Stories Archive

On the Trail of a Tragedy

Introduction
One of the worst maritime disasters ever to occur took place in the Bay of Lübeck in the last days of the Second World War. It caused the deaths of more than 6,000 concentration camp prisoners on May 3, 1945. They were the victims of a terrible mistake: British bombers sank the "Cap Arcona”, a German passenger ship, and the “Thielbek”, a cargo ship, because both ships were thought to be carrying German troops. But the SS had driven thousands of prisoners from the Neuengamme concentration camp onto the ships and was holding them captive on board. Still to this day, a large collection of documents kept in the Arolsen Archives helps give the victims their names back and clarify the fates of family members involved in the tragedy.
CLEARING THE CONCENTRATION CAMPS
Prisoners Sent Marching to Their Deaths

The SS drove the prisoners from the Neuengamme concentration camp onto the ships in the Bay of Lübeck because they did not want to leave them behind as witnesses to the crimes committed by the Nazis who would be found by the advancing Allies.

Prisoners Sent Marching to Their Deaths

No concentration camp prisoner must be allowed to fall into the hands of the Allies – this was the order issued by Heinrich Himmler, the head of the SS, in April 1945. By then, the British were already approaching Hamburg. To cover up their crimes, the Nazis evacuated the Neuengamme concentration camp – as well as hundreds of other concentration camps throughout the Reich. The leader of the Hamburg branch of the Nazi Party – who was also the Reich Commissioner for Maritime Shipping – consulted with the leader of the SS in Hamburg, and together they took the decision to transfer the prisoners from the Neuengamme concentration camp to two ships anchored in the Bay of Lübeck – the “Cap Arcona” and the “Thielbek.”

Floating Prisons

When the evacuation of the concentration camp began, the SS informed the captains of the two ships that they were needed for a “special operation”. Both captains firmly refused to let their ships be used as floating prisons, but eventually gave in to the pressure. At the end of April, thousands of prisoners arrived in Lübeck by freight train or on foot and were taken to the ships lying at anchor far out in the bay. The “Cap Arcona”, originally a luxury liner built for 850 passengers, suddenly had around 4,300 prisoners on board. Added to that number were about 400 guards and almost 100 crew members. The prisoners had neither food to eat nor water to drink.

They had little chance of survival

British fighter bombers attacked the two ships on May 3, 1945. The “Cap Arcona” was hit by a number of bombs and caught fire. There were no lifeboats for the prisoners; the SS had destroyed all means of escape. Despite being emaciated and weakened by the conditions they had endured in the concentration camps, many people jumped into the cold sea and tried to swim ashore. Guards on the ships and on land opened fire on them as they attempted to flee. The “Cap Arcona” capsized, as did the “Thielbek” which was also hit several times. Of more than 7,000 prisoners on board the two ships, only about 600 survived.
Nowadays, many historians presume that the Nazis provoked the catastrophe and were conscious of the fact that the Royal Air Force might mistake the ships for troop transporters.

Identifying the Dead, Finding Gravesites

The collections of the Arolsen Archives contain extensive documentation on the prisoners from the Neuengamme concentration camp and the disastrous sinking of the two ships in the Bay of Lübeck. Many of the dead were washed ashore in the Bay of Lübeck. They were buried in many different cemeteries in the area – often anonymously and with no information at all about where they originally came from. Skeletal remains of some 3,000 unburied victims still lie on the sea bed where the ships were anchored.

The following tasks remain within the remit of the Arolsen Archives to this day: identifying the dead, searching for burial sites, and reconstructing the paths of persecution of all the victims. This is why the archive also contains comprehensive historical documents about burial sites and about salvage operations continuing on up until the 1950s. The Arolsen Archives also hold quite a large number of personal effects belonging to the prisoners – personal items that were taken away from them on their arrest. We continue to search for the families of the victims to this day so that we can give these mementoes back to them.

Memorial stone in the Cap Arcona cemetery of honor in Neustadt (Holstein) in memory of the 7,000 dead © Roland H. Bueb
Interview

It is still enormously important at an emotional level for the families of the victims to find out what really happened, to obtain certainty about the fate of their missing relatives.

Ramona Bräu, historian at the Arolsen Archives
Documents on the Disaster in the Bay of Lübeck

A conversation with Ramona Bräu, a historian at the Arolsen Archives, about the documents on the sinking of the Cap Arcona.

What documents are there in the archive about the Cap Arcona?

First of all, it is important to understand that a great many documents were produced after the war in connection with the sinking of the Cap Arcona and the Thielbek. The authorities had to deal with the aftermath of this terrible event. Bodies had to be recovered, identified and buried, and bones were still being washed ashore years later. Prisoner numbers on the victims’ clothing were often the only means of establishing their identity. Those who were involved at the time naturally did not have access to the huge quantities of documents from concentration camps that can be found in the Arolsen Archives today. Many of the dead could not be identified.

The online archive now provides direct access to the report filed by the Lübeck water police, reports on the recovery of bodies, the account book of the Thielbek, and photos and a map of the Cap Arcona cemetery of honor in Neustadt Holstein, to mention just a few of the materials available today. There are also a number of documents from the Neuengamme concentration camp that were recovered from the wreck of the Thielbek. And these documents contain clues that helped turn prisoner numbers into names.

