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Alwin Esser * 1912
Schäferstraße 4 (Eimsbüttel, Eimsbüttel)
erschlagen von Gestapo am 10.11.1933
Alwin Esser, born 7 Mar. 1912 in Hamburg, beaten to death by the Gestapo in the Fuhlsbüttel Concentration Camp, 10 Nov. 1933
Alwin Esser was the second of three children born to Fritz and Elsa Esser. He grew up in a three-and-a-half room apartment at Schäferstraße 4 in Eimsbüttel, where he lived with his parents, his elder brother Rudolf, and his younger sister Luise. Like their father Fritz, Rudolf and Alwin were politically active. Fritz was a member of the KPD (Communist Party of Germany). He was a Reichstag representative in 1924, and a Member of the Hamburg Parliament from 1921-1924 and from 1928-1932.
Alwin attended the Moorkamp primary school until the age of 14. The tall, athletic young man then entered an apprenticeship as a house painter. He volunteered with International Red Aid, commonly known by its Russian acronym MOPR, an international social service organization established by the Comintern in 1922 to function as an "international political Red Cross,” providing aid to political prisoners around the world. In 1929 he became active in the KJVD, the youth organization of the German Communist Party. As a resident of Eimsbüttel, he was a member of their "Sternschanze” chapter until it was dissolved.
Soon after the National Socialists came to power, the police and other Nazi organizations targeted the Esser family. Alwin Esser was arrested for the first time and held in prison for a short time. The arrest was probably in connection with his father’s political activities and Alwin’s involvement with the KJVD.
After he was released, Alwin Esser contacted his comrades in Eimsbüttel and attempted to organize a resistance movement against the Nazis. He was again arrested on 15 May 1933, and was taken shortly thereafter to the Wittmoor Concentration Camp. Wittmoor was established on 16 March 1933 as one of the first concentration camps in the Hamburg region, and, in the initial phase of the Nazi regime, served as a prison for the large number of political prisoners from Hamburg. Unlike later concentration camps, the Wittmoor Concentration Camp was run by police officers.
There were around 100 political prisoners in Wittmoor in May 1933. They were used as forced labor to maintain and expand the camp, but especially to cut peat. Esser was released after three months on 15 August 1933. The camp was closed in October 1933.
Willi Bredel, a fellow political prisoner, chronicled Esser’s time in the camp as well as his release, although he confused Alwin’s and his brother Rudolf’s names. In his book he described the short time between Alwin’s release from the Wittmoor Concentration Camp and his death in the Fuhlsbüttel Concentration Camp.:
"The police commissioner slowly inspected the front [the prisoners, ed.] Strapping young men. Open, honest faces. Would make fabulous soldiers. He was strangely cheerful. This was the Commune, after all. We’ll turn the boys around, right around, and they’ll thank us for it. He picks one out, a tall, athletic, pale-skinned young man.
‘What’s your name?’
‘Rudolf [Alwin, ed.] Esser!’
‘Why are you here?‘
‘I’m a Young Communist!’
‘Hm, hm!’ said the police commissioner and squinted his eyes behind his glasses. Fabulous boy. What posture! And he asked, slowly and searchingly, ‘Are you still a Marxist?‘
‘It’s "Yes sir, Police Commissioner,”’ the Sturmführer hissed. The Commissioner waved his hand. ‘Let it be.’ He looked into the prisoner’s open face. The SA camp guards had taken up position a few steps away. The Commissioner glanced at them. If they fell into the hands of the Commune, how many of them would answer ‘I’m a Hitler man!’? Mechanically, he repeated the question.
‘So you’re still a Marxist?’
‘Yes sir, Police Commissioner!’
The man hurried obligingly to his side and clicked his heels together.
‘Sturmführer, what is this man’s name?’
‘Esser, Police Commissioner. [Alwin] Esser!’
‘The protective custody prisoner [Alwin] Esser is to be released immediately.!’
The Sturmführer stared dumbly and without understanding at the Police Commissioner, who said with a smile, but insistently to the prisoner, ‘Perhaps you understand this hint. I hope you do.’
After his release he began making plans to flee to France, probably because he knew himself to be in danger. His mother, in particular, tried to dissuade him. She thought the "Nazi fuss” would soon be over and didn’t want to be separated from her youngest son. Alwin gave up his plan and remained in Hamburg. His mother Elsa blamed herself for the rest of her life.
