By Alanna Berman
On the night of April 20, 1945, 6-year-old Marek James was one of 20 Jewish children taken from the concentration camps in which they’d been placed, to be used in medical experiments at Neuengamme concentration camp. They, along with their caretakers and more than 20 Soviet Prisoners of War, were later killed in the basement of a schoolhouse in Hamburg, Germany, known as Bullenhuser Damm. The experiments and the doctor who conducted them, along with SS officers who assisted in carrying out the murders, would become one of many untold stories of the Holocaust for nearly 30 years. A German journalist named Günther Schwarberg would bring the incidents to light in a tell-all book, “The Murders at Bullenhuser Damm: The SS Doctor and the Children.”
And even though San Diegan Mark James, born after the war to parents Adam and Zela James, would eventually learn the truth about his brother and namesake Marek, his parents would never know what horrific fate befell their firstborn.
“I grew up thinking I had no family, or almost no family, because almost no one lived in the United States,” Mark says. “Nothing was said [about what happened during the war], and I never went and delved or asked my parents about their experiences during the war, because I wanted to spare them the pain associated with that experience.”
Even 50 years after the war, Mark recalls that his mother “had a great fear and mistrust for things that were German.”
Last year, Mark and his wife Sandi traveled to Hamburg to visit the school and concentration camp where his brother had spent the last months of his life. Having been born two years after his parents reconnected in a displaced persons camp in Germany, Mark never met his older brother, though his parents kept pictures of Marek around the house.
“Growing up, we avoided all things that were German,” he recalls, “and on previous trips to Germany, I always felt weird being there. Even though I was born there, I couldn’t wait to leave, but this trip changed that.”
Before the war, the James family lived in Radom, Poland, a “blue collar” town, Mark says, where his father was a member of the Polish Cavalry and his mother worked in a gunpowder factory. Adam was captured early in the German invasion of Poland as a prisoner of war before later being transferred to the Sachsenhausen concentration camp, where he would remain until being liberated by Allied Troops.
It would be nearly four more years before Zela and Marek would be taken to Auschwitz in the summer of 1944.
“When [my mother and brother] arrived [at Auschwitz], although normally people were sent directly to the gas chambers, for whatever reason, the chambers were full and [they] got placed in the farthest barracks from the chambers…and one of the reasons why she might have survived was because she was fluent in [German, Yiddish, Hebrew, French and Polish] and was therefore able to translate instructions to some of the other prisoners.”
By fall of that year, Zela, without her son, was transferred out of Auschwitz to a satellite location, the Gross-Rosen concentration camp, where Mark believes she resigned to the fact that she would never see her son or his father again. Soon afterward, Marek was one of 20 children, aged 5-12, chosen by Joseph Mengele to be transferred to Neuengamme for medical experiments.
“I don’t personally believe my parents ever knew exactly what had happened to my brother. My father died in 1973, [before the information about what happened at Bullenhuser Damm was made public] and we spared my mother the details,” he says.
The details, made public first in Germany and then in the U.S. with Schwarberg’s book, outlined SS physician Kurt Heissmeyer’s plan to gain a prestigious professorship for which he needed to do “original” research. Although previously disproven, he believed that injecting live tuberculosis bacilli into test subjects (in this case, 20 Jewish children) would act as a vaccine.
“This man saw no difference between guinea pigs and Jewish children,” Mark says, citing testimony given after the war by Heissmeyer himself in which he referred to Jews as “untermenschen,” or subhuman, and therefore, racially inferior to Germans.
From November 28, 1944, to the middle of April 1945, the children were injected with tuberculosis, later having their lymph nodes removed to test their perceived natural immunity to the disease. As British troops drew closer to Hamburg, the children were taken out of Neuengamme to the school at Bullenhuser Damm. In the school’s basement, they were told to undress, injected with morphine and hanged from hooks on the wall. The first child was so thin and frail, however, that one of the SS guards had to grab him in a bear hug and pull with his own weight to tighten the noose enough so that the child would die.
“These murders took place April 20, 1945, and the war ended in May, so if the children had survived another two weeks, there’s a possibility they might have been freed,” Mark says.
Bullenhuser Damm is once again a school, housing a kindergarten on the ground floor and offices on the upper floors. Around 1983, the basement was made into a museum commemorating the events that occurred there, and the surrounding town holds memorial services each year on the anniversary of the murders. Each of the children who perished has a stret in the town named after them. A rose garden behind the school and museum houses a memorial for each of the children. On his trip last year, Mark planted three rose bushes with other family members in Marek’s memory.
“The organizers and the foundation of the museum have dedicated themselves to making the citizens remember these children,” Mark says. “Younger generations are being made aware to the atrocities of the Nazis… [People within] the highest level of local government are participating in the remembrance ceremony, and none of the people we met who support the museum are Jewish.”
From his home in Del Mar, Mark says the trip was necessary, albeit difficult, forcing him to confront his own family’s experience and those of all Jews during World War II.
“It’s hard to talk about six million Jews as opposed to a single event with 20 children,” he says. “My father never volunteered information. If something triggered his memory, he would speak about the war, but my mother only ended up talking about her experiences during the Holocaust later in her life.”
And though both Adam and Zela James are gone, Mark says he takes comfort in knowing what actually happened to his brother and in having visited the sites where the crimes took place.
“Our original plan was not to visit the concentration camp on this trip, but after a few days in Hamburg and after some of the [commemoration] ceremonies I went through, we were able to set up a visit to the camp and to see what remains of the infirmary.”
Back at the schoolhouse, Mark learned new information about his family before the war came to Poland.
“I never knew the address or even the name of the street they lived on in Poland before the war,” he says.
Mark also didn’t know his brother’s birthday until his wife discovered it in some reading material at the museum last year. Coincidentally, one of his grandchildren was born on the same date years later, bringing the past full circle for them.
“It’s almost as if his brother knows what’s going on down here,” Sandi says.
Remember, Honor and Teach: Righteous Among the Nations
San Diego’s Community Holocaust Commemoration
The community’s annual Yom HaShoah Commemoration, this year at 1:30 p.m. April 15 at the Lawrence Family JCC, will consist of a military color guard, musical presentation and a tribute to those individuals classified as “Righteous Among the Nations,” while welcoming local survivors and their families to commemorate lives lost in the Shoah.
Reverend Canon Jack E. Lindquist of St. Paul’s Episcopal Cathedral will speak on “Righteous Gentiles and Nazi Resisters Among the Christian Clergy: Eight Examples.” Rev. Canon Lindquist, a professor in the Department of Theology and Religious Studies at the University of San Diego, teaches a course called “The Holocaust and the Churches in Nazi Germany,” about the complicity of the Lutheran and Catholic churches and their leaders in the rise of Hitler and the Holocaust, and also about the courageous few among the Christian clergy who resisted the Nazis.
A screening following his presentation will feature a filmed interview with Irene Gut Opdyke, a Polish Christian rescuer who hid 12 Jews in the cellar of a German officer’s villa where she was the housekeeper.
A traditional candlelighting ceremony will close the event, with Holocaust survivors and their families lighting candles in memory of those who perished.
Free and open to the community, the Community Holocaust Commemoration has taken place for more than three decades. Last year, more than 700 people attended. For more information, call the Jewish Community Relations Council at the Jewish Federation of San Diego County at (858) 737-7138.