Unknown mass execution of Soviet prisoners commemorated in Amersfoort
Their graves are anonymous, their stories little known. The 101 Soviet soldiers who will be commemorated tomorrow at [former nazi concentration] Camp Amersfoort. Defeated on the battlefield, brought to the Netherlands as living propaganda material, beaten and killed.
“It was the second-largest mass execution of the war in the Netherlands”, says Remco Reiding of the Foundation Russian Field of Honour. “You could say that people would like to know.”
Tomorrow is the 75th anniversary of when nazi shots in the necks ended the brutal journey of the Soviets. Around a monument at Camp Amersfoort at dawn candles will be lit for the victims. It’s only the fifth time Reiding will organize the ceremony; previously there was little attention for the group.
“During the Cold War it was not customary to commemorate soldiers from a country that was our new enemy,” Reiding explains. “Moreover, these boys came from a far away country, and we have no information about their identity. So there are no family members who can visit a grave. Therefore, the story never came to life and was increasingly forgotten.”
The soldiers came in September 1941 in cattle trucks to Amersfoort after a two week journey. Prisoners of war from the Eastern Front, probably Uzbeks. They must have felt completely lost: displaced, starved, beaten, in a country where they did not speak the language.
“The Nazis took them to the Netherlands to show Dutch people what untermenschen [German nazi jargon: ‘racially inferior’ people] they were. They were exhibited: as a group they had to walk among rows of people through the city to the camp. Also inside the camp they had to stay outdoors for days, as a warning example for the Dutch prisoners.”
The plan failed immediately because the shocked Dutch spectators, contrary to expectations, , wanted to give wate,r fruit and bread to the soldier prisoners – what the Germans did not allow. An attempt to incite the soldiers against each other failed as well. “There was a German film crew who had to record how they would fight each other for a piece of bread; but when the bread was thrown over the fence, the opposite happened. It was divided neatly into pieces by the men, although they were terribly hungry.”
“The SS criminals failed”, wrote anti-nazi resistance newspaper De Waarheid. “At no time did they succeed in making discord between the Dutch and Russian prisoners.”
Skulls on desk
It seems that the Nazis wanted the Soviets to die of hardships. By disease, malnutrition and mistreatment 24 soldiers died within six months. Finally, in consultation with Berlin they decided on a mass execution of the rest of the group. The men were told that they would be transported to France, but after a short drive they arrived at the firing squad.
“You could say that they had no use anymore. The propaganda story had not worked and eventually the Nazis did not know what to do with them. Then they decided to shoot them dead.” Two skulls of the prisoners ended up on the desk of the camp doctor, as a curiosity. …
Reiding spent a lot of time to figure out the identity of the war dead, but the 101 Amersfoort men will forever remain anonymous: the Germans destroyed all information about them.
“That makes us morally responsible for these guys,” says Reiding. “Far away from home without the family knowing, slaughtered like beasts. That’s something we should keep in mind, even if only once a year.”
Yet Reiding also notes that once again there are tensions in relations with Russia by bickering over MH17, European embargoes and reports of Russian fake news. “A difficult relationship between the Netherlands and Russia is felt at all levels, so we feel that as well. But what we do is apolitical. The war victims of then, allies, should not suffer from contemporary politics.”
With 150 visitors Reiding expects tomorrow morning double the number of people last year, more than ever. “Of course it is early morning and we have a new tradition, but it is quite a nice result. We are very happy that for the first time a school, fifty pupils and their parents will join. It would be a good tradition to continue.”