Building Hitler’s cities

The main resource of the SS was slave labour. In the late 1930s, Himmler promised that his camp inmates would help to build the German cities of Hitler’s dreams, providing millions of bricks and stones. In 1938, the SS opened two quarry camps. It also started construction of giant brick works near Sachsenhausen. Because of SS incompetence, this factory was doomed from the outset (later rebuilt, it still produced far fewer bricks than expected). Thousands of Sachsenhausen prisoners toiled on the site, where deaths were frequent. One survivor was the author Arnold Weiss-Rüthel, who published an account of his ordeal after the war.

041 – The German political prisoner Arnold Weiss-Rüthel on the SS brick works near Sachsenhausen in 1940

[My work] began at 5 in the morning with the march to the brick works, a large plant built by the SS (in other words by SS slave labour), which was about 2 km away […] Morning after morning, whatever the weather, 4000 prisoners marched in long columns from the camp to their workplace. And what a workplace it was!

A huge glass construction standing on a large, sandy site. The bricks the SS needed for their many buildings were meant to be fired there. In my time, however, the plant was not yet capable of full production. It had to be remodelled, as the first attempts to fire bricks there had revealed that because of faults in construction it could not produce a single serviceable brick.

Men collapsed under the weight of iron rods

Prisoners break up the foundations of the failed SS brick works near Sachsenhausen (1940)

Gedenkstätte und Museum Sachsenhausen

These building alterations claimed the lives of hundreds of prisoners. They had only the most primitive equipment with which to heave out the concrete foundations, which were metres thick, to haul the heavy, angular fragments out into the open, where they were piled up as high as a house by an army of Jews.

Everything was dominated by the shuddering and clanging of this work. Here the old kilns were being dismantled at a feverish pace; there prisoners were lifting massive machines from their mountings without the aid of cranes or winches. […] Everything was done at the double and everyone had to tear about, whether they were loaded down or not. […] SS Scharführer ranted and raved, cudgelling prisoners who were not running fast enough for them. Men collapsed under the weight of iron rods and were hauled to their feet again to struggle on, groaning. The slaves of the Pharaohs had much easier conditions when building the pyramids than Adolf Hitler’s slaves had when they built the Oranienburg brick works.

Source: A. Weiss-Rüthel, Nacht und Nebel (Berlin, 1949), pp. 65–6

Translation: Lesley Sharpe and Jeremy Noakes