"Before dying the victim must be degraded, so that the murderer will be less burdened by guilt." Primo Levi 1919-1987.

Annals of History

Cap Arcona Survivor Celebrates His 100th Birthday

The Cap Arcona (May 14, 1927 - May 3, 1945)

bjectively, a ship is a very large floating machine. When staffed by persons with the appropriate skills and properly provisioned, it becomes self-propelling and capable of being directed along a selected path between two widely spaced points measured as a significant fraction of the earth's circumference.

Subjectively, and remarkably, she acquires human attributes and even a gender, especially to her crew.

Continuing in that vein, we can say the Cap Arcona was born by human intent and of human labor on May 14, 1927. For 12 years she faithfully performed what she was designed to do: moving, we might even say proudly moving, her departures marked by hope and her arrivals by triumph, along a line connecting Hamburg and Rio de Janeiro.

The Cap Arcona in state custody.
At age 12 she was arrested for reasons she could not comprehend and placed in the custody of agents of her own state's terror apparatus. She was dressed in prison clothing, abused, and forced to the minimum level of existence. At age 17 she was overloaded with thousands of other victims of the same coercive apparatus and set out on a pathetic voyage. Barely underway, she met a storm which she was not designed to survive: the manic fury of homicidally crazed men of another state's terror apparatus. The senseless attack occurred at 2:30 PM, May 3, 1945, eleven days before her 18th birthday. Burning and mortally wounded, she rolled on her side in water not deep enough even to provide a dignified grave in the element she was born to live in. And what must have truly shattered her soul in her final agony is that almost all of her thousands of passengers, which she was designed to carry in safety and dignity, died with her.

Her remains were an eyesore until 1950 when she was cut up for scrap.

Like humans without graves, the Cap Arcona now lives only in the memories of the people who knew her, and they, similarly mortal, are also passing. Of the very few left, one of them, a survivor of the Cap Arcona's last voyage, celebrated his 100th birthday yesterday.

OTTO December 28, 2006

[Translated from the Lausitzer Rundschau, a newspaper for the Lausitz region of Germany. Lausitz is a geographical designation and the name means "damp meadows." Since WW2 it straddles the southern half of the Polish-German border. Two of its important cities on the German side are Cottbus and Eisenhüttenstadt: transl.]

December 27, 2006

"Old as Methuselah"
Today, Actor Erwin Geschonneck Celebrates His 100th Birthday

Foto: ddp
Erwin Geschonneck in Carbide and Sorrel (1963).


Erwin Geschonneck's made it. His wish, "I want to live as long as Methuselah.", which was spoken in all seriousness, has come true. The actor, who appeared in plays directed by Brecht and earned fame in films such as Carbide and Sorrel, will celebrate his 100th birthday today in Berlin.

Erwin Geschonneck
Born December 27, 1906.
Children will arrive in the morning to offer their congratulations in his apartment on Alexanderplatz. In the evening, Geschonneck will be honored at the Academy of Art on Pariser Platz. Numerous friends and companions have announced their intention to attend the event, among them the director Thomas Langhoff, colleagues from the acting profession Inge Keller, Jutta Hoffmann, as well as the Left-Party leaders Lothar Bisky and Gregor Gysi. As a self-taught actor, Geschonneck achieved success in the 1950's playing the servant Matti in Bertolt Brecht's Mr. Puntila and His Servant Matti. He was as convincing in serious character roles as in roles with a humorous background. In the German Democratic Republic [East Germany] he was among the best paid actors and he acted in over 100 films. This despite the fact that he didn't begin his film career until he was almost 40 and after spending years in concentration camps during the Nazi era. In 1945, he was among the few survivors of the sinking of the Cap Arcona which had been crammed with 4,000 prisoners. [See appended note: transl.] Beginning in 1946 he worked with Ida Ehre in the Hamburg Studio Theater and in 1949 he joined the Berlin Ensemble. He began, in the 1920's, in Agit-Prop theater groups and in Erwin Piscatore's new People's Theater [Volksbühne: transl.]. [He joined the German Communist Party in 1929: transl.]

Among the films he acted in for DEFA [German Film Corporation] was the Frank Beyer film Jacob the Liar, the only East German film to be nominated for an Oscar (1974). He initially declined the engagement because he couldn't