- The History of a Forgotten German Camp: Nazi Ideology and Genocide at Szmalcówka by Tomasz Ceran
In this study of Szmalcówka, the Nazi resettlement and forced labor camp established just outside the city of Toruń, Tomasz Ceran seeks to enrich our understanding of the Second World War and its impact on Polish civilians. In so doing, Ceran, a historian at the Institute of National Remembrance (Instytut Pamięci Narodowej, IPN) in Poland, usefully illustrates how and why the Nazis established this camp as well as how they mistreated those Polish men, women, and children unfortunate enough to find themselves within its dismal confines. The book complements recent work that explores the complex way in which Nazi ideology played out and German institutions evolved on the ground in Eastern Europe—in this case, in that part of [End Page 487] the prewar Polish state that was annexed by the Reich and re-named Reichsgau Danzig-West Prussia, where Toruń (which, before the First World War, had been the Prussian city of Thorn) was located. The monograph also contributes to a broader understanding of the Nazi years by illustrating the workings of an obscure camp—one that probably was more typical of those erected by the Germans all over Europe than the more iconic concentration and extermination camps. As Ceran notes, at least 5,000 camps “of different kinds” were created by the Nazi occupiers in Poland (p. 2). At the same time, however, The History of a Forgotten German Camp suffers from several flaws that will limit its appeal.
The chapters that deal specifically with the camp—“Behind the Gates of Szmalcówka” and “Lessons in Work, Cleanliness and Discipline”—are the strongest. Ceran is a skilled and knowledgeable researcher, and he draws extensively on archival and published sources, ranging from death certificates to survivors’ testimony collected by Polish officials after the war, to document the camp’s origins, shifting purposes, and inner workings. In a refreshingly concise manner, Ceran surveys the often baffling bureaucratic landscape of occupied Poland and connects the camp to the Central Emigration Office (Umwandererzentralstelle) established in the Reichsgau to facilitate its ethnic Germanization. The camp’s original purpose was to house, temporarily, prewar residents of the region who had been uprooted from their homes and farms in order to make way for ethnic Germans. In the camp, these locals were subjected to pseudo-scientific examinations to determine their “racial” stock. Those declared irredeemably Polish were then deported to the General Government, where the brutal Hans Frank ruled over a terrorized and enslaved population. After the Germans closed the border to the General Government in preparation for the 1941 invasion of the Soviet Union, the camp became a holding site for slave laborers; inter-nees’ labor was rented out to local German employers, including private households and farms.
Throughout its existence, Szmalcówka (so named because it was once a lard [smalec] factory) was a grim and miserable place. Food was scarce and of low quality. The barracks were dirty, cold, and crowded, and the guards were brutal and cruel. An inmate’s life in Szmalcówka was a constant struggle against starvation, disease, terror, and exhaustion. In the end, Ceran agrees with earlier Polish historians who calculated that around 500 people, including more than 300 children, died in Szmalcówka. One of Ceran’s goals is to rescue these victims from historical oblivion and remind us that each and every one of these deaths was not a numerical abstraction, but a human tragedy. He achieves this goal in part by including a list of victims’ names at the end of the book. He also includes descriptions of the suffering, provided by people who witnessed it firsthand. In a particularly heart-wrenching example, an inmate recalls being sent to the so-called “hospital” of the camp, where he watched as an emaciated four-year-old boy begged a nurse for water. The nurse ignored him, and the next morning the boy was dead (p. 111). [End...