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Post-war missing persons / NKVD special camps

Development of the camps
Names of internees
Work of the GRC Tracing Service
Initiatives against forgetting


Walter Bauer was 63 years old, mayor of a village in the Mark. Wilhelmine Lossow (42 years old), head of the Nationalist Socialist People’s Welfare Organisation (NSV) in a suburb of Berlin. Heinz-Jürgen Schmittke (18), apprentice in a business in Erfurt and suspected of being a “werwolf”, i.e. a member of a guerrilla force created in 1944 to resist the Allies. Heidemarie Grote (16), leader of the League of German Girls in a village in Pomerania. Friedrich Loose (58), member of the National Socialist German Workers' Party. They were all “picked up” in summer 1945 and had died in the special NKVD camps at Buchenwald, Sachsenhausen, Funfeichen and Berlin-Hohenschonhausen by Christmas 1945.

The relatives at home knew nothing of the fate of the people in the camps, nothing of their illnesses, nothing of their tortured ends, of their death, not even the place of their disappearance. Their whereabouts remained unknown; it was only through rumours that the families learned many years later about their fate from released fellow inmates. But even these people could not give any reliable information about the cause or date of death, or their last resting place; simply by reporting such information to relatives they were risking their return to one of the prisons in the former GDR.

Only 50 or 60 years after they had died in the NKVD special camps was the GRC Tracing Service able to find out what happened to these people following analysis of the documents obtained from the former Soviet Union.

It was the first time the relatives obtained certainty, from the news the Red Cross gave them, that those taken into captivity in the year 1945 had died. It was the first time that they found out about the location of the camp and place of death, a date of death and, finally, also the location of the grave from a reliable source. Even if this grave was not a marked single grave, relatives at least had found a place to mourn. For the first time, through initiative groups and committees of the different camps, they were able to exchange stories with people who had experienced something similar.

For 45 years from the end of the war until reunification this topic has been taboo in the former GDR. No one dared to ask about people who had been picked up by the occupation forces in 1945 and had since vanished without trace. Only in a few cases did families receive an official confirmation that their missing relative had died in answer to their request to the GDR authorities. This brief message contained no further details however, nor the hoped-for details about the person’s whereabouts.

Origin of the camps

How did these camps come to exist? How did arrests take place? What were the grounds for the internment of German citizens in the NKVD camps?

How the camps came to exist

People in the camp. Photo: DRK tracing serviceWith the advance of the Red Army to the Elbe a third camp system - in addition to the two existing camp administrations for prisoners and prisoners of war – came into being, the special camps. The special camps in the Soviet occupied zone were under the administration of the Soviet People’s Commissariat for Internal Affairs (NKVD).

The official reason for these camps was the decision by opponents of the German Reich to intern Nazis and war criminals. However, they had more to do with the advance of the Red Army that systematically built camps for the NKVD. As soon as the German Reich’s frontiers were crossed, the first, in part provisional, camps were created.

The crucial order 00315 was enacted on 18 April 1945. It was, until 1950, the foundation of all internments in the Soviet occupied zone and in the later GDR, too. With this order, the Soviet Union implemented the war aim of “destroying German militarism and Nazism” agreed upon at Yalta. Following the Allied agreements, the NKVD order defined under point 1 the groups of people who were to be interned in especially for this purpose set-up prisons and camps “in situ”, that is, in the Soviet occupied zone within Germany and, initially, also in the German eastern provinces.

Where the camps were erected

Immediately after the occupation but also well into the coming years, Germans were taken to these camps. Men and women, young people as well as the elderly. The camps were very different from one another. Some former concentration camps were used – like Sachsenhausen and Buchenwald. The Muhlberg camp originated in a former POW camp. Weesow on an aerodrome; Ketschendorf in a residential area; Hohenschonhausen in the canteen of a Nazi Welfare Centre in the middle of Berlin. Only a very few internees had the opportunity to do something meaningful. They were not meant to work in the special camps.

Grounds for internment

According to the Soviet sources, between 1945 and 1950 around 123,000 Germans were interned, either because they were Nazi or war criminals or because they were said to have infringed the orders and provisions of the Soviet occupied zone. Arrest and internment were carried out partly on the basis of existing lists of Nazi organisations and Nazi members, partly due to denunciations, but often for no apparent reason. Around 43,000 prisoners died in the camps, while 45,000 were released after the dissolution of the camps in 1950. The remaining prisoners were deported to the Soviet Union or transferred to the GDR authorities and kept in captivity. Out of these 14,200 prisoners, a number were condemned to further prison sentences in the notorious Waldheim trials by the GDR justice courts and only released in the course of the 1950s.

Names of the internees

File belonging to the “Combat Group against Inhumanity”

Since the end of the war, the GRC Tracing Service has received countless enquiries into the fates of the disappeared. Yet there was almost no way to discover their whereabouts. In Berlin the “Combat Group against Inhumanity” (KgU) put together a file with the names of missing persons on around 900,000 index cards. This would come to have a fundamental significance in the later years of the GRC Tracing Service. Since the middle of the 1950s this file has been part of the collections of the GRC Tracing Service.

Soviet NKVD files

In 1990 the Soviet Minister of the Interior Bakatin announced that the NKVD files would “be released shortly”. This announcement was met with great interest in the still extant GDR. In a very short time, the GRC Tracing Service received around 10,000 enquiries. In December 1992 the work in the Russian archives finally began. Soon afterwards the desired information was made available to the Tracing Service.

Since that time the documents have been analysed and affected families have received certainty about the fate of their loved ones, over 60 years after their death. And more than 60 years after their release from the camps, many people have finally had the chance to have these years in captivity acknowledged. These data also enabled them to start rehabilitation proceedings with the West German Foreign Office or through the Memorial Fund of Saxony.

Work of the GRC Tracing Service

While in the early years GRC Tracing Service employees were exclusively occupied with reacting to the incoming enquiries, now those data sets are being intensively processed for which there has been no query.

In painstaking work, the employees compare the cards from the 1950s with the original lists and data from the archives. Search requests from the 1950s, that were never able to be resolved, are today a first clue to the tracing of relatives.

Since nearly all the prisoners of the special camps came from the area that would later become the GDR, family members who even today live in the same place can almost always be found, too. In collaboration with the local registry offices at the camp locations, death certificates are finally being drawn up. In this way, people who had been anonymous for decades are at least being returned their names and personal data.

Even the relatives of Walter Bauer, Wilhelmine Lossow, Heinz-Jürgen Schmittke, Heidemarie Grote and Friedrich Loose were located by the GRC Tracing Service and informed of their respective losses in the year 1945 – and 61 years after their deaths, the local registry was able to certify them.

Initiatives against forgetting

The number of requests from historians, local and family researchers that seek information from the GRC Tracing Service about individuals or on the ten camps is increasing steadily. Especially the initiative groups and committees of the different camps attempt to complete the archive and documentation work on the prisoners and conditions in the camps while they can still interview living contemporary witnesses. Many committees are currently engaged in preparing documentation about the camps, as well as erecting memorials within the area of the camps.

The “NKVD-camp" chapter is far from closed in the minds of the people, particularly in the young federal states, the region of the former GDR.