Store on site of death camp angers survivors


FUERSTENBERG, Germany -- Tears of rage well up in Ingrid Rabbe's eyes when she thinks of what is being done to the Nazi concentration camp where her mother was killed during World War II.

"A supermarket. They're building a supermarket on the site of the camp. I just can't begin to understand it," the 55-year-old woman said.

An estimated 92,000 women from 20 European countries were exterminated by the Nazis at Ravensbrueck concentration camp between 1939 and 1945.

Mrs. Rabbe is one of a growing number of people angry with the town of Fuerstenberg's plan to allow Kaiser's supermarket chain to build a store on part of the camp site. City officials gave approval earlier this year, and work is nearly completed on the 1,000-square-foot building.

"It was standing empty. Why shouldn't we use it?" demanded Mayor Wolfgang Engler of Fuerstenberg.

Ravensbrueck is not the only camp whose existence as a reminder of the Nazi Holocaust is about to be altered. Two other campsites -- Sachsenhausen and Buchenwald -- are scheduled to be developed in some fashion. An estimated 200,000 people, mostly Jews, were murdered by the Nazis at the camps.

The Nazi camps were used for various purposes by the now-deposed Communist authorities in East Germany.

Ravensbrueck is the most dramatic example of what has happened now that the Communists' lid of superficial sympathy has been lifted. Only a year after free elections ejected the ruling Communist Party, the city gave Kaiser's supermarket permission to build its store at the corner of a main road leading into town and the Street of Nations, a mile-long access road to the camp built by women slaves.

The supermarket, which will sell the much sought-after fruits and vegetables that were impossible to get under the old regime, is going up on an empty plot of land where the women prisoners used to carry potatoes and other food into underground storage pits. Many women died of overwork, hunger and exhaustion.

What is left of the camp is further down the Street of Nations. The former East German government tore down the barracks and built a massive statue next to a few buildings that house two museums, the former crematorium and a cinema.

Development plans also call for a Renault automobile showroom on the site and the conversion into luxury condominiums of several dozen houses built by women prisoners for the Nazi SS. The houses now are being used by Soviet military officers, who are due to leave in 1994.

Mrs. Rabbe is not alone in her anger. Lately local protesters have been joined by the German and Belgian Jewish communities and top Nazi hunter Simon Wiesenthal, who wrote last week to the Brandenburg state premier, "It is hard to understand that a state government, after the experiences of regimes such as the Nazis and the Stalinists, could even consider such an intention."

And the protests have had some impact. Hans-Christian Bremme, business manager of the Tengelmann store group which owns Kaiser's, said the company would drop out of the project "without demanding compensation." But he said the town of Fuerstenberg, which issued the construction permit and sold the property, will have to reach an agreement with the main investor, whose name he would not disclose.

"The contract cannot be nullified by only one party," Mr. Bremme said.

Brandenburg's culture minister, Heinrich Enderlein, Wednesday ordered a halt in construction while officials conferred. But Thursday, state Construction Minister Jochen Wolf said work can resume as long as the character of the memorial is preserved.

City administrators said they saw nothing wrong with using the land. "The memorial can't be allowed to smother the city indefinitely," said Mayor Engler.

That doesn't satisfy Mrs. Rabbe or others who are interested in the camp's history. Because of the high number killed, the entire area should be declared a cemetery "and given the appropriate honor," she said.

"It's so terrible that the city hasn't learned anything from history. I find it an insult and humiliation to the women who died," said Mrs. Rabbe, whose mother was arrested for her political activities in 1939 and died later at Ravensbrueck.

The state of Brandenburg is still reviewing the issue and is due to report this fall. But work on the supermarket is continuing, and Mayor Engler said the city does not plan to renege on the contract for fear of being sued.

The fate of the other two major camps in eastern Germany -- Sachsenhausen and Buchenwald -- is also uncertain.

Sachsenhausen, a camp for political prisoners in Oranienburg about 20 miles north of Berlin, may have its former main administrative building turned into the city government's financial offices. In addition, the city has plans to allow a bus company to build a depot on the plot of land that once held the camp's gas chambers.

At Buchenwald, in southeastern Germany near the city of Weimar, plans call for a memorial to be built for victims of Stalinism.

The Soviets who came to occupy East Germany at the end of World War II apparently were untroubled by the irony that lay in their use of Sachsenhausen and Buchenwald as their own main internment camps. Under dictator Josef Stalin, the Soviet Union is held responsible for more than 45,000 deaths of Germans rounded up on often spurious charges of having helped the Nazis.

Virtually all historians agree, however, that the crimes are different. While 100,000 people died under the Nazis at Sachsenhausen and 33,000 in Buchenwald because of their politics, religion or race, the Soviets were responsible for 13,000 deaths in Sachsenhausen and 8,000 in Buchenwald from hunger, disease and other forms of passive mistreatment.

The talk of a memorial in Buchenwald that would put both groups of victims on the same footing has been deplored by those who speak for the victims of the Nazis. The Union of Holocaust Survivors, for example, said in a letter that "we cannot accept the fact that our thousands of murdered victims can be equated with people who died in the postwar period because the Russians didn't follow the law."

Other opponents include the International Committee of Fascist Concentration Camps, which said the attempt to build a memorial to the victims of Stalinism was an attempt to minimize the Nazis' crimes by claiming that Stalinists also killed innocent people.

"There are those who would like to equate the postwar crimes with the crimes that were committed during the war. This, however, is completely unjustified by history," said Irmgard Seidel, the assistant director of the Buchenwald memorial.

The desire to either build over or change the focus of the camps is popular in eastern Germany because they are identified with the Communists' 45 years of misrule, said Gudrun Schwarz, a specialist in the camps' history.

Historical exhibitions in the camps, for example, were mostly crude propaganda exercises that gave the idea that most who died under the Nazis were heroic Communist resistance fighters, Mrs. Schwarz said.

"The memorials do have to rebuild their credibility among the people," Mrs. Seidel said. "But that doesn't mean that we can simply reject what happened in the camps. It was a terrible time that mustn't be allowed to be forgotten."

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