While Stutthof is not as well known as other wartime German camps, a close look at the history of this important internment center actually tells more about the reality of the Third Reich's “final solution” policy than studies of much better known camps such as Dachau or Buchenwald. In particular, a dispassionate look at the pattern of Jewish deportations to and from this camp, and the treatment of the inmates there, simply cannot be reconciled with a wartime German program or policy to exterminate Jews.
Stutthof (Sztutowo in Polish) was located 36 kilometers east of the city of Danzig (now the Polish city of Gdansk) in a wooded clearing near the Baltic coast at the mouth of the Vistula river. Hastily set up as an emergency internment center in September 1939, as German forces were subduing Poland, it was soon established on a more permanent basis, and in 1942 was officially designated as a concentration camp. (note).
In 1943 and 1944 it was considerably enlarged until it included three large sections encompassing an area 2.5 by 1.2 kilometers. The Stutthof camp complex eventually embraced several dozen smaller satellite camps spread across a large part of East and West Prussia. In addition to administration and general upkeep work in the camp itself, inmates were employed in nearby workshops and factories that turned out equipment and clothing for the German armed forces. Other internees worked in a camp brick factory and greenhouse, and on nearby agricultural projects, quarries, ports and airfields. Inmates could send letters and receive parcels. At the end of 1943, a new regulation prohibited punishment by beating. (note).
Until 1944 there were relatively few Jewish internees. Most of the prisoners were Poles. In the fall of 1943 several hundred Jews found in hiding in the Bialystok ghetto (after the suppression of the uprising there) were transferred to Stutthof. (note). Beginning in June 1944, large numbers of Jews began arriving at Stutthof from Auschwitz. The first shipment of 2,500 Jewish women from Auschwitz-Birkenau was soon sent on to several hundred factories in the Baltic region. Between June and October 1944, 20,000 to 30,000 Jewish women, originally from Hungary, arrived at Stutthof from Auschwitz. In addition, Jewish women originally from the Lodz ghetto also arrived at Stutthof from Auschwitz. (note).
During the summer and fall of 1944, as Soviet forces advanced toward the Baltic region, thousands of Jews, including Jewish mothers and their children, were evacuated to Stutthof from more than a dozen camps and remnant ghettos in Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia. In particular, Jews were transferred from the camps at Riga (Latvia) and Kaunas (Lithuania), and the ghetto of Siauliai (Lithuania) in July 1944. Most were evacuated by sea on scarce ships. (note).
During the second half of 1944, as Soviet forces continued their westward advance, the Germans transferred large numbers of Jews, including hundreds of Jewish children, from Lithuania and Estonia through Stutthof to Auschwitz. (note). Many of these evacuees were Jews who had earlier been deported to the Baltic region from Germany as part of the “final solution” policy of mass deportation to occupied Soviet territories in the “East." (note).
These transfers to Stutthof are difficult, if not impossible, to reconcile with a German policy to annihilate Europe's Jews. If there had been such an extermination policy, it is particularly difficult to understand why Jews from the Baltic region — all of whom were supposedly doomed — were evacuated on Germany's overtaxed transportation system instead of being killed on the spot. The fact that many of the Jews evacuated by the Germans from the Baltic area to Stutthof were unemployable children is particularly difficult to reconcile with a general extermination policy. (note).
This new influx dramatically changed the camp's character. By late 1944, Jews made up about 70 percent of the inmate population. Russians constituted about 20 percent, and other nationalities made up the remaining ten percent. (note). The camp was divided into separate male and female compounds. Most of the inmates were reportedly young, above all Jewish girls and young women between the ages of 13 and 22. There was a separate barracks block for Jewish boys below the age of 17. As a rule, Jews did not have to work, although some were occasionally assigned to farm work on the outside. (note).
As a result of the chaos and tremendous overcrowding brought about by the worsening military situation, conditions in the camp deteriorated badly during 1944. Although new arrivals were routinely subjected to a quarantine period of two to four weeks, an epidemic of typhus broke out in the second half of the year. The death rate rose dramatically and reached a high point at the end of that year, when nine percent of the total inmate population reportedly died during December 1944. Besides typhus, inmates fell victim to enteric fever and hunger. (note).
