Gardelegen and Leipzig-Thekla
The Reader, which I vaguely recall reading the book but not the film, if I recall correctly revolves around a former female SS guard who is charged with neglected to let concentration camp inmates out of a church that has been set on fire during Allied air raids in the dying days of the war. Life photographer Margaret Bourke-White recounts a story near Leipzig that might have represented something similar in real life:
On the afternoon of the same day that Bill Walton and I had canvassed the City Hall, we had driven to the outskirts of Leipzig to hunt up an aircraft small-parts factory which had been an 8th Air Force bombing target […]
As we searched for the factory along a narrow country road bisecting ploughed fields, we began to smell a peculiar odor, quite different from anything in our experience. We followed the smell until we saw, across a small meadow, a ten-foot barbed-wire fence which, curiously, seemed to surround nothing at all. Parking the jeep, we ran through a small gate into the enclosure, and found ourselves standing at the edge of an acre of bones.
There was no one there; that is, there was no living person. But flying grotesquely over the patch of skulls and charred ribs, from a tall slender flag-pole, was a white surrender flag. There was eloquent testimony that the men who had been there so recently had not willing surrendered to death. Plunged into the four-foot wide barrier of close-meshed barbed wire were blackened human figures whose desperate attitudes showed their passionate attempts to break to freedom. Caught in the spiked coils, they had perished, flaming torches, as they tried to escape.
Nothing was left standing among the ashes, except the incongruous flag pole at the far edge. Dotting the ghastly mottled carpet which covered the area were dozens of identical little graniteware basins and among them a scattering of spoons. [Margaret Bourke-White in Walter Kempowski’s Swansong. pp 39-40]
Simultaneously there appeared in the press stories about 1000 prisoners being driven into a barn by the SS and then set on fire: “On April 13, more than a thousand prisoners, many of them sick and too weak to march any further, were taken from the town of Gardelegen to a large barn on the Isenschnibbe estate and forced inside the building. The assembled guards then barricaded the doors and set fire to gasoline-soaked straw”. There are a lot of pictures of Gardelegen – none of them pleasant – but all of them show plenty of straw on the floor. One example:
In fairness I did see one “memoir” style account on the internet claiming the SS had used phosphorous grenades, which would had least be possible if somewhat improbable. In a the-lady-does-protest-too-much fashion, one of the earliest newspaper articles contained this quote from a local GI:
I never was so sure before of exactly what I was fighting for. Before this you would have said those stories were propaganda, but now you know they weren’t. There are the bodies and all those guys are dead.
Although just the fact they were bodies and they were definitely dead does necessarily tell us how they died and how they got there. There are also photos of the Leipzig-Thekla camp although not so well known, perhaps Margaret Bourke-White was mistaken when she described it as an 8th Air Force bombing target, because this too is nowadays described as a deliberate atrocity by the SS.
Her description of the Leipzig “suicides” is also interesting:
On Friday morning, April 20, Life’s Bill Walton hunted me out, his hair standing up from excitement in little fire-coloured whorls.
‘Hurry to the Rathaus before they clean it out,’ he said. ‘The place is like Madam Tussaud’s waxworks!’
We rushed in the jeep over the Zeppelin Bridge and […] drew up before the Leipzig City Hall. Here the siege had been intense, and the deeper carvings of artillery were added to the outlines of the find old Rathaus.
Bill and I raced up three flights of stone steps, climbed over a tumbled bust of Frederick the Great and a scattering of other fallen Prussians, and burst through a pair of padded, sound-proof doors.
Inside was a Baroque office, hung with sentimental landscapes and furnished in the heavy style which represented the 19th century German’s idea of luxury. Reclining on the ponderous leather furniture was a family group, so intimate, so lifelife, that it was hard to realize that these people were no longer living. Seated at the desk, head bowed on his hands as though he was resting, was Dr Kurt Lisso. On the sofa was his daughter, and in the overstuffed armchair sat his wife. The documents for the whole family were laid out neatly on the desk, beside the bottle of Pyrimal by which they had evidently chosen to die. Dr Lisso had been Stadtkammerer, Leipzig City Treasurer, with one of those low Party numbers which indicated that he was among the early faithful.
In a nearby room, seated in an equally lifelike circle, was Mayor Alfred Freiburg, Ober-burgermeister, with his wife and pretty daughter, Magdalena. Adjoining rooms held similarly peaceful and silent characters, of whom the most striking was the Commander of the Volkssturm in his fine uniform, with a portrait of Hitler beside him[…]
These days the suicides are generally ascribed to cyanide rather than Pyrimal; a brandname of sulfadiazine
How toxic sulfadiazine would be, I don’t know. My guess it would cause a lot of vomiting and not be especially peaceful, but then cyanide poisoning wouldn’t be especially peaceful either.
Here is one of the photos with what may be the bottle in question – it is a bottle of something anyway:
And here is the same scene without the bottle in question – perhaps someone took it away for closer inspection?