Operating the Looms

Bolkenhain, Germany

Bolkenhain was a work camp in the Gross-Rosen concentration camp system, which opened in 1940 to its closing in 1945.

In July 1942, Gerda was put on a train leaving the transit camp, Sosnowitz-Dulag, Poland, for an unknown place with no known expectations of what was to come. As the hours passed the train finally came to a stop at the train station in Bolkenhain, Germany. The SS guards forced the girls off of the train to be counted and marched in rows across the town to the work camp that was located on the outskirts of Bolkenhain. (Klein, 114) Gerda describes the scene of the townspeople as she was walking through the camp as an alienating experience, “People looked at us as though they had not expected us to be human. Children were called into houses. One young blond woman stood at an open window watering flowers in the window box as we passed. She interrupted her task and looked at us wide-eyed. The thought came to me that she had probably never seen a Jew in her life. Brought up under the Nazis, she expected us to be monsters.” (Klein, 114)

Bolkenhain was a subcamp of the larger concentration camp system, Gross-Rosen. The work camp was located in the outskirts of Bolkenhain towards Wolmsdorf on a small hill, which is now called Góra Ryszarda. (USHMM, 710) The camp consisted of three resident barracks, an infirmary, a sewing and shoemaking shop, a bathhouse, and a fifth barrack that was used as the bathrooms. (USHMM, 710) Surrounding the camp was a wire-mesh fence with the main headquarters of the camp located outside of the perimeter. At the headquarters there was a kitchen, sleeping barracks for the officers, and a guard tower to keep watch over the prisoners. (USHMM, 710)

The camp consisted of mostly male prisoners, but around 1940, a women’s camp was opened and it consisted of roughly 300-350 prisoners at any given time. (Klein, USC Shoah) The female prisoners would work in the textile factory that was owned and operated by Kramsta-Methner und Prahne. (Klein, USC Shoah) There they would make textile products that would be used in the German military. The men at Bolkenhain would work for Vereinigte Deutsche Metallwerke (VDM) either in the airplane factory or road construction. (Klein, USC Shoah)

While at the work camp, Gerda was under the supervision of Frau Küger (Lagerführerin). The girls were required to wear three yellow stars with the inscription "Jew" on them while they were working in the factory. (Klein, 118) One would be on the girls back, the front breast area, and the other on top of a kerchief tied onto their heads. (Klein, 118) Gerda learned to work the weaving looms by Meister Zimmer and eventually had to maintain four looms during her work shift. (Klein, 118) The conditions at the camp were rough, with one example being that the bathhouse only had cold water to shower in. (USHMM, 710) There were occasions that some prisoners would try to escape, but when they were caught it would lead to their immediate execution. A former survivor of Bolkenhain described the scenario to the US Holocaust museum, “…the camp death rate was 20 to 25 percent of the inmate population. The naked corpses of prisoners, who had chiefly died of hunger, emaciation, and beating were kept in a specially prepared, concrete-lined rectangular pit located next to the camp entrance gate.” (USHMM, 711)

In fact, for Gerda, her life was saved because of the kindness of Frau Kügler. Gerda had fallen ill at Bolkenhain and was being kept in the infirmary until she got better. On one particular day, SS-Obersturmführer Lindner from Dulag had come for a site visit of the camp. (Klein, 133) On his site visit if there were any ill or unfit prisoners at the camp he would immediately send them to Auschwitz. (Klein, 133) Frau Kügler forced Gerda out of the infirmary and to her station in the weaving factory. (Klein, 133) This one act of kindness possibly saved Gerda from being sent to Auschwitz.

In August of 1943 the girls were woken up at Bolkenhain and separated into two groups. Gerda would board a truck that would take her to her new location of Merzdorf. (Klein, 144)After Gerda left Bolkenhain, the work camp continued to be used in its production capabilities. The camp remained until February of 1945. At that time, the sick prisoners were given a poisonous injection and the remaining prisoners were taken on a death march. (USHMM, 711) It is not known exactly how many prisoners left Bolkenhain and along their travels additional prisoners would join from other local prisons and work camps. Eventually the prisoners reached the Reichenau train station where they were loaded up into freight cars and taken to Buchenwald concentration camp. (USHMM, 711)