. This was Hotel Kaiserhof. On our way to the hotel we passed one of the local end stations of the local railway. Only some time later did we realise that the railway led to a larger town, Minden, a little to the north.

The sight of the hotel had been encouraging. So the rumours at Neuengamme were true. We would be staying in a hotel. But there was no red carpet, and it soon became clear to us that the front door with the pompous stairway was meant for the masters of the manor and that we were consigned to the back entrance. Behind the hotel was a large building by whose entrance there were still a number of posters which told us that this was a theatre. Between the long wall of this building and the ridge was a path leasing to a yard surrounded by barbed wire which was enclosed on two sides by the backs of the hotel and the Theatre. It was along this path that we were to make our entrance into KZ-Lager Porta Westphalica. Our initially positive impression of the sight of Hotel Kaisershof gave way to fears when I read, in the yard an inscription written in charcoal on the white wall. In large letters the Latin inscription could be seen: HIC MORTUI VIVUNT.


The Theatre was a large hall, 80 by 30 metres. The windows were blacked out and covered with barbed wire. There was no heating. One end of the hall had blocks of bunks, stacked up vertically in fours and in rows of two. The bunks normally had a straw mattress and two thin blankets. The prisoners were not given a fixed sleeping place and as there were not enough bunks for everyone, there was always daily scrummage for a place to sleep and for blankets as two or three men ended up sleeping in the same bunk without blankets.


Outside the hall was an unmade yard which was about as big as the Theatre itself. This was later doubled in size. A number of large leafy trees indicated that the yard was originally for the delight of theatregoers who had come out of the Theatre during the interval. Now it had become an assembly point for the columns of workers going to and from their work. On rainy days it would be reduced to a muddy pool. But whatever the weather, the prisoners had to queue up here for their food rations. They would walk past the kitchen where the chef stood and dealt out the food. Any attempt to keep the Theatre clean was, under such circumstances, doomed to failure right from the start.


The prisoners came from 17 different nations. Including those who came towards the end of October, there were now some 1,500 prisoners. Most of these were from the Soviet Union, including the Asian parts. There were also many Poles, around 200 Frenchmen and some Germans. Otherwise, there were men from the Netherlands, Belgium, Spain and Italy, Czechoslovakia, Yugoslavia, Bulgaria, Greece and the Baltic countries. We were a motley crew. Some had been partisans, others from the Resistance, like we were. Some were prisoners-of-war or subject to forced labour, or ones who had tried to escape or broken the rules at their place of work. Others were free labourers who had broken their contracts, plus finally a number of criminals. Most of the German prisoners wore the green triangle of the criminal (Berufsverbrecher), or the black one for asocial elements. The chef wore a purple one; he was a Jehovah’s Witness. There were no Jews or gypsies in the camp. As for language, this was the Tower of Babel, although the common language was naturally German.

We Danes were a homogeneous group and were regarded as a unit, and also with a degree of respect as we had been in the Resistance. Only the Soviet and French prisoners had such a clearly defined national identity as we had.

Translated from Danish by Eric Dickens

1 comment:

Unknown said...

Hello Eric,
My late father was from Glamsbjerg, Fyn, and was, to cut a long story short, also in the Resistance. He took the identity of another man and never again was able to use his family name. He never liked to talk about these years. I am full of questions, live in Canada, and all relatives with knowledge of that time have passed away.
Are you able to provide a contact email for Mr. Kieler? It is a little country, and my father and he are only months apart in age. The names may be familiar to him.
Thank you for any assistance that you can provide.
Best regards,
Lisbeth Naurbol