A warm welcome to the concentration camp

By Mely Kiyak

The idea of accommodating refugees in former concentration camps is certainly newsworthy. The mayor of the German town of Schwerte, Heinrich Böckelühr, a member of the conservative CDU party, had this idea when his town was allocated 21 refugees. This small town near Dortmund simply had nowhere to put the refugees. But then he had an idea. Why not use Buchenwald and its outpost in Schwerte-Ost to accommodate asylum-seekers? It may be a 40-minute walk from the town centre and in the middle of an industrial estate, but still... The main thing is that these poor people have a roof over their heads and somewhere to call home. If the refugees go for a walk around the grounds, they will come across a memorial. On the ground there is a sculpture depicting a section of railway track. Trapped beneath the track are naked, emaciated bodies, their faces contorted by screams. It commemorates the Polish labourers who were forced to work in this camp.

The local newspapers report that the first eleven refugees have already moved in, with the rest to follow once the barracks have been renovated. I have seen photos of the accommodation. It's a dump. This is my point. In Germany and the rest of Europe we have many splendid, lovingly-maintained concentration camps, so why are we putting refugees in ramshackle camps? We should be thoroughly ashamed of ourselves. As Germans, we pride ourselves on our virtues of cleanliness and safety, but when people arrive from bombed-out countries we put them up in filthy camps.

Just recently we commemorated the liberation of Auschwitz. Couldn't the mayor of Schwerte talk to his colleagues in Oswiecim, the Polish town that is home to Auschwitz? Isn't it possible to live in Auschwitz? The people of Schwerte don't understand what all the fuss is about. The papers are full of it, at home and abroad. American public broadcasters NPR called it "A German plan to house refugees in an old concentration camp". Apparently the decision was passed with a large majority on the Schwerte town council. The mayor commented: "We can't allow all these buildings to be taboo seventy years after the Second World War". That's true. But what can we do with these stigmatised buildings?

People are not allowed to run around or picnic at the Berlin Holocaust Memorial, but then that's Berlin. They are always a bit stricter than is really necessary. They want to preserve the dignity of those who died. You're also not allowed to have any kind of celebrations on the grass in front of the Reichstag. They want to preserve the dignity of parliament. But a concentration lager has no dignity in itself, it only has a past. The mayor believes this past has been adequately dealt with, as demonstrated by the memorial of the rails and the trapped people.

It occurs to me that the whole Ruhr area is a disused coalmine. Couldn't refugees be accommodated underground? It's a long way from town, but at least it's quiet. And perhaps there are some disused graves whose 20-year right of use has expired. They could lie down in those. At least in summer. Anyone arriving from a warzone will love the heavenly peace and quiet. And if the prisons weren't so full we could put the asylum-seekers behind bars with the criminals. At least they'd have some company. Hospital morgues would of course be a blessing for cash-strapped local authorities. They must have the odd cold chamber free at night. You can survive in there if you've got a warm blanket. People who have lost their homes would be happy to have their own bed. And it's always spotlessly clean. Local politics means being smart, thinking outside the box. Context is everything. If people are no longer being wiped out in concentration camps but can now sleep there peacefully, cook their meals, let their children play, then it is now a former concentration camp with a human face.

Press reports suggest that similar plans are underway in Augsburg in the south of Germany. Accommodating refugees in disused concentration camps is the in thing. Once the old camps are full, we can always build new ones. Of course not horrible concentration camps, but nice ones. Will the people of Schwerte be welcoming their refugees with balloons and cake? With the mayor bidding them "a warm welcome to the former concentration camp of Schwerte-Ost”?

People can say and think what they want. But this issue of concentration camps and refugees is certainly newsworthy.

Europe: Closed Doors or Open Arms? Culture and Migartion / EUNIC, ... (Hg.). – Göttingen: Steidl , 2015. – 300 pp. – (Kulturreport, EUNIC-Jahrbuch)

Europe: Closed Doors or Open Arms? Culture and Migration / EUNIC, ... (Hg.). – Göttingen: Steidl , 2015. – 300 pp. – (Kulturreport, EUNIC-Jahrbuch)
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Mely Kiyak is a journalist and political columnist. Her column 'Kiyaks Deutschstunde' appears regularly in Zeit Online and she writes 'Kiyaks Theater Kolumne' for the Maxim Gorki Theater Berlin. A winner of the Theodor-Wolff Prize, she has published a number of factual books on subjects as diverse as travel, gardening and death. She also writes for the theatre and appears on stage. With colleagues, she is the founder of Hate Poetry, an anti-racist show involving readings. She was named Germany’s Journalist of the Year 2014.