During the last months of the Second World War, the Nazis began forcibly evacuating prisoners on death marches across Europe. By April 1945, the Stutthof concentration camp, established by Nazi Germany and located near Danzig (Gdansk) on the Baltic Sea, was completely encircled by rapidly approaching Soviet forces. With the overland route cut off, the SS guards, East Prussian rural police, and German navy forced the remaining several thousand prisoners onto river barges headed westward to German and Danish harbors in the Western Baltic Sea.
Rumors connected to the fate of these river barges abounded in early post-war literature. Did they all make it to their final destinations? Were they able to withstand the rough seas of the Baltic? Were they perhaps sunk deliberately by the Nazis? Then, in late 2017, a shipwrecked river barge was found in the Danish Baltic Sea, 26 m underwater. This unusual find led the Viking Ship Museum in Roskilde, responsible for the preservation of underwater cultural heritage in Eastern Denmark, to turn to Holocaust historian Professor Therkel Straede of the University of Southern Denmark to help clarify whether the barge could be linked to the forced evacuation operation from the Stutthof concentration camp – and whether it might be considered an underwater Holocaust gravesite in need of preservation.
Settling this question would require extensive scrutiny of existing literature, court trial documents, survivor testimony, archival studies, and newly declassified archival materials. Professor Straede asked Holocaust historians Dr. Reimer Möller of the Neuengamme Memorial Museum in Hamburg and Martin Jensen Overby, M.A., of the University of Southern Denmark to join the team and turned to the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) for support. The IHRA Grant they received for the Stutthof Maritime Evacuation Project allowed them to concentrate on intensive literature, archival and on-site research, and to complete an Academic Report summarizing their findings.
Did the sunken ship carry concentration camp prisoners during the forced evacuation from Stutthof?
Over the course of nine months, the research team carefully reconstructed the daily – sometimes even hourly – itineraries of all six vessels carrying concentration camp prisoners during the April/May 1945 evacuations from Stutthof. Two of the six barges suffered shipwreck, but in locations different from the sunken ship discovered in the Danish Baltic Sea.
The team determined that all travel routes of the six vessels could be accounted for. None was lost at high sea, meaning that the sunken vessel in question was in fact not connected to the Stutthof evacuation.
Uncovering new dimensions of the Holocaust
The findings went well beyond answering this question, however. The painstaking research process uncovered new dimensions of the Holocaust as well. Even for Professor Straede, who has twenty-five years of experience researching deportations, rescue and survival, the team was in uncharted territory.
“So much of this material was being used for the very first time,” Professor Straede said. “We had to carefully piece it together to build a larger picture.”
The resulting picture sheds light on the horrific conditions and crimes committed aboard the vessels. Supported by survivor testimony and court documents from the war crimes trial of former Stutthof SS-guard Bruno Dey, convicted of over 5,000 counts of accessory to murder in July 2020, the team could learn about who was aboard the vessels, as well as how they experienced – or brought about – the brutality of those last days of the Second World War. Prisoners were not given water or food; the dead and dying were thrown overboard; some were murdered with lath hammers. These crimes were also recorded in small diaries kept by non-Jewish Scandinavian prisoners aboard. “These were crimes of the greatest brutality committed in the very last hours of the war, without the urging from a central power,” Professor Straede emphasized.
The few instances of resistance fighters and locals helping the weakened passengers upon their docking add to the complexity of the picture. They point to the agency ordinary Germans and Danish civilians had, and to the fact that while many could have helped, most did not.
The Stutthof Maritime Evacuation IHRA Grant worked with international partners to piece together a transnational story
At each stage of the research process, international cooperation, which the IHRA encourages in all areas of its work, played a critical role. The project was not only the result of close cooperation between the University of Southern Denmark and the Neuengamme Memorial Museum and its archive. Because much of the material the research team required was scattered throughout Europe, accessing the relevant – and sometimes previously unused – documents and testimonies required the support of archivists and staff from various institutions and archives in Denmark, Germany, Israel and Poland. The project especially benefited from cooperation with the Polish Muzeum Stutthof, the Institute of National Memory of Gdansk, and the Polish Embassy of Copenhagen.
Looking ahead: distribution and application of findings
The project team’s Academic Report is currently being shared with other researchers. However, the research team hopes that the findings will be distributed more widely to a broader audience as well. As the last moments of the war are often overlooked when teaching about the Holocaust, this research has implications for Holocaust education. Further funding is being sought to develop a catalogue publication and a website. Other formats like exhibitions and television documentaries are also being considered.
While the research team initially set out to answer the straightforward question of whether a sunken ship was in fact an underwater Holocaust gravesite, the project uncovered so much more. Without a doubt, the IHRA Grant Project contributed to the IHRA’s commitment “to throw light on the still obscured shadows of the Holocaust.”
As for the river barge discovered in the deep waters of the Danish Baltic Sea, it will be protected according to Danish heritage laws as a shipwreck, not as a Holocaust crime scene and underwater gravesite.
To learn more about how IHRA Grant Projects safeguard the record and counter distortion of the Holocaust and the genocide of the Roma, please explore our Funding page and our Grants Projects Database.