Jan’s Spoon

A letter from Avery Gordon

April 2012

Dear Natascha and Pola,

I hope this note finds you both well. We’re busy at the Archive, as we always are when war, misery, and corruption intensify and people can’t take it or fight it anymore and run away. The protests and strikes against the war mongering in the east and the austerity and border clampdowns in the north have provoked a goodly number to secede and then they often end up on our doorsteps, especially when they turn against the craven bankers. Some of these folks you would know, but there are others new to rebellion and to the art of not being governed coming from all over now.

In any event, I did have a minute to look into our old records of the deserters from what’s known as World War II or the Second Great European War (although I don’t know why they call it that, since Europe, such as it was, had been at war with itself and much of the rest of the world for hundreds if not thousands of years, but that’s another matter.) The information is sparse but here’s what I can report.

The fragment of a metal spoon that you found in the rubble from the Henschel estate as you were excavating the trail looks very much like Jan van der Vlies’s spoon. I’m attaching a photo of it. You can see that he’s drilled his initials “JvV” into the spoon, which was a pretty clever way prisoners would identify their utensils to prevent others from stealing them and also make it a little easier to find something solid to eat in the horrible thin soup they served at all the work camps, and especially at Breitenau where Jan’s spoon was found.

Jan van der Vlies was a Dutch worker who was captured by the National Socialists and first sent to Kassel to work as a slave. When exactly he arrived to the city and what precise work assignments he was given, I don’t know. (If this information is important to you, I know someone I could ask who might know.) It’s estimated that there were more than 25,000 foreign workers in Kassel. It’s a little confusing because the authorities distinguished among “forced”, “foreign” and “guest” workers, but as far as we can tell, they were all unfree and in effect prisoners of war, regardless of whether they were captured as soldiers or captured to be workers. These prisoners of war were used by the city, by large and small companies, by farmers and by individual households to do everything, including domestic service, baking, growing food, building weapons, tanks and roads, sewing uniforms, fixing windows, and maintaining all the prisons and camps in which they were forced to live, of which there were more than 200. Basically, the whole war society and war machine was dependent on the labor of all these captives.

Obviously (and this you already know) the work was brutally hard and especially in the Henschel armament factories workers were forced to produce weapons under the dual threat of death. First from their National Socialist captors who threatened to kill them if they didn’t work and were in any event almost starving them to death (remember what happened with the Italians in 1945 at the end of the war?) and then secondly from their liberators, since the Allies were constantly bombing Kassel and all the places where weapons were being made by them. Even if the conditions had not been quite so deathly, still there would have been a lot of sabotage, open and infrapolitical refusal to work, insubordination, and running away. As it happened, they had a difficult time managing the whole operation and even though they segregated the workers/prisoners by nationality and “race” to prevent organizing and unity among them (classic prison divide and conquer technique), they could not prevent significant resistance from occurring.

We know about the resistance from the overall large number of German soldier deserters who, often prior to taking off, would turn a blind eye to pilfering or hidden weapons or even help civilians escape from custody, or at least look the other way. More directly relevant to your Henschel rubble were the punishment camps set up by Henschel & Son, especially the notorious Möncheberg camp with its isolation cells and escalating punishment levels. And, of course, the fact that 655 men were sent from Kassel to the Arbeitserziehungslager at Breitenau that opened in 1940 and that was attached to the already existing Arbeitshaus from the century before. Breitenau was where the Kassel Gestapo had sent the politicals—the socialists and the communists—in the early 1930s when they had already filled their jails. It was clearly where the most troublesome were sent as a warning to others, including to upstanding German citizens. (People still remembered what happened to Pappenheim.) And, they transported from B to the big extermination camps and everybody also knew that. Of the 655 workers sent from Kassel to Breitenau only 404 records remain and these show that the vast majority were sent from Henschel. (There appears also to have been quite a bit of organizing or at least individual resistance among the bakers, which is interesting because they were also very active during the Paris Commune.)

As I said, I don’t know whether Jan was working for Henschel or not but we can presume that he was part of the contingent of 200 Dutch workers sent to Breitenau, some of whom were later handed over to the police because they weren’t responding appropriately to the prison’s “correctional” work regime, which also involved starvation and beatings. The Dutch workers were particularly active as resisters and organizers in the prisoner of war work camps and I heard that the city of Kassel kept special files on them and targeted them for surveillance and persecution. For this reason, we’re not sure what happened to Jan, although we hold his memory dear. I have a somewhat blurred photo of some Henschel prisoners lining up to eat, holding their bowls and spoons. In the photo, two men have left the line and are walking out of the frame, towards the viewer. One of the men has his head covered, making it difficult to see his face. I like to think that’s Jan starting his escape, dropping his spoon along the way to somewhere else, somewhere safer, somewhere more peaceful.

Who your spoon belonged to and what happened to him, unfortunately I cannot say. Perhaps as committed travelers follow the forks and winding routes on your trail, they will take their questions walking with them and find in that way of walking some of the traces, stories, memories, stray letters, sounds and dreams that constitute the trail’s archeology of knowledge.

As always, the Hawthorne Archive embraces you and as always I send you my love.

Read "Running away" on Avery's website