The tourists settled comfortably in the Norderney campsite, on the northernmost tip of the tiny island of Alderney (five kilometers long and about two and a half wide), little do they imagine that their tents, their caravans and their barbecues with gas cylinders are found in what eighty years ago was a Nazi work camp in the only British territory occupied by the forces of the Third Reich. It is logical that they do not know it, because it is one of the best kept secrets in the history of the United Kingdom, a source of national shame still today.
Alderney (in French Aurigny), one of the Channel Islands or Channel Islands, is popularly known as “Adolf Island”, a name that is more whispered than said out loud. When Hitler decided to occupy it during the Second World War to form part of his “Atlantic wall” (a system of coastal fortifications that ran from Norway to France), the government in London did not offer any military or political resistance despite it being a dependence on the Crown – the same status it has now – and consequently almost all of its inhabitants abandoned it.
The Nazis established three labor camps (Borkum, Helgoland and Norderney, where the camping facilities are now), and a concentration camp (Sylt) run by the SS. The majority of prisoners were Russians and German political dissidents, but in reality very little is known about what happened due to lack of witnesses and because successive British governments have preferred to turn a blind eye. Officially, the number of fatalities did not reach 400, and of them only 8 were Jews, but it is almost certain that this is only the tip of the iceberg, and it is feared that there could be up to 40,000 bodies buried in mass graves spread throughout the country. the island.
After the victory in the war, and in its desire to put the matter to rest, London circulated a rumor that the commander of the Nazi occupation forces, Carl Hoffman, and the person in charge of the Sylt concentration camp, Max List, They were handed over to the Russians because the majority of victims had been of that nationality, and they died by hanging in Kiev. But it was nothing more than a hoax to distract attention, and both ended their days much later, peacefully integrated into civilian life in West Germany, never having to account for their responsibilities in Alderney.
For the British, proud of how they stood up to Hitler and contributed to his defeat, it is difficult to admit that the Holocaust reached their territory. For this reason, the little more than two thousand inhabitants of the island are divided between those who want to find out the truth and for the miseries of the past to come to light, no matter how painful they may be, and those who prefer to leave the ghosts alone. “There are things that are better to remain as they are, there is nothing to be gained by airing the rubbish and, so long later, giving the world the impression that we Alderney residents were cowards and covered our eyes,” says Paul F. , which belongs to this last group.
Under pressure from the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance and other organizations, the British government has created a commission to clarify how many victims there were in Alderney and the responsibilities of the United Kingdom in its surrender and in allowing those responsible for the massacres evaded justice. The motto of the island's camps was the infamous Vernichtung durch Arbeit (“extermination through work”), and the few accounts that have survived the conspiracy of silence speak of mass executions, slavery, sixteen-hour work days. and such deprivation of food to prisoners that many were forced to eat even garbage.
In a first impression of the quiet and bucolic island, the same one that the residents of the campsite get, nothing would suggest the dark history that is hidden behind its beaches and meadows, in the winter an intense green but now an ocher yellow. after the summer heat. But if you poke around a little, it's not difficult to find entrances to the system of underground tunnels that the Nazis had prisoners dig to hide rockets containing sarin gas and other chemical weapons, and where it is believed that many lost their lives. The old bunkers are now the garden sheds of the chalets. A small plaque commemorates the victims – without specifying how many – and the Alderney museum offers information about the German occupation. George S., one of the few natives who did not accept the evacuation offer and preferred to stay in Alderney, points to the places where he believes there are mass graves with the skeletons of hundreds of people. Others would have been thrown into the sea or plunged off cliffs. The crucial testimony of Albert Snow, the liberator from Crown dependency, has mysteriously disappeared.
English, French and Dutch tourists pitch their tents, make their fires, eat sausages and look at the stars at night at the Norderney campsite, oblivious to one of the most humiliating episodes in the history of Great Britain, to the bones that there is under the ground where they sleep, and to the terrible secrets that Alderney hides.