Real Conditions in the Nazi concentration camp at Sachsenhausen during World War Two
Explanation: In the famous Venlo Incident in November 1939 Himmler's Gestapo agents captured two British secret service (MI6) agents, Captain Sigismund Payne Best (who wrote this letter) and R H Stevens. They survived World War II in Sachsenhausen concentration camp, and latterly in Dachau. After the war there were bitter recrimiminations between them, with Best accusing Stevens of aiding the Gestapo while in captivity and of painting life in the camps in untruthfully harsh colours after the war was over. Best's papers are in the Hoover Library at Stanford California. We reproduce here transcripts of selected documents for the benefit of historians, but recommend that use be made of the full collection.
From the Hoover Institution, Walter L Leschander collection, box 3, file 7
From the Hoover Institution, Walter L Leschander
collection, box 3, file 7
3rd April 1947
My dear Stevens,
To say the least of it, I was rather surprised when I heard the account which you gave of the conditions of your imprisonment at Sachsenhausen in the [BBC Radio] Third Programme last Saturday. Auto-suggestion may have made you believe that what you told the British Public in your broadcast was true, so may I remind you that, like myself, you were never alone in your cell but you were only isolated from contact with other prisoners, nor were you fettered during the daytime, unless of course your habit of sleeping by day, turned night for you into day.
The food was, under the circumstances, surprisingly good and no one could complain of any lack of cleanliness. Your guards, with several of whom I am still in contact, kept me vesy closely informed as to your habits and the conditions of your life and I was surprised to learn of the many advantages which you enjoyed, which were denied to me; painting materials, use of typewriter, boxing gloves and punching ball and your long hours of exercise. I have also re-read the letters which you wrote to me in prison and which I still have. I should like to quote to you from one of these; that of 23rd June 1940: - "My sentries all good blokes. Head Warder particularly considerate. Comes frequently and spends an hour with me, gives me a fag and cheers me up. Must express gratitude for treatment here. They all make things as easy as their orders allow. I shall not forget." Particularly the last words are worthy of your remembrance.
Your period of isolation at Sachsenhausen lasted for less than two years whilst mine endured for five and a quarter years, chaining at night being continued for over three years. Although I did not reach Dachau until April 1945, I had already heard quite a lot about your life there during the previous three years. Dr Rascher gave me very full details when I met him at Buchenwald and these were, in the main confirmed in a letter written to me by McGrath on 14th April 1945. Similar information was also given me by the Trusties, Wauer and Visintainer (Kohlenklau) as well as by your pet Warder, Lechner.
When you visited my cell at Dachau and, in a rather hysterical manner expressed contrition for the many foolish actions which you had committed, I had compassion for you. I always felt a certain measure of responsibility for your capture and imprisonment. I therefore decided to say "Schwamm darüber" and leave it at that.
Imprisonment, especially one of many years duration is a very horrible thing and in telling of it, there is no need to gild the lily. I had a much harder time than you, but I could stick it where you could not. This, I have always taken into account and my attitude towards you has never been that of judge. At the present time, nothing is more important than that we should one and all do everything in our power to eradicate the feelings of hatred engendered by the war. Untrue stories of ill-treatment suffered as a prisoner in Germany are to my mind, at the present juncture, nothing less than criminal and I shall always do everything in my power to unmask them.
[Sigismund Payne Best]
[obvious minor spelling errors corrected]
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