Regarding Bruno – “Don’t put up with everything and stay honest.”

A story about my maternal grandfather and his encounters with Germany’s dark past

Bruno Bening’s Personalausweis (ID card)
© Lehmann Family Archive. All Rights Reserved.

Part I – Red Water

Bruno Bening was my maternal grandfather. He was born in Oranienburg on August 27th, 1908. To tell his story, it is important to begin with his home town. Oranienburg is a town located on the banks of the Havel river, approximately 35 km north of Berlin, which gained notoriety during the Nazi period. In 1933, the Nazis established one of the first concentration camps in Oranienburg, and in 1938, it became home to the Concentration Camps Inspectorate, the central administrative and managerial authority for all concentration camps. [1-3] The initial concentration camp in Oranienburg was moved to another location in 1934, but two years later, the Nazis established one of the most notorious death camps in Sachsenhausen, a borough of Oranienburg, forcing inmates from the original camp to plan and build it.

“From as early as 1934, concentration camp commandants deployed prisoners as forced laborers for the benefit of SS construction projects, including the construction or expansion of the camps themselves. … Beginning a pattern that would become typical after the war began, economic considerations had an increasing impact on the selection of sites for concentration camps … Likewise, concentration camp authorities increasingly diverted prisoners from meaningless, backbreaking labor to more goal-oriented if still backbreaking and dangerous labor” [4]

“In 1942 Sachsenhausen had more than 100 sub-camps and prisoner units attached to it, this was mainly due to the massive use of forced labour in concentration camps for the armaments industry and many of the sub-camps were situated near to weapons factories such as the one near the Heinkel aeroplane factory in Oranienburg or in the industrial centres of Siemens and AEG in Berlin.” [5]

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1. Map of Nazi Concentration Camps 1933-1934
2. Jewish forced labourers at an ordnance factory in Dachau [6]

One of the sub-camps of the Sachsenhausen concentration camp forced prisoners to work for the Auergesellschaft. The Auergesellschaft was an industrial firm with its headquarters in Oranienburg. Its research activities included rare earths, radioactivity, uranium, and thorium compounds. In 1939, the Auergesellschaft began to produce industrial-scale, high-purity uranium oxide. The uranium sheets and cubes produced there were used for experiments in the Uranmaschine, the German nuclear reactor, by the Uranverein (Uranium Club), the German nuclear project. [7]

Bruno Bening had attended Volksschule (public school) for eight years, followed by three and a half years of vocational school, where he learnt the trade of a toolmaker. He married Frieda Ribbe in 1934, and on May 4th, 1937, she gave birth to their daughter Inge. During World War II, Frieda Bening joined her husband and began to work at the Auergesellschaft, too. In 1949, only four years after the end of the war, Frieda died from leukaemia. At school, Inge Bening befriended a girl named Christa, the daughter of Maria Janoske, who had also been widowed. Bruno Bening and Maria Janoske married two days after Inge’s 13th birthday, on the 6th of May, 1950, and as the result of an unplanned pregnancy, my mother, Hannelore Bening, was born in December of the same year.

Bruno and Maria Bening with their daughters © Lehmann Family Archive. All Rights Reserved.

Bruno and Maria Bening (née Janoske) with their daughters Christa (left), Inge (right) and Hannelore (middle)
© Lehmann Family Archive. All Rights Reserved.

As my aunt Inge recalled, Bruno and Frieda never talked about their work at home, neither during nor after the war. However, she remembered one fact very clearly – remarkable, given that she was only seven years old at the time – and that was that whenever her mother Frieda returned from work and washed her hands, the water in the sink would turn red. This made me curious both about Frieda’s work – and about uranium oxide.

