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ARBEIT MACHT FREI

– WORK SETS YOU FREE –

The 73rd Anniversary of the Flossenbürg Concentration Camp Liberation 2018

Arturo Meneguzzi was my uncle, brother to ten siblings, son to his adoring parents Maria and Virginio. His last words to his mother, “Mama, if I don’t go with them now, they will kill us all.” My family lived a long life indebted to Arturo sacrificing his.

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Arturo Meneguzzi Alpini soldier  awarded a Medal of Honor.

My uncle Arturo was an Alpini soldier, a specialized mountain warfare infantry corps of the Italian Army. He saved our family’s life by giving up his own. Surrendering to the Nazis changed his fate. Paying homage to him and my experience at the camp inspired me to tell this incredible story.  

    Arturo died March 6, 1945, weeks before the Flossenbürg camp was liberated. He was twenty-four years old. Over 30,000 prisoners lost their lives here. #NeverForget

​    My uncles, grandfather, and late father were all Alpini soldiers. War has had a tremendous emotional impact on my family, evoking a deep-seated calling within me to express this tragic part of our history. In my book, Lilia, I relate the pain, suffering, and loss of life, my family and other families endured in Northern Italy during World War II.

    In April 2018, I accepted an invitation to the 73rd anniversary of the Flossenbürg Concentration Camp liberation in Germany. There were 600 people from 20 countries attending. I admit it was trepidation at first. Travelling to this remote village in the middle of the Bavarian forest alone filled me with uncertainty, and I debated cancelling my trip. Never having met my uncle, I was repeatedly captivated by his photo, feeling drawn and connected to his soul and story, and so I journeyed to the camp.

    Arturo never had a chance at life. Knowing how much he suffered, and the grief my grandparents and my mother endured, the desire to honor him triumphed over doubt. My wish to pay my respects to his memory, and the countless others whose lives suffered an unimaginable, unjust fate, paved the way to an experience I will never forget.

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I speak four languages. German isn’t one of them, but off I went to explore the unknown. As Murphy’s law would have it, my first day of travel I seriously injured my back, lost the strength in my legs and was confined to a wheelchair. The German airport attendants lifted me by crane onto my connecting flight, where I received champagne, chocolates, and a personal welcome from the pilot. Their kindness and concern were overwhelming. As luck would have it, I had previously hired a car to collect me from Nuremberg to transport me to my hotel in Floß, a quaint village five miles from Flossenbürg.

    Sebastian, of LiMotion, was my gracious driver, and one of my many angels along the way. After a two-hour car ride, we arrived at the Meister Bär Hotel. Sebastian carried me and my luggage up to my room. Apart from my embarrassment, I was grateful to him. He truly saved me.

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The Meister Bär Hotel, and wonderful staff Edith and Martina, and tour guide Sonja.

The only English-speaking concierge had left for the weekend. Communication quickly became a game of charades, and yet each morning, the concerned staff greeted me with smiles and a warm hug as they helped me to the breakfast table. “Guten Morgen! Okay? Gud?” They soon felt like family, and words became unimportant. 

    I was laid up in bed for two days, miserable and angry at my state, “Why did this have to happen? Why now?” Unable to explore the charming village of Floß and connect with its people was a bitter pill for me to swallow, but everything happens for a reason, right? 

    With good intentions, the staff was determined to drive me to every doctor and chiropractor in the village, but no one could relieve my pain. Through the hamlet grapevine, the Flossenbürg memorial department learned of my predicament and determined I needed emergency care. 

    It was Saturday morning, and the memorial celebration was about to commence. I was now crying tears over my uncle’s photo in my hands. One of the camp tour guides, who spoke English, arrived to assess the situation. Her name was Sonja. Understanding how far I travelled and by the look of despair in my eyes, she promised to get me to the memorial on time. 

    Within minutes, I had the pleasure of riding in a German ambulance to the nearest hospital in Weiden. Three hours and an IV later, I was high as a kite, floating on a fluffy cloud. The doctor insisted I stay the night for tests, but nothing would keep me from the weekend’s celebration. 

    I exited the emergency doors in my wheelchair, and a handsome guide from the Flossenbürg memorial was waiting to collect me. His name was Boris. He was lovely, thoughtful, and kind. I don’t know if it was his presence or the drugs, but I was smiling and feeling no pain. On arrival at the camp, Sonja arranged for us a private tour of the memorial. “Wunderbar!”

