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hamburg.de

2006

The Invisible Helpers. Hamburg resident Hiltgunt Zassenhaus and the Norwegian Seamen's Mission working on behalf of the Norwegians imprisoned in Fuhlsbttel 1940?1945.

During World War II, several hundred Norwegians were imprisoned in Hamburg penal facilities. These prisoners?far from home, separated from family and friends, undernourished and forced into slave labour?were in a dire situation. Conrad Vogt-Svendsen and Arne Berge, pastors from the Norwegian Seamen's Mission, arranged for assistance and visited the prisoners. They were accompanied and supported by Hiltgunt Zassenhaus, an interpreter and medical student from Hamburg.

From 1933 to 1945, the Fuhlsbttel penal facilities were key sites of persecution by the National Socialists. The Gestapo used various buildings as a concentration camp and prison. Thousands of people persecuted by the Nazi regime were imprisoned in Fuhlsbttel, nearly 500 of whom did not survive their incarceration. The Fuhlsbttel Concentration Camp and Penal Facilities 1933?1945 Memorial recollects the history of these penal institutions.

Thousands of Hamburg residents were imprisoned here alongside numerous foreigners who were brought to Fuhlsbttel during the Second World War. The precise number of Norwegian prisoners is still not known. In October 1942, 469 Norwegian men were already imprisoned in Fuhlsbttel, most of whom had been given long-term prison sentences by German courts in occupied Norway for resistance activities, escape attempts or other "offences". 
Pastors Conrad Vogt-Svendsen and Arne Berge from Hamburg's Norwegian Seamen's Mission earned the trust of the prisoners and their relatives. Under the scrutiny of the Gestapo, they sought contact with Norwegian prisoners in Fuhlsbttel, other penal facilities and concentration camps throughout Germany. They received tremendous support from Hiltgunt Zassenhaus, an interpreter and medical student who was born in Hamburg on 10 July 1916. When the Hamburg judiciary commissioned her, on account of her knowledge of Danish and Norwegian, to monitor the pastors' visits to prisoners, a fruitful cooperation developed between the two pastors and herself. Life-saving medications for sick prisoners, letters and food were smuggled into the prison, and news of the prisoners was forwarded to their relatives. Many prisoners owe their survival to Hiltgunt Zassenhaus and the pastors from the Norwegian Seamen's Mission. The Scandinavian prisoners called Hiltgunt Zassenhaus the "Angel of the Prisoners".

After the war, Hiltgunt Zassenhaus was highly praised in the Scandinavian countries and awarded the highest honours: the Norwegian Order of St. Olav and the Danish Order of the Dannebrog. In 1974, the Norwegian government nominated her for the Nobel Peace Prize. She received the gold Hamburg Medal of Honour in 1986, and the University of Hamburg made her an honorary senator in 1990. She published an account of her experiences, "On Guard in the Dark", in 1947. A memoir entitled "Walls" was published in Hamburg in 1974. The book was translated into several languages and became particularly popular in the USA and Scandinavia. In 1952, Hiltgunt Zassenhaus emigrated to the USA. Until late in her life, she was intensively involved in the initiative known as International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War. She died at her home in Baltimore, Maryland, on 20 November 2004.

This exhibition explores the fates of the imprisoned Norwegians. It describes the dangerous activities that Hiltgunt Zassenhaus and the pastors of the Norwegian Seamen's Mission undertook for the prisoners. Numerous documents explain how the National Socialists used the judicial system as a weapon of persecution.


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A panel from the exhibition entitled "The Invisible Helpers".
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