According to independent researcher Bill Streifer,

“it was common practice [during World War II] for German submarines to transport uranium oxide in steel canisters by U-boat (submarines). However, at great depths, the cannisters could collapse from the great underwater pressures. The German solution was to mix uranium oxide (presumably a powder) with mercury (a liquid) to form a paste. That canister would then be filled with the paste, and loaded in the keel of the submarine.” [8] [9]

The fact that uranium oxide was indeed shipped via submarine is corroborated by other sources, including one listing all German submarines used during World War II, which states that “on 15 April, 1945 [submarine U-234] left Norway and was enroute to Japan with … 560kg of uranium oxide”. However, upon learning of Germany’s unconditional surrender, the crew of the U-234 surrendered to the USS Sutton south of the Grand Banks of Newfoundland, thus bringing to an end its first and only mission into enemy territory. [10] U-864, another German submarine also headed towards Japan, was torpedoed and sunk by the British submarine HMS Venturer on February 9th, 1945, just off the coast of Norway. [11] A technical report about a potential salvage mission of U-864 for the Norwegian coastal administration notes:

“There has been some speculations [sic] on whether U-864 had uranium oxide on board or not, similar to U-234 which was captured by the US Navy in the Atlantic Ocean on May 15 1945. … According to the ULTRA archives U-864 had 1857 mercury canisters (approximately 67 tons) stored in the keel when torpedoed on February 9 1945. DNV has found no records indicating otherwise. … DNV conclude [sic] that the probability that there was uranium oxide onboard U-864 when torpedoed February 9 1945 is remote” [12]

Bill Streifer, on the other hand, explains why he believes there to have been uranium oxide on board of the U-864.

“The submarine which was sunk by a British submarine off the coast of Norway in February 1945 (U-864) was carrying 65-67 tons of mercury, and perhaps 2 tons (1814kg) of uranium. … To extract uranium ore from rock, one process (which goes back to the old goldmining days) is to crush up the rock containing uranium ore and run it through a ‘wash’ of mercury, forming an amalgam. Then, at a later time, the mercury can be removed by heating the amalgam to 900 degrees, leaving uranium oxide. The Japanese officer in charge of acquiring uranium for Japan’s atomic bomb program, Kawashima, requested uranium from Hitler who agreed to send 2 tons. During a 1982 interview, Kawashima said that a submarine carrying two tons of uranium sank before it arrived in Japan. An essay in the The World War Two Reader, edited by Gordon Martel, says, ‘After difficult negotiations, Nazi Germany agreed to give about two tons of uranium to Japan, which would be transported there by two submarines, dispatched to Japan for this purpose. One never arrived in Japan … and the other was unable to sail after Germany surrendered in May 1945.’” [13]

Whether or not U-864 had uranium oxide on board will remain subject to speculation until its wreck might be raised, but the theory of creating an amalgam out of mercury paste and uranium oxide powder led me to investigate the latter. I found that uranium oxide is a “brown to copper-red to black solid” and that “inhalation, ingestion, or absorption through skin abrasions may lead to heavy metal toxicity or radiation poisoning”. [14] In addition, unprotected handling of uranium oxide powder can cause redness to the skin. [15] Although it is a tad unlikely that redness stemming from a skin irritation would cause water to turn red when washing one’s hands, the fact remains that several of the compounds used by the Auergesellschaft were carcinogens. Since Frieda Bening died of leukaemia, it is thus conceivable that she, and possibly her husband, too, handled chemical substances there, either in the Auergesellschaft’s production of cosmetics or in the research of the Uranverein. [16] This would also explain why both never talked about their work to their daughter.

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Doramad Radioactive Toothpaste (ca. 1940-1945) [17]

As the war drew to a close, the efforts of the Uranverein did not remain a secret to the Allied Forces. Consequently, Oranienburg and the Auergesellschaft came into the focus of attention. On the 15th of March, 1945, one of…

