A Harrowing Visit to a Nazi Interrogation Prison in Cologne, Germany

I am no stranger to museums commemorating World War II history, and particularly the Holocaust; I’ve visited everywhere from the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington D.C. to the Anne Frank House in Amsterdam. And while Cologne’s NS-Dokumentationszentrum, a former Nazi interrogation prison, is not a Jewish memorial, it possesses a similar spirit and was an even more powerful experience.

Taking my first steps down into the basement of the interrogation center, I could almost felt the claustrophobia and terror the prisoners must have felt while living here.

Nazi Prison

The prisoners hailed from all corners of Europe and most stayed for a number of weeks. Some prisoners spent months living in these cells, and were periodically interrogated and tortured. Can you imagine awaiting certain pain and possible death at all hours for months on end?

Nazi Prison

The most moving part of the experience was reading the prisoners’ inscriptions on the walls, who inscribed their messages with anything from iron nails to lipstick. Interestingly, the guards did not try to stop them from writing on the walls.

Nazi Prison

We read love letters, cuss words, poetry, hate messages to the guards and philosophical meditations.

My favorite quote that we saw was very philosophical and all too relevant to the interrogation center, “Everything is transient, even a life sentence.” (German)

Nazi Prison

The cells were meant to hold one or two prisoners at a time, but became so over-crowded by the end of the war that at one point the cell below held 33 people. It measures 9×9.3 meters, about the size of a mid-sized bedroom.

Nazi Prison

The Nazis eventually built large gallows in order to hang up to seven people at the same time. More than 400 prisoners were executed in this courtyard.

Nazi Prison

Nazi Prison

Nazi Prison

When we emerged from the basement I had thought that we had seen the entire museum; one floor alone had provided so much information and given me so much to think about that I thought the visit was over. But we headed upstairs to explore the upper three stories of the building, which were once the headquarters of Cologne’s Gestapo officers.

Nazi Prison

The upper floors focused on the Nazi propaganda against the Jews. The newspaper clipping below depicts the caricature is of a Jewish man, over which, “The Jews are our bad luck,” is written.

Nazi Prison

Nazi Prison

As we walked around, Christian, my German Couchsurfing host, commented, “I’m glad I was born in 1989 and not 1929.” Strangely, I had been in the midst of a similar thought; that the happiness of our lives is so greatly determined by when and where we were born. It is almost hubris to think we are the captains of our own destinies when so much depends solely on our origins, a factor we cannot control.

Nazi Prison

My favorite part of the upper stories was seeing wartime artifacts.Nazi Prison

On the left is a medal awarded to all German women who gave birth to seven or more children. On the right is the gold star that all Jews were forced to wear after 1941.

Nazi Prison

By the time we left the museum (two or three hours after arriving) I felt extremely physically and emotionally exhausted. I ended up trying to explain to Christian and Marina the meaning of “emotionally draining.”

After we left the museum Christian and his friend who is also German thanked me for taking them to see something they had never seen before; I was very relieved that the visit hadn’t been uncomfortable for them.

Nazi Prison

The NS-Dokumentationszentrum in Cologne is absolutely worth a visit; it is well-curated, extraordinarily moving and an important piece of WWII history. The only critique I have of the museum is that the information from the upper three floors was written only in German; it would have been nice for non-German visitors to be able to understand. Luckily the basement provided information in both English and German.

Are you interested in World War II history? Would you visit a Nazi prison?

Many thanks to NS-Dokumentationszentrum for extending complimentary admission to us. As always, all thoughts and opinions are my own.

18 Comments

  1. We touched on World War II history on our recent walking tour in Munich and I can only imagine how moving this particular museum visit must have been for you. Such a worthwhile thing to do, though. You say so much depends solely on our origins and you are so completely right. It can be easy to forget how lucky we are.
    Clare recently posted..Our Greek Poseidon AdventureMy Profile

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    • I totally agree- we are so lucky and seeing things like the interrogation center remind me of that. All I remember of WWII history in Munich is seeing the steps where Hitler was arrested… I went when I was 17 so I probably missed a lot!