The dissolution of the Neuengamme concentration camp and the fate of the Cap Arcona are inextricably linked…

The story of the Cap Arcona is typical of the crimes the Nazis committed in the final phase of the war as they tried to cover up all traces of their terrible deeds in the concentration camps. Prisoners from other concentration camps were transferred to Neuengamme, death marches ended there. The camp was cleared within a very short period of time. The SS transferred several thousand prisoners to the ships in the Bay of Lübeck. Often, victims’ families knew nothing of the fate of their loved ones and searched for them in the wrong places. Not until they submitted an inquiry to the Arolsen Archives were they able to find the right documents. Finding out that a brother, father, or grandfather was among those who died in the Bay of Lübeck comes as a very painful surprise. We can sometimes even tell the families where their loved ones are buried at last, more than 70 years later.

During the hasty evacuation of Neuengamme, the prisoners’ personal effects were also removed from the camp. An SS man took them with him and hid them in his home village. They were found there later by the British Allies. These personal effects are the things that belonged to the concentration camp prisoners and were taken away from them on arrival. These photos, pens, pieces of jewelry etc. were neatly labelled, and when prisoners were transferred to other camps, their personal effects were transferred too. In the 1960s, personal effects from the Neuengamme, Bergen-Belsen, and Dachau concentration camps were added to the holdings of the International Tracing Service, which is now known as the Arolsen Archives. About 2800 personal items are now waiting to be returned to the families of their owners.

How significant are the documents about the Cap Arcona today, 75 years after the events?

It is still enormously important at an emotional level for the families of the victims to find out what really happened, to obtain certainty about the fate of their missing relatives.

Researchers are primarily interested in seeing the whole picture of these historical events. Putting the documents online makes it possible to put them together with reports from survivors and with documents held by memorial sites, associations, and other archives. Documents, personal effects, and biographical data can be brought together in this way and can be found more easily. But even better indexing is required in order for this to work, i.e. the names contained in the documents need to be transcribed so that they can be found. That’s what makes our crowdsourcing project “Every name counts” so important to us.

Willi Neurath
A Fateful Reunion

He managed to escape the Cap Arcona. His wife, who worked as an assistant in the navy, was stationed in the Bay of Lübeck at the time and found her exhausted husband on the beach completely by chance.

The first time the bookbinder Willi Neurath was put in custody was in November 1935 in Cologne, where the Gestapo arrested the twenty-four-year-old on charges of “high treason.” He had been active in the Communist party since his youth, but been expelled from the KPD (Communist Party of Germany) and later joined one of its split-offs. Willi spent his prison term in the jails in Siegburg and Vechta as well as the Esterwegen concentration camp. According to documents in the Arolsen Archives, he was released from that facility on December 24, 1940.

A Strong Marriage
In the prison in Vechta, he had made friends with another inmate from Cologne who asked Willi to visit his wife and bring her a message when he got back home. Willi complied, and during the encounter also met his friend’s stepdaughter, Eva Pakullis. The two fell in love and married the following year. “It was a strong marriage,” Bruno Neurath-Wilson, the couple’s son, recalls. “My mother stood by her husband implicitly and worked with him in the resistance.”

Willi’s second arrest took place on April 23, 1943. Once again, his detention meant an odyssey through various penal institutions. Following several months in investigative custody in Cologne, he was sent to the Buchenwald concentration camp and from there to the Sachsenhausen concentration camp. “Once my mother managed to visit him in Buchenwald without making prior arrangements,” Bruno Neurath-Wilson recounts. “She simply addressed a young Lithuanian guard in his—and her—native tongue and told him she wanted to go inside the camp to see her husband. He let her in. A few minutes later, she was standing in the command headquarters demanding to see her husband. And they actually allowed them to meet for half an hour.”

One of the Few Survivors
On October 16, 1944, Willi was sent to the Neuengamme concentration camp. From there, the Nazis transferred him and other inmates to the Cap Arcona, and he was on board when the Royal Air Force bombed it. Since he couldn’t swim, he remained on the capsized, burning vessel. On the evening after the air raid, the British brought him and the few other survivors to land in Neustadt.

What Willi Neurath didn’t know was that his wife Eva was also in Neustadt. She was working as a naval assistant and her detachment had been transferred there to escape the Red Army. Nor did she have the slightest idea that her husband was aboard the Cap Arcona. She had last received mail from him from Buchenwald. In Neustadt, lots of rumors circulated as to who was on board. On the morning after the attack, Eva set out for the beach. “Later she told us over and over about how, in retrospect, she had often asked herself what had drawn her to go down to the beach,” her son remembers. At the entrance to the town, she encountered a grimy, injured man who came straight toward her and started talking to her. It took her a while to realize it was her husband…

Marked by Persecution
The Neuraths remained in Neustadt for a few years; it was there that their two children were born. Willi worked in the municipal administration. He was active in the SPD (Social Democratic Party of Germany) and, with a number of friends, saw to the recovery of the Cap Arcona victims’ corpses and the creation of a commemorative cemetery. For two years he headed the “Political Reparations” department in the interior ministry of the state of Schleswig-Holstein and concerned himself with the fates of many victims of Nazism. That work, but also the consequences of his long, hard years of imprisonment put a burden on him, physically and mentally, a burden from which he never really recovered. “After we moved to Cologne, he was no longer politically active. His strength was depleted—both physically and ‘ideologically,’” his son reckons.

Willi Neurath died in Cologne on April 13, 1961. Bruno Neurath-Wilson has many fond memories of him. He learned a lot about his father’s persecution from his mother—Willi had never talked to his children about it. “In our living room, there was a series of four engravings on the wall,” Bruno tells us. “Motifs of cruelty, suffering, solidarity and help in the concentration camp. For us children, these images were constantly present as we were growing up—maybe they told us something about him without words.”

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