View of the camp road being laid through the prisoners’ compound. In the background is the camp entrance, on the right is the roll call square. Photograph by the SS, 1941. (ANg 1981-275)

The Beginning

The company Deutsche Erd- und Steinwerke GmbH, which was owned by the SS, purchased an abandoned brick factory and the land surrounding it on the outskirts of the suburb of Neuengamme in the autumn of 1938. On 12 December 1938, the first 100 prisoners arrived in Neuengamme from Sachsenhausen concentration camp. Their job was to bring the brick factory back to working order. Guards were brought in from Buchenwald concentration camp. In the beginning, the conditions of imprisonment were very different from the circumstances in the Neuengamme camp in later years. At the time, rations were still somewhat sufficient, for the most part.

Three months after the war began, it was decided that Neuengamme would be expanded into a large concentration camp. The city wanted to redevelop the shores of the Elbe River in Hamburg by lining the river with “Führer buildings” made of clinker bricks. In April 1940, the Hanseatic City of Hamburg signed an agreement with the Deutsche Erd- und Steinwerke company, granting it a loan of more than one million Reichsmarks to construct a larger brick factory. The city also promised to build a railway connection to the camp as well as regulate the Dove-Elbe (a tributary of the Elbe River) and construct a branch canal with a dock. In return, the SS promised to provide “prisoners for working on this project, as well as guard forces, free of charge”.

In the spring of 1940, Neuengamme thus became an independent concentration camp. The prisoners were forced to build the barracks, watchtowers and fences. Mistreatment, exhaustion, hunger and work accidents soon caused the first deaths among the prisoners. By the end of 1940, there were already 2,900 prisoners being held in Neuengamme. Their work included expanding the camp, broadening the Dove-Elbe, constructing the branch canal and dock, building the new brick factory and digging clay in the pits.

“The camp was opened as part of a plan to put all those do-nothings in our concentration camps to work. […] we plan to produce first-class bricks here at low cost. I believe that this will be of interest to you and the city planning office of Hamburg.”

Oswald Pohl, SS Chief of Administration, to Dr Hans Nieland, Senator of Hamburg (StA HH, Finanzdeputation IV, DV III C 3v VIII B2)