Hitler’s FIRST death camp dubbed ‘Fort of Horror’ opened 80 years ago today in Poznań
Opened eighty years ago today, Fort VII in Poland’s western city of Poznań has several dubious accolades.
As the first concentration camp that the Germans set up on Polish territory, it became known as the Fort of Horror due to the brutal regime of torture, punishment and death metered out by the sadistic SS guards.
It was also where Germans fine-tuned what became their war-time speciality, murdering by gas.
Psychiatric patients, as well as their nurses and doctors, local resistance fighters, members of the intelligentsia and anyone seen as a threat were all murdered using diabolical equipment and methods generated by a nation that had left the orbit of normal humanity.
Pleased with their results in Poznan, fuelled by rabid chauvinism and with the consent and active participation of large numbers of Germans back home, the authors of the final solution would export the killing machinery that they had tweaked and perfected at Fort VII.
The recipients of the fruits of German R&D were Auschwitz, Sobibór, Bełżec and Chełmno, where the largest documented mass murders in the history of humanity were committed, mainly against Jews, but also ethnic Poles, Soviet citizens and prisoners of war, Roma and Sinti, the 'incurably sick', political and religious dissenters and homosexual men.
The numbers of victims in Poznan are hard to determine, but estimates range from 4,500 up to as many as 20,000 killed by gassing, torture, shooting, beating or as a result of being hurled down stairs. Victims included Poles and Jews, as well as prisoners form Yugoslavia, the United Kingdom, France and Germany.
One of the reasons why the nineteenth-century Fort VII was chosen as a prison was its location. The area of the fort was far away from prying eyes and those who lived nearby were driven away, their homes being requisitioned and used to accommodate camp guards and staff.
At the same time it had good access to the city centre. From the outside, the building did not resemble a camp. The entrance gate, hidden behind a winding road among old trees, was invisible to passers-by.
Initially, the camp was intended to hold and exterminate political prisoners, but it was still a temporary camp. People stayed there until a decision was made to move them to another camp or to kill them on the spot.
However, soon after opening, the Germans decided to extend the camp’s victims to other groups of ‘undesirables’.
In October 1939, Fort VII was where the Germans used gas for the first time to kill civilians when in bunker 17, about 400 patients and medical staff of the psychiatric hospital in Owińska and the psychiatric ward of the hospital on Grobla street in Poznan were murdered.
At first, only the men were murdered, but eventually women and children were also gassed.
Upon arriving at the camp, the patients were unloaded and marched across a bridge before being led to the two gas chambers on top of a hill, at the back of the camp.
Once inside, the doors were sealed with clay, and carbon monoxide was pumped in through a hole.
After the success of their abominable experiments, the Nazis began using mobile gas chambers in specially adapted vans to kill patients from other hospitals in the area.
Prior to gassing, the victims were ordered to undress and enter the gas vans. The two doors at the back of the wagons were closed, a tube then fixed onto the exhaust pipe.
To calm down the naked victims a lamp was switched on for a few minutes. The driver then started the motor, which ran in neutral gear for about ten minutes.
During this time the motor produced enough carbon monoxide to suffocate the victims.
They were then drive to nearby forests where they were later buried in mass graves.
Fort VII was known among prisoners the Fort of Horror as conditions there were particularly harsh, partly because of the high ratio of guards to prisoners.
Prisoners lived in cramped, dark, damp and cold cells with often 200-300 prisoners held in cells measuring 20 by 5 metres. Women were bundled into cells that were frequently flooded up to knee height.
Until mid-1942 prisoners slept on the floor or on rotting straw. There was little or no access to running water meaning that parasites and disease spread easily.
Torture and humiliation at the hands of the SS guards were a daily endurance. Prisoners were forced to run up a steep set of outdoor steps known as the ‘Stairway of Death’. When they got to the top they would often by kicked back down by a guard and sometimes shot at the bottom if the fall had not already killed them.
Food rations were minimal as officially the prisoners did not perform work, although they were made to work in unofficial workshops.
Witness accounts speak of seven to nine executions by shooting a day, as well as mass hangings, and shootings of larger groups away from the fort itself.
One of the places of execution in the camp was the Death Wall, at which the SS shot prisoners. Many people died cruelly in cell 58 on the gallows or were hanged by their feet in a cell called the bell.
This camp was also used to spread fear among the local population, especially Poles suspected of evading work in German factories. Every Saturday, a group of about 30 people was brought here and taught ‘not to be lazy’.
Prisoners on the most part either died within a few weeks of arrival, were sentenced to death or were sent to other camps such as Auschwitz. In only a few rare cases were prisoners released.
The camp’s function changed towards the end of the war, and in April 1944, the fort became a production site for radio equipment for submarines and aircraft.
After the war the building was used as a storage facility by the Polish army. The site was turned into a museum in memory of the victims of the camp, which opened on 13 August 1979.