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ARTURO MENEGUZZI

BORN:

November 24, 1920

DIED:

March 6, 1945 — Flossenbürg, Germany

PRISONER NUMBER:

38887

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Lead SS camp commander Max Koegel

Flossenbürg is in a remote corner of Bavaria’s Oberpflz region, a few miles from the Czech border. It was the fourth concentration camp established by the Nazis and the third largest. More than 100,000 men and women were incarcerated there and at its sub-camps. Flossenbürg was considered one of the most brutal working labour camps by the dreaded Schutzstaffel (SS)—Adolf Hitler and the Nazi Party’s protection squadron. 

    Flossenbürg was erected to put prisoners to work quarrying granite. With 12 hour days and no more than a small bowl of soup to sustain them, the conditions were sub-human. It was known to have been one of the most abusive and brutal of all the concentration camps. Although Flossenbürg is not as well known as Auschwitz, Dachau, and Buchenwald, it was a significant component in Hitler’s “Final Solution”—his plan to exterminate the Jews. Max Koegel was the lead SS camp commander, one of the cruellest of Hitler’s officers, responsible for facilitating unimaginable torture amongst the prisoners.

    Initially, I had conjured up all these dark images of the camp and how the energy might make me feel. The Flossenbürg memorial is sombre, indeed, but the grounds are beautiful and serene, which I was not expecting. Flowers line the pathways, and the open spaces are park-like. 

    Some might feel this is a way for the German people to mask the horrors that prevailed here, but I think maintaining the site with respect amidst all the darkness creates a peaceful surrounding for people to reflect, pray, and pay their respects. Year after year, the compassionate facilitators at Flossenbürg strive to keep the memory of what transpired here alive, so this horrific period in history will continue to be shared and not forgotten. 
 

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Saturday, April 22nd, 2018. My tour guide, Sonja, took me through the administrative building's arched passageway, once the SS headquarters. Sitting in my wheelchair, I looked around the vast open gravel space where thousands of prisoners lined up for daily Appell (roll call). Prisoners stood naked or with little clothing for hours, even in the brutal cold of winter, until accounted for by the SS. If a prisoner disobeyed commands, they faced punishment. Max Koegel rode up on his white horse and shot prisoners dead on any given day, proving his authority and frightening the prisoners into obedience. You were lucky to escape his selection. 

    I saw the kitchen to my left, where I learned my uncle worked while at the camp, and the laundry building was to my right. In the laundry basement are the original disinfection and shower rooms. If there was a presence felt on these grounds, it was here—what these poor souls endured, forced to strip naked with other prisoners not knowing what to expect, nor what chemicals were about to be showered on them.

    On the upper levels, storyboards with audio were on display, and videos, artifacts, and a large white book with the names of all those who perished. Leafing through the hundreds of pages in the book, I found my uncle’s name.

 

Arturo Meneguzzi, Prisoner Number: 38887—Born 24.11.1920 Died 6.3.1945

 

Running my fingers over his name, a deep wave of sadness washed through me, making his tragic demise undeniably real. I could hear Arturo whisper into my heart. “Thank you for coming. Thank you for remembering me.”

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I could hear Arturo whisper into my heart,

“Thank you for coming. Thank you for remembering me.”

Each day was humbling. Each man, woman, and child’s story forced me to reflect on their lives and redefine gratitude for my own. You can feel the needless suffering that took place here—the personal tragedies and photos are gut-wrenching. I was thankful to exit the building, see flowers, trees, green fields, and sunshine. Had it been a fierce German winter, this would have impacted me that much more—the senseless suffering.

    At the end of the tour, I parted ways with Sonja and was left to roam the camp alone. Unable to maneuver my wheelchair, I found myself struggling to reach my destination. Taking notice, a woman ran over to me. She spoke to me in German. Her eyes were gentle. Concerned, she offered to push me. I pointed to the kitchen, where my uncle worked, and this lovely woman, whose name I did not know, helped me up the ramp into what was now part of the museum. Before turning to walk away, she pressed her hand to my heart and caressed my face. I felt a lump in my throat. It was a touching and whole-hearted moment.