Instead of fleeing, Esser returned to his political activities in Eimsbüttel and formed a resistance group with former members of the Communist Youth association. The group mimeographed and distributed flyers, in which they described the intrigues and schemes of the Nazi regime and called upon the public to resist.
The group’s activities did not remain secret for long. Alwin’s father Fritz was arrested on 6 November 1933. Then, in the early morning hours of 10 November, the police stormed the Esser family’s apartment at Schäferstraße 4. While they were searching the apartment, members of the police force placed a printing press in the kitchen and used it as grounds for arresting the entire family. Luise, Rudolf, and Alwin Esser were taken to Gestapo Headquarters at Stadthausbrücke.
Alwin Esser’s sister Luise was interrogated and released the next day. The interrogations were brutal. Luise was interrogated for hours while fully naked; a sentence from Alwin’s flyer was stamped across his forehead – "Down with Hitler and the arsonist Göring”, a reference to the Reichstag fire in February 1933. That night, Alwin and Rudolf were were taken to the Fuhlsbüttel Concentration Camp.
The Fuhlsbüttel Concentration Camp was officially established on 4 September 1933. By November of the same year, more than 800 prisoners had been sent there. The guards were SS troops. According to reports of former prisoners, a brutal regime of abuse and solitary confinement began as soon as they arrived. Prisoners were forced to stand at attention facing a wall for hours, and at the smallest movement they were beaten by the guards or their faces shoved into the wall. Others where kicked and shoved up and down the stairs until they were utterly exhausted. Prisoners were repeatedly taken individually into the cellar and brutally abused. At night drunken guards often roamed through the barracks and beat random prisoners. The prison church was infamous as a favorite place of torture, since the guards could drown out the cries of their victims by playing the organ.
The stamp on Alwin’s forehead immediately made him a target for the guard troops. He was so badly abused on the night that he arrived that he did not survive. He was 21 years old when he died. The death certificate states that Alwin Esser died on 10 November 1933 at 7:30pm at the Fuhlsbüttel Concentration Camp. The prison physician Dr. Schnapauff listed "strangulation (suicide)” as the cause of death. After his death, Alwin’s mother retrieved his clothing from the camp administration. It was soaked in blood. Numerous murders committed in Fuhlsbüttel were "determined” as suicide. Otherwise the District Attorney’s Office would have been required to investigate the death. Alwin Esser’s murderers were never identified.
Alwin’s father Fritz and brother Rudolf, who were also being held at Fuhlsbüttel, learned of his murder from other prisoners the next morning. His mother Elsa, who had been trying to contact her husband and children since their arrests, was denied the right to visit them. She was also not allowed to see Alwin’s body. It was cremated shortly after his death.
In order to prevent comrades and friends from attending the funeral and possibile protests against the Nazi regime, Alwin Esser’s interment was closed to the public. Only his mother Elsa and his sister Luise, accompanied by the police, were allowed to be present at the burial in an anonymous grave at the Ohlsdorf Cemetery near Chapel 13.
The news about Alwin Esser’s murder nevertheless became known to the public, and a ship in France was named after him. When this information reached the German authorities, they threatened the Esser family with further reprisals.
Esser’s family survived the Nazi regime. The exact location of Alwin Esser’s grave was forgotten. In memory of their son, his parents Elsa and Fritz chose a grave near Chapel 13 at the Ohlsdorf Cemetery in Hamburg.
In 2000, Alwin Esser’s nephew Bernhard Esser was finally able to determine the exact location of the grave, with the help of the cemetery administration.
Translator: Amy Lee
Kindly supported by the Hermann Reemtsma Stiftung, Hamburg.
© Volker Cirsovius-Ratzlaff
Quellen: Archiv der KZ-Gedenkstätte Neuengamme; Archiv der VVN (KZ-Gedenkstätte Neuengamme), E11.11 Rudolf Esser + E.11.9 Elsa Esser; Wolfgang Benz und Barbara Diestel (Hrsg.), Terror ohne System.; Gespräch mit Bernhard Esser (Familie); Willi Bredel, Unter Türmen und Masten, S. 335–339; Gedenkstätte Ernst Thälmann; Ursel Hochmuth und Gertrud Meyer, Streiflichter aus dem Hamburger Widerstand 1933–1945, S. 36; KZ-Gedenkstätte Neuengamme (Hrsg.), Gedenkbuch Kolafu, S. 19f.; Gertrud Meyer, Nacht über Hamburg, S. 16; Galerie Morgenland Video Rundgang Kosubke vom 20.5.2005.