Arbeit Macht Frei “Work Sets You Free.”
Updated: Dec 3, 2020
The 73rd Anniversary of the Flossenbürg Concentration Camp Liberation 2018
Arturo Meneguzzi was my uncle, brother to thirteen siblings, son to his adoring parents Maria and Virginio. His last words to them, “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.
My uncle Arturo was a northern Italian soldier who saved our family’s life by giving up his own. Surrendering to the Nazis changed his fate, spared my mother’s life, and inspired me to tell this incredible story.
Arturo died March 6, 1945, weeks before the camp was liberated. He was twenty-four years old. Over 30,000 prisoners lost their lives in Flossenbürg. #NeverForget
Left: Arturo Meneguzzi • Alpini soldier, awarded a Medal of Honor.
Right: Parents, Virginio and Maria Meneguzzi, and living siblings, Lilia, Riccardo, and Bruno.
Left to right: Erminio Meneguzzi • Virginio Meneguzzi • Renzo Ganzini
My uncle Ermnio was declared missing in action on the Russian front. My grandfather Virginio Meneguzzi fought in both world wars and my father, Renzo Ganzini served in the Alpini, a specialized mountain warfare infantry corps of the Italian Army.
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. Traveling to this remote village in the middle of the Bavarian forest alone filled me with uncertainty, and I debated canceling my trip. Never having met my uncle, I was repeatedly captivated by his photo feeling drawn and connected to his soul.
He 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.
I speak three 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 resulted in injury. I threw out my back. I 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 and transport me to my hotel in Floß, the quaint village five miles from Flossenbürg.
Sebastian, of LiMotion, was my gracious driver. He turned out to be 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.
The Meister Bär Hotel, and wonderful staff Edith and Martina, and tour guide Sonja
The only English speaking concierge had gone home for the weekend, so communication became a game of charades. Each morning, the concerned staff greeted me with a hug, “Guten Morgen!” “You? OK? Ya? Gud?” They soon felt like family.
I was laid up in my bed for two days. Miserable and angry at my state, angrily questioning, “Why did this have to happen?” Unable to explore the precious 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. “Gud, ya?” “Gud, nine!” I thought.
It was Saturday morning, and the memorial celebration was about to begin. I was now crying tears all over the photo of my uncle I held 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 traveled, and by the look in my eyes, she promised to get me there on time.
Within minutes, I had the pleasure of riding in a German ambulance to the hospital in Weiden. Three hours and an IV later, I’m floating on a fluffy cloud. The doctor insisted I stay the night for tests, but nothing would keep me from the weekend’s memorial celebration.
I exited the emergency department in a wheelchair, and waiting to collect me was a handsome guide from Flossenbürg. 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 a private tour of the memorial with me. “Wunderbar!”
Camp barracks • Prisoner uniform • Lead SS camp commander Max Koegel
Arbeit Macht Frei “Work sets you free.” • barrack housing • Flossenbürg quarry
Flossenbürg is in a remote corner of the Oberpflz region of Bavaria 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 hardest working labor 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 cruelest 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 somber, 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.
Flossenbürg concentration camp memorial administration building
Saturday, April 22nd, 2018. My tour guide, Sonja, took me through the arched passageway of the administrative building, once the SS headquarters. Sitting in my wheelchair, I looked around the vast open gravel space where thousands of prisoners were forced to line up for daily Appell (roll call). Prisoners were made to stand naked or with little clothing morning and evening until each person was accounted for and documented by the SS. They stood for hours, even in the dead of winter. If a prisoner disobeyed commands, they were punished by death. On any given day, Max Koegel rode up on his white horse and shot prisoners dead, proving his authority and frightening the prisoners into obedience. You were lucky to escape his selection.
Flossenbürg concentration camp shower and book of prisoners
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 almost hear Arturo whisper into my heart. “Thank you for coming. Thank you for remembering me.”
I could almost 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 on my own. 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. Pointing to the kitchen, where my uncle worked, 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.
Stefan, a caring hand and Pepick, Jewish survivor
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, to Sonja and Stefan, and everyone at the Flossenbürg memorial was extraordinary. I was 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.
Pepick, Jewish survivor
During this weekend-long celebration, I learned my uncle's unimaginable fate began in Buchenwald. He was later transported to a slave labor sub-camp called Porschdorf, where he spent many months. The long road ended with his tragic death in Flossenbürg just 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.
That evening, I was in attendance 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 of 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. They had worked together in the camp kitchen.
Pepick shared with me how Arturo stole food to feed the other prisoners and did his best to keep up morale by singing to them in the barracks. Pepick began singing me the song. We quickly drew a crowd that evening, and our miraculous meeting touched hearts. In the history of the Flossenbürg memorial celebrations, this was the first connection of this kind to be made. 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.
Sunday, April 22nd, 2018. My last day at Flossenburg 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 act of commemoration event, and the wreath-laying in the Valley of Death. A large crowd was in attendance this day. As a precaution, the grounds were guarded for fear of a neo-Nazi attack. There was a sense of alarm in the air, knowing antisemitism still exists.
What shook and struck me most profoundly was the Crematorium and the Valley of Death. When the camp was liberated, 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 steep steps of the valley to The Square of Nations, where tombstones memorialize the prisoners that died from each country.
Knowing the descent would be grueling 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 be able to 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 is 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?
A few months before the camp's liberation, the number of executions overtook the crematorium’s capacity. Under the orders of Max Koegel, 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 colored 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 feel 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."
I would love to hear your comments and encourage you to share this with anyone you think will resonate with it. Peace and Love.