  2. This is about 30 minutes from my home and I have taken many visitors. I am still moved evertime that I go. The basement is haunting and to think that people could hear the screams from the street. So worth the visit to see!
    Dena Barrie recently posted..I need your help…My Profile

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    • I didn’t know that people could hear the screams from the street… that’s truly a haunting image, wow.

  3. I’ve visited Anne Frank’s house in Amsterdam. Not an easy experience.
    Yes I’m interested in WWII history. I used to have a rather direct source of information about it: my grandpa was prisoner of the Germans for almost three years. Some of his fellow soldiers were executed, some others died of starvation.
    TheTuscan recently posted..Charlie Chaplin grave. Where is Charlie Chaplin buried?My Profile

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    • Wow, that’s quite a connection, how awful! My grandfather also fought in WWII but was over in the Pacific. I think it’s important to remember the courage and sacrifices of our elders which is why it’s important to visit places like the interrogation center. Thank you for sharing your story!

  4. A great description of an incredibly moving experience, Ashley! Though I’m not too big a fan of 20th century history, I think it is so important that memory places like this museum exist. Keeping in mind all these indescribable cruelties is even more crucial for our generation as we are no longer confronted by such terror.
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    • This was honestly the hardest post I’ve ever written… it took me such a long time to find all of the right words and really get across what it felt like to be there… and I’m not even sure I succeeded! I agree though that it is important for our generation to remember what happened in the past; our generation has had it so good but we need to be mindful of what could happen as well as be grateful for the lives we’re lucky enough to live.

  5. I salute you for making that visit. I’m not sure that I could. Lou and your dad both are very interested in world War II. I am too, but a lot of things are hard for me to hear about.
    Love,
    Gamma

    Reply
    • Dear Gamma,
      It was definitely difficult for me to see so I understand how it would be hard for you to hear about as well. I’m very glad I went though as it was a very enlightening experience… it made me feel incredibly grateful!
      Love Ashley

  6. “the happiness of our lives is so greatly determined by when and where we were born. It is almost hubris to think we are the captains of our own destinies when so much depends solely on our origins” PREACH, sister. I often think the same things and am so grateful to have been born and raised where and when I was — as a female and an Asian I know life would have been a lot harder for me even just twenty or thirty years ago, and flat out unbearable in the last century.
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    • I totally know what you mean as a woman- I even think about the stories my grandmother has told me about her mother, who lived in lower Alabama at the turn of the century, working her fingers to the bone as a farmers wife. My life is so different from that and I’m really grateful for all of the opportunities that being born in the 1990s and being born in the U.S. has afforded me.

  7. I know how hard these are first hand. I have been to the Anne Frank Haus, sachsenhausen work camp and on a Berlin Nazi-era walking tour. WWII holds a lot of interest for me so I like hearing about how others emotions come out as a result. Gives you confidence in humanity ya know?

    The reason behind the birth medals is so that childern could be fully indoctrinated from birth in to the nazi model. Since women also had to work, the childern would be put in nazi run daycare ran by child psychologists.

    Anyway, it’s not easy so thanks for posting this! And I like your statement about origans.

    Reply
    • Wow, that’s impressive that you’ve been to so many. I had no idea that’s what the birth medals were for but that honestly kind of creeps me out!

  8. That place has to be crawling with ghosts

    Reply
    • That’s true! Thankfully I didn’t notice any…

  9. Thank you for writing this post, Ashley. I can only imagine that can’t have been easy. 20th century German history is something that I always have had a strange obsession with – maybe out of the need to overcome it. But I haven’t been able to write about the emotional moments of visiting concentration camp sites or war museums yet. Words don’t seem to suffice. But you proved that they can, and I’m grateful you did.
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    • I’m glad that you enjoyed the post, Mariella- it truly was the hardest post I’ve ever written. It’s a very, very complicated subject but one that is worth addressing.

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