“March’s heaviest raids occurred at the request of the Manhattan Project, the US military-controlled scientific team charged with designing, manufacturing, and exploding the first atomic weapon. … Allied intelligence [had] indicated that a German laboratory – hereafter sometimes called one of the “atomic” targets – in Oranienburg, a suburb of Berlin, had undertaken experiments with two radioactive elements: thorium and uranium. According to the Yalta agreements, the Berlin area would form part of the Soviet zone of occupation and would, therefore, be unavailable for exploitation by Western scientists. Consequently, [Maj Gen Leslie R.] Groves requested [to] destroy the facility to keep it from falling intact into Soviet hands. … The attack on Oranienburg began at approximately 1450 hours. It took the 617 attacking aircraft, bombing visually, 45 minutes to pass over the target and deliver their 1,552 tons of high explosives and 178 tons of incendiaries. … the raid carried an unusually large percentage of delayed-action bombs. Such fusing allowed the weapons to penetrate roofs instead of exploding on impact and to more thoroughly damage equipment within structures. Delayed-action bombs also slowed firefighting, salvage, and repair of facilities. Some of the weapons overshot their targets and destroyed barracks in the nearby Sachsenhausen concentration camp.” [18]

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1. Uranmaschine of the Diebner group in Gottow [19]
2. Aircrafts of the US Air Force on their way to the Oranienburg ordnance depot
3. An American aerial photo from 1945 shows the bomb craters after the attack on the Auergesellschaft in Oranienburg.

Almost all factory workshops and some of the accommodations for prisoners were destroyed in the attack. [20] While Frieda Bening had sought refuge in a bomb shelter together with her daughter Inge, Bruno Bening was trapped under the rubble for several hours. As my aunt Inge recalled, her father returned in the evening hours, full of dust, and with his skin blackened from smoke. The family home had been destroyed and so they initially moved to the Weiße Stadt (White City) to stay with another family. 204 citizens of Oranienburg died that day, as did 382 of the female forced labourers working at the Auergesellschaft. [21] My aunt also recalled that her father often secretly listened to the radio broadcasts of the BBC. On that day, however, he had either missed the announcement of the upcoming bomb raid or been unable to stay away from work.

Part II – Escape from Oranienburg

In the years after the division of Germany, Bruno Bening and his second wife Maria lived with their daughters Inge, Christa and Hannelore in Oranienburg. Bruno Bening tried his best to adapt to socialist work ethics and made many suggestions for improvements at his work place. While several of them were heeded, he never gained any praise or promotions for them, which left him deeply frustrated. Eventually, he resorted to work in West-Berlin.

Bruno Bening at work at HPS © Lehmann Family Archive. All Rights Reserved.

Bruno Bening at work at HPS in West Berlin
© Lehmann Family Archive. All Rights Reserved.

At the time, it was still permitted to live in the political East but commute to one’s work place in the West. However, the constant controls at the inner-German border soon began to irritate Bruno,  and in 1958, Bruno and Maria finally decided to escape and live in West-Berlin. By that time, their daughters from their respective first marriages were already in their early twenties, so they left the decision up to them whether or not they wanted to join them. Christa was already engaged to her future husband and Inge was also involved with the man she was to marry later, and so both decided to stay. Thus, Bruno, Maria and 7-year-old Hannelore made their way to the West without them.

Film still from Billy Wilder's “One Two Three”

Controls at the inner-German border were hardly as funny as in Billy Wilder’s “One Two Three”. [22]

The parents did not tell their youngest daughter about their plans; instead, they told her that they would visit her aunt in Schöneberg, a borough of West Berlin. In preparation for their move, Bruno had already brought as many personal effects to the other side as possible. He had also secured an apartment at Epensteinstrasse in Reinickendorf in return for taking over the role as janitor in addition to his existing job. While he had done so in order to spare Hannelore the experience of staying in a reception camp, the decision to take matters into his own hands resulted in them not being recognised as refugees. As a result, they missed out on benefits they would otherwise have been entitled to.

Vertriebenenausweis (refugee ID) of Maria Bening née Janoske © Lehmann Family Archive. All Rights Reserved.

“Not eligible to claim rights and benefits according to §10 (1) Federal Expellee Law”
Vertriebenenausweis (refugee ID) of Maria Bening née Janoske
© Lehmann Family Archive. All Rights Reserved.

