Tourists comfortably settled in the Norderney campsite, on the northernmost tip of the tiny island of Alderney (five kilometers long and about two and a half kilometers wide), do not imagine that tents, cars caravan and barbecues with gas cylinders are in a place that eighty years ago was a Nazi labor camp in the only British territory occupied by the forces of the Third Reich. It is logical that they do not know, because it is one of the best-kept secrets in the history of the United Kingdom, a reason for national shame even today.
Alderney (in French, Aurigny), one of the Channel Islands or Anglo-Norman Islands, is popularly known as "Adolf's Island", a name that is rather whispered than said out loud. When Hitler decided to occupy it during the Second World War so that it was part of the "Atlantic wall" (a system of coastal fortifications that went from Norway to France), the London government did not oppose resistance or military nor politics despite the fact that it was a dependency of the crown – the same status it has now – and, consequently, almost all the inhabitants abandoned it.
The Nazis established three labor camps there (Borkum, Helgoland and Norderney, where the campsite facilities are now) and a concentration camp (Sylt) run by the SS. Most of the prisoners were Russians and German political dissidents, but very little is actually known about what happened due to a lack of witnesses and because successive British governments have preferred to turn a blind eye. Officially, the death toll did not reach four hundred, and only eight of these were Jewish, but it is almost taken for granted that this is only the tip of the iceberg, and it is feared that there may be as many as forty thousand corpses buried in mass graves scattered throughout the island.
After the victory in the war, and with the desire to throw dirt on the matter, London circulated the rumor that the commander of the Nazi occupation forces, Karl Hoffman, and the head of the Sylt concentration camp , Max List, were handed over to the Russians, because most of the victims had been of that nationality, and were hanged in Kyiv. But it was nothing more than a distraction, and both died long after, peacefully integrated into civilian life in West Germany, never having to face 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 came to their territory. For this reason, the little more than two thousand inhabitants of the island are divided between those who wish to find out the truth and that the miseries of the past come to light even if they are painful, and those who prefer to leave the ghosts alone. "Some things are better left as they are, there is nothing to be gained by taking out the dirty rags and, so long afterwards, giving the impression to the world that we Alderneys were cowards and turned a blind eye ”, says Paul F., who belongs to the last group.
Under pressure from the International Alliance for the Remembrance of the Holocaust and other organizations, the British Government has created a commission aimed at clarifying the victims that there were in Alderney and the responsibilities of the United Kingdom in its surrender, and in the fact of allowing those responsible for the killings to evade justice. The motto of the island's camps was the infamous Vernichtung durch Arbeit ("extermination through work"), and the few surviving accounts of the conspiracy of silence speak of mass executions, slavery, sixteen-day work hours and so much deprivation of food to the 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 take with them, nothing would suggest the dark history that hides behind the beaches and meadows, in the winter of a green intense, but now an ocher yellow after the summer heat. But if you poke around a bit, it's not hard to find entrances to the system of underground tunnels that the Nazis had prisoners dig to hide sarin rockets and other chemical weapons, and where many are believed to have lost their lives . The old bunkers are now the cottages in the gardens of the villas. A small plaque commemorates the victims – without specifying how many – and the Alderney museum offers information on the German occupation. George S., one of the few natives who did not accept the offer of evacuation 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 swept down ravines. The crucial testimony of Albert Snow, the liberator of the crown dependency, has mysteriously disappeared.
English, French and Dutch tourists pitch their tents, build fires, eat sausages and stargaze at night at the Norderney campsite, oblivious to one of the most humiliating episodes in British history, to the bones beneath the land where they sleep, and to the terrible secrets Alderney hides.