It started with a text from my dad, who was at the museum.
That made no sense; I’d have to see for myself. I’d also never heard of Flossenbürg, so I looked it up online: Flossenbürg was a Nazi concentration camp built in 1938. Nearly 97,000 prisoners passed through the Flossenbürg system. Around 30,000 people died there from malnutrition, overwork, executions, or during death marches.
Once I got to the museum, I unpacked the items. The three wooden pieces defied description. There were two meticulously carved “buildings” about 12 inches high, and a smaller arched photo frame which, when set between the two buildings, looked very much like a gate between two guard towers.
I examined them closer. The work was intricate—down to the light fixtures above the carved door and the search light and water-cooled machine gun on one of the towers.
The roof lifted off one of the buildings; I could see what my dad meant. There was a crank and a chute for cigarettes to roll down. The other building’s sides swung open, revealing a place to store matches and papers. A blade swung out when I pushed a lever.
There was also an inlay that read “Camp Flossenbürg Germany 1946”. The photo was of a U.S. soldier.
Who’d designed and made this concentration camp-cigarette dispenser? Who’d buy such a thing?
I called the couple who had dropped off the items. The items had belonged to a neighbor, a veteran, who’d died in 1985. It had been a gift to his wife. When they’d dropped off the artifacts, they’d left a book about WWII that had also belonged to him. Maybe there was a clue.
The book included details about battles and concentration camps. The veteran had served in the 6th Armored Division and his campaigns were handwritten inside the book. He’d come into the military as a Private and left it as a Lieutenant, entering the war in France and fighting all the way to Germany and Czechoslovakia. He’d received a Purple Heart, a Bronze Star and other decorations. There were no details—no dates.
Why was he in Flossenbürg after the war? What was his role? There was no clue in the book.
I turned one of the towers over, and to my surprise, written in pencil was: “Firma F. Kusza Lager 6659.” (Firma means signature in German.) Additionally, scratched in the metal plate, as if with a screw or nail, was “Henneborg 4387.”
Kusza seems to have been the craftsman who made the pieces; Henneborg appears to have added his information later.
I took photos of the items and e-mailed the Flossenbürg memorial archives. Had they ever seen anything like this before? Did they know either the service member or the prisoners?
I received an answer straight away from an archive staff member. They agreed the artifacts were astonishing and they would do some research.
While I waited for any information from the archive, I plugged in the names and camp numbers in several online Holocaust survivor databases. Neither name nor number came up with a match.
One day I received another email from the archives: “From a former inmate of the POW camp we know that the Germans produced some kind of crafts and traded them with the GIs…”
U.S. troops served at Flossenbürg Camp, which between June 1945 through March 1946, housed members of the Waffen SS who were captured in Czechoslovakia. While the archives have names of some SS men who were prisoners in Flossenbürg, they didn’t have anything on either Kusza or Henneborg. All inmates had four-figure prisoner numbers which would match the numbers coming with the names on the objects.
The archivist also sent me a photo taken of one of the towers in 1946. The resemblance is striking.
We have other Holocaust-related things at the Museum of the American Military Family: some oral stories embedded in one of our blogs from two American service members who helped liberate Dachau concentration camp; a podcast featuring a woman who’d spent much of the war as a prisoner in a forced-labor camp in France, where she met her future husband who helped liberate it; an account from a military brat who spent a few years living at the reutilized Camp Dachau, where his dad had been stationed with the U.S. Army.
On Jan. 19, from 1:00-3:00, we will show a documentary titled “Is there Poetry After Auschwitz?” and the filmmaker will be on hand for a Q&A following the screening. For more information about the museum or program, contact 505-504-6830.