On May 19th, 1958, the day they escaped to West Berlin, Maria Bening dressed Hannelore in many layers of clothing that the father, who had gone to work as usual, had not yet managed to transport over the border. At the eleventh hour, the plan almost failed, because, as they were controlled at the border, they were asked why they had only bought a ticket to a station nearby when they were planning to visit Schöneberg, which was much further. Fortunately, Maria had the presence of mind to invent the explanation that they did not know the public transport network well and had therefore chosen the wrong ticket. Eventually, they arrived safely and escaped the fate of Inge and Christa who were soon to be trapped in Eastern Germany until the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989.

Berlin, Mauerbau

Construction of the Berlin wall with concrete blocks in August 1961 [23]

Part III – Regarding Bruno

Unfortunately, my aunt Inge couldn’t remember many personality traits of her father at all. Due to the division of the family, she was only able to see him again from 1965 onwards, and then it was only once per year at family gatherings in East Berlin, after the two German states had agreed to allow West Germans to travel into East Germany. What she did remember, however, was a motto by which her father used to live: “Don’t put up with everything and stay honest.” This mirrors what I recall from talks with my late mother, who told me that Bruno was a strict father with principles, but she never mentioned anything about him having acted unjustly.

Bruno’s mother, my mother’s paternal grandmother, was able to leave East Germany legally and joined the Benings in Reinickendorf. My mother had to share a very small room with her, which was hard on her, since her grandmother was very ill. She had ulcers on her legs and the stench sickened my mother. In September of 1965, the grandmother died, and the following May, Maria Bening passed away, too, leaving behind my mother and her father Bruno. Hannelore had to work harder than her peers, and that only intensified after the death of her mother.

Hannelore Lehmann née Bening and her fiancé Christoph on the day of their engagement (December 30th, 1966) © Lehmann Family Archive. All Rights Reserved.

Hannelore Bening and Christoph Lehmann on the day of their engagement
© Lehmann Family Archive. All Rights Reserved.

A year later, when she was only 16 years old, she got married and pregnant. At the time, this presented the only opportunity for her to leave her father’s house. In his late years, Bruno became mentally ill, a fact that my aunt Inge believed resulted from the experience of being buried under debris back in 1945. At first, he continued to live at his apartment, but later he was admitted to Bonhoeffer’s Mental Home in Berlin Reinickendorf. He died from pneumonia on the 15th of February, 1972. He was 63 years old.

Epilogue 2010

For this article, I interviewed my father, Christoph Lehmann, my aunt, Inge Lindner, and my sister, Christiane Lehmann. I had also talked about my grandfather with my late mother, Hannelore Lehmann, before her untimely death. Not much was to be known about Bruno Bening’s character and values, but I recall from a conversation with my mother that Bruno was against the Nazis. From everything I learnt about him, I find that to be plausible, although he might well have known about the atrocities committed by the Nazis, given his employment at the Auergesellschaft, where so many concentration camp victims were forced to work. From the talk with my mother and the notions made by my aunt, I got the impression that Bruno tried to remain true to himself against all odds. When he experienced the unfairness of the socialist system in East Germany, he decided to work in the West. When he got tired of the harassment at the inner-German border, he decided to escape from East Germany altogether. He might have disagreed with the Nazis, but from his later actions it seems that he was not necessarily the type to stand up and fight, but rather one to avoid conflicts that could not be won, and go his own way.

Epilogue 2015

This article was originally a project for a course titled “Northeast Asian Regional Relationships”, taught by my professor and friend Dr Helena Meyer-Knapp in 2010 during the time we shared at the Graduate Institute of Peace Studies in South Korea. When my father recently brought it up again, I revisited the article, made a few stylistic changes, updated all links, added some additional details and photographs, and formatted this blog entry. I started this on my 42nd birthday, which I spent in Busan, South Korea, far away from my family. Although retracing Bruno Bening’s steps and reading about Germany’s terrible history wasn’t a particularly uplifting experience, it still made me feel closer to my family and the country where I grew up.