Camp administrators did what they could under the almost impossible conditions to save lives. Hospital facilities for inmates were greatly expanded, and eventually took up a whole complex of barracks. Inmate physicians and nurses, as well as SS medical personnel, worked in these facilities, which were divided into 12 departments. Unfortunately, care for sick internees was severely limited by a serious lack of medicines and proper instruments. (note). In mid-January 1945, there were about 50,000 Stutthof inmates, about half of whom were in the main camp. There were 29,000 Jewish internees, including nearly 26,000 women. (note).
On January 25, 1945, with Soviet forces only a few kilometers away and the sound of gunfire audible in the distance, camp commandant SS Major Paul-Werner Hoppe, acting on higher instructions, ordered a general evacuation of internees to the interior of the Reich. Sick inmates, as well as a group needed to dissolve the camp, were to remain behind, he added. (note). Israeli Holocaust historian Yehuda Bauer has acknowledged the difficulty of reconciling this evacuation order with an extermination policy. At a 1981 conference, he asked rhetorically: “What was their [the Germans'] intention? Why did the SS march these people away? … Why did the commander of the camp in Stutthof give an order in January 1945 that everybody was to march except for the sick?" (note).
Coming as it did in the middle of winter, this mass evacuation in groups of fifteen hundred each was a terrible ordeal that claimed many thousands of lives. The ten-day march was carried out in snow and freezing temperatures, with very little food or adequate shelter. One Polish historian has estimated that 30,000 died during this evacuation trek. (note). One group of evacuees was rescued by Soviet forces in February 1945, but many in this group died after their liberation. (note).
Stutthof's prisoners were not the only ones to endure this terrible calamity. During this same period, hundreds of thousands of German civilians, most of them women and children, as well civilians of other nationalities, were slowly making their way westward in the snow and freezing weather. Many of these people also died during the winter trek. (note).
In March and April 1945, Soviet war planes repeatedly attacked the Stutthof camp. A bomb that hit the Jewish hospital on March 26, 1945, killed 28 and wounded 35. (note). During the following weeks, Soviet air and artillery strikes became more frequent. By April 20, 1945, a former Jewish inmate later recalled (note).
Stutthof was bombarded from the air and ground. The bombing went on day and night… The Stutthof camp was enormous and from one end to the other it was burning down from the air attacks. Countless numbers of Katzetler [inmates] were killed by the bombs. I myself was lucky, because a bomb hit our ward and three-quarters of the sick were killed or wounded.
In late April 1945, with Stutthof now cut off from unoccupied Germany except by sea, it was finally decided to evacuate the 3,000 or so Jewish women still remaining in the camp. One inmate who was evacuated on a cargo ship later recalled her terrible ordeal: (note).
We sailed and sailed and went into ports many times. Which, I can't remember. But no port would let us stay because there was a yellow flag flying from the top, meaning the ship was supposed to be carrying people with contagious diseases on board…At every port, the captain declared that he was carrying women refugees and asked permission to unload them.