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As I exited the building, I encountered another angel on my path. His name is Stefan. He was researching information on his grandfather, who was a prisoner in the camp. Also, traveling alone, Stefan offered to accompany me for the remainder of the weekend. Everyone from Sebastian to the hotel staff, Sonja and Stefan, and everyone at the Flossenbürg memorial was extraordinary. Overwhelmed by their openness, kindness, desire to give back, and willingness to help, I well up with tears when I think of their generosity towards me and each other. A camp once filled will horror, and despair was blessed with heroes of love and respect walking arm-in-arm.

During this weekend-long celebration, I learned my uncle’s unimaginable fate began in Buchenwald and then Porschdorf, a slave labour sub-camp. The long road ended with his tragic death in Flossenbürg weeks before the camp’s liberation. I also discovered, my uncle spent his last days with someone special, a man he called friend. His name was Pepick. 

    I attended at a dinner for survivors, their families, organizers, volunteers, and honored political guests. Being the lone Canadian and the only young woman in a wheelchair, people flocked to my aid, curious about who I was and my story. It was then I met 92-year-old Jewish survivor Pepick. Speaking with Pepick and his family, I was amazed to discover he remembered my uncle. He remembered his name. They had worked together in the camp kitchen. 

    Pepick shared how Arturo stole food to feed the prisoners in sickbay and did his best to keep up morale by singing to the men in his barrack. Pepick began singing me the song. We quickly drew a tearful crowd that evening—our miraculous meeting touched hearts. In the history of the Flossenbürg memorial celebrations, this was the first connection of this kind. Pepick and I embraced each other, both grateful for a moment neither of us will ever forget. If this doesn’t make you believe in fate, I don’t know what will. 

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Sunday, April 22nd, 2018. My last day at Flossenbürg consisted of a religious commemoration in the Jewish place of worship, an Ecumenical Service in the chapel Jesus in Dungeon on the memorial grounds, a celebratory commemoration event, and the wreath-laying in the Valley of Death. A large crowd was in attendance this day.

    What shook and struck me most profoundly was the Crematorium and the Valley of Death. When the Americans liberated the camp, a mound of ash was collected and interned into The Pyramid of Ashes—my Uncle’s ashes lay there. Closing out the day, over one hundred people joined in a procession carrying flowered wreathes down the valley’s steep steps to The Square of Nations, where tombstones memorialize the prisoners who died from each country.

Knowing the descent would be gruelling on my body, I watched from the cliff's edge with tourists, other guests in wheelchairs, and elderly survivors. Seeing and feeling my disappointment, Stefan turned to me and said, “You want to go down there, don't you?” I looked up at him, raising my brows and shrugging my shoulders. I had come so far, not only for me but my mother and relatives. To not consummate the experience filled me with sadness and longing I was not prepared for and did not want to accept. I needed to be with my Uncle. Stefan reached out his arms and smiled. “Come on, brave girl, let's do this.” I rose, and step-by-limping-step, he helped me descend the stairs into the Valley of Death while people watched and waited.

    From the valley, I could see two of three stone watchtowers still standing, one leading towards the ramp to the crematorium. The last barrack closest to the ramp housed the weakest prisoners. Upon death, the corpses were piled into a wagon and wheeled down to their final destination. 

    Adjacent to the oven was the marble dissection table, where doctors extracted prisoner's gold teeth. Standing before this table was the eeriest experience of my life. I could feel the omnipresent chill in the air. Horrific visions filled my mind, and at this moment, I was consumed with feelings of hate and confusion. How could this happen?

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A few months before the camp's liberation, the number of executions overtook the crematorium's capacity. Under Max Koegel's orders, thousands of prisoner's bodies were stacked in piles, drenched with gasoline, and burned. The inhuman cruelty was palpable. These were people like you and me, treated like numbers, slaughtered at the hands of monstrous evil. Bowing my head, I sent Arturo our family's love and prayers.

    My unfortunate discomfort these four long days coloured my emotions and reflections. It changed how people reacted to me and me to them. It also underscored my determination. I was frustrated and disappointed about how I felt and embarrassed by how trivial my discomfort was in a place that had seen such monumental heartache and suffering. This experience was a tremendous journey, filled with heart-wrenching discovery and immense gratitude, both expected and unexpected. I felt forever changed. I re-discovered the lesson, Follow the calling of your heart, and it will take you where you need to go. #NeverForget

Follow the calling of your heart, and it will take you where you need to go.