Footnotes

[1] In March 1933, a regional SA regiment established a concentration camp in a disused factory building in the centre of Oranienburg. In the three months after the National Socialists seized power, the Oranienburg concentration camp took on a key role in the persecution of the opposition in Berlin – the capital city of the “Reich”. Around 3,000 people were held at the camp until its closure in 1934 and at least 16 prisoners were murdered by the guards. (Source: Brandenburg Memorials Foundation Memorial and Museum Sachsenhausen. 1933 –1934 Oranienburg concentration camp URL)

[2] United States Holocaust Memorial Museum “Oranienburg Camp” URL

[3] Orte der Erinnerung 1933-1945. Sachsenhausen Memorial Site and Museum: System of Terror. The Concentration Camp’s Inspectorate from 1938-1945. URL

[4] Brandenburg Memorials Foundation Memorial and Museum Sachsenhausen. 1933 – 1934 Oranienburg concentration camp. URL

[5] Brandenburg Memorials Foundation Memorial and Museum Sachsenhausen. Sachsenhausen concentration camp 1936 – 1945. Forced Labour. URL

[6] Photo: AP URL

[7] Eichler, Jürgen “Uranmaschinen und Atombombenpläne in Deutschland bis 1945 – Physikalische und technische Aspekte” PDF

[8] Bill Streifer, profile on Academia URL

[9] Bill Streifer in an email to Dr Anne Marie Helmenstine URL

[10] Uboat.net. U-234 URL; See also Wikipedia “German submarine U-234” URL

[11] Uboat.net. U-864. URL The sinking of U-864 is the only instance in the history of naval warfare where one submarine intentionally sank another while both were submerged. See Wikipedia “German submarine U-234” URL

[12] Det Norske Veritas Foundation “Kystverket Norwegian Coastal Administration: Salvage of U864 – Supplementary Studies – Study No. 7 Cargo Report No. 23916-7” PDF; See also BBC News “ Norway tackles toxic war grave” URL

[13] The Local (Sweden) “Bletchley Park Archives” URL Screenshot

[14] New Brunswick Laboratory, US Dept of Energy “Safety Data Sheet Uranium Oxide UO2” PDF

[15] International Bio-Analytical Industries, Inc. “Physical Constants of Uranium Tri Oxide” URL

[16] “Exposure to radon and its progeny was associated with an increased risk of developing leukemia … We found a significant relationship between cumulative radon exposure and incidence of leukemia.” (Source: Rericha V, Kulich M, Rericha R, Shore DL, Sandler DP “Incidence of leukemia, lymphoma, and multiple myeloma in Czech uranium miners: a case-cohort study” URL

[17] The Auergesellschaft‘s “Doramad Radioactive Toothpaste” (ca. 1940-1945) illustrates aptly, and scarily, how dangerous the materials used by the company were. It was promoted as a “biologically effective” toothpaste whose radiation particles would “massage your gums”. Photo: Oak Ridge Associated Universities “Doramad Radioactive Toothpaste” URL (See also Wikipedia)

[18] Davis, Richard G. “Bombing the European Axis Powers. A Historical Digest of the Combined Bomber Offensive 1939–1945” PDF

[19] Eichler, Jürgen; see [7]

[20] Benz, Wolfgang; Distel, Barbara; Königseder, Angelika “Der Ort des Terrors: Geschichte der nationalsozialistischen Konzentrationslager” (2006): 243-244

[21] Maerkische Allgemeine Zeitung “Bombenangriff vor 65 Jahren / Zahlreiche Oranienburger, KZ-Häftlinge und Zwangsarbeiter starben” URL (fee required)

[22] Film still from Billy Wilder’s “One, Two, Three” URL

[23] Photo: Wikipedia ”Berlin Wall” URL

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