But time and time again they were turned away, although at one port some German soldiers gave them some bread. With almost no water or food, the ship drifted for eleven days from one port to another. During this terrible period, Allied planes twice attacked the unarmed vessel, killing many of the Jews on board. During a third bombing attack, which came while the ship was anchored outside of Kiel harbor and only a day before the arrival of British troops there, the vessel caught fire and sank. Many died in the flames or during the mad scramble to get on deck, and others drowned. One survivor recalls that all but 33 of the 2,000 Jewish women on board perished.(note)
The final evacuation from Stutthof took place on April 27, 1945. Under attack from Soviet warplanes, the prisoners were loaded onto several barges at nearby Hela harbor, which were then towed westward to territory still under German control. One barge, packed with sick inmates, was destined for Kiel. Others were taken to the port town of Neustadt near Lübeck.(note) One Polish historian has estimated that 3,000 of the Stutthof internees who were evacuated by sea lost their lives in the ordeal.(note)
Not all of Stutthof's inmates were evacuated. Hundreds who were not able to move were left behind in the camp, which remained in German hands as part of the fiercely defended Danzig enclave until it was surrendered to Soviet forces on May 10, 1945.(note)
Some historians have insisted that prisoners were killed at Stutthof in a camp gas chamber.(note) According to a 1985 statement by Munich's Institute for Contemporary History “more than one thousand” people were killed in a Stutthof gas chamber.(note) However, the evidence cited for homicidal gassings at Stutthof is meager and not very credible. The camp's “gas chamber” building, which is still intact, is a small brick structure about two and a half meters high, five meters in length, three meters wide. American historian Konnilyn Feig has written that it looks “almost like a toy.” Polish officials have seriously claimed that the Germans gassed one hundred persons at a time in the chamber (that is, six or seven persons per square meter). Homicidal gassings with Zyklon were supposedly carried out intermittently between June and December 1944 in this chamber.(note)
Polish historian Krzysztof Dunin-Wasowicz believes that this building was neither designed nor built as a homicidal gassing facility. In an essay published in a semi-official work about the alleged homicidal “gas chambers,” he writes that this building was built as a (non-homicidal) gas chamber for treating clothes. However, he goes on to claim that this it was sometimes also improvisationally used to kill people. ("Originally the gas chamber was built as a room for delousing clothing, and it continued to be used for this purpose, too, for as long as it existed.")(note)
Interestingly, the “gas chamber” building is not at all hidden or camouflaged, nor is it disguised as a shower. Therefore, if it had actually been used as a homicidal gassing facility, prospective victims apparently would have been under no illusion about the fate that awaited them. It is worth noting that the Germans in charge of the camp never made any effort to destroy or dismantle Stutthof's supposed “extermination facility,” which is difficult to believe if, in fact, it had been a execution gas chamber. (note).
A West German court that heard “eyewitness testimony” about homicidal gassings at Stutthof declared in its 1964 verdict that “with regard to the gassings a positive determination was likewise not possible.” Evidence given by several supposed witnesses of gassings was found to be dubious or not credible.(note) Raul Hilberg makes no mention of homicidal gassings at Stutthof in his detailed three-volume Holocaust work. Two other prominent Holocaust historians, Lucy Dawidowicz and Nora Levin, likewise said nothing about the camp's alleged extermination facility.
According to Polish historian Czeslaw Pilichowski, director of Poland's “Central Commission for the Investigation of German Crimes,” of the 120,000 people (Jews and non-Jews) who were ever interned in Stutthof or its satellite camps, 85,000 died. (note). Polish historian Krzysztof Dunin-Wasowicz has estimated that of the camp's 120,000 inmates, “about 80,000 of them either died or were murdered." (note). Another Polish historian gives a “conservative” estimate of 65,000 Stutthof victims. (note)
Altogether more than 52,000 Jews were interned in Stutthof and its satellite camps, according to Jewish historian Martin Gilbert and the Encyclopaedia Judaica. Only about 3,000 survived, they estimate, and add that perhaps 26,000 of the Jewish victims died or drowned during the evacuation in 1945. (note).
Although it is difficult to determine the actual number of deaths with any precision, in this regard it is important to keep in mind that the great majority of Stutthof's victims were direct and indirect victims of war, including thousands who lost their lives in Allied air attacks during the final weeks of fighting. As was also the case at Dachau, Buchenwald and other German camps, a considerable portion of those who died in the Stutthof main camp were victims of typhus and other diseases who succumbed during the final months of the war.
As we have seen, most Stutthof victims apparently lost their lives in the grim and hastily organized evacuations by foot or sea. As harsh as they were, these evacuations were not part of any extermination program. In spite of its high death rate, Stutthof was certainly not an “extermination camp,” and the many deaths there were not the result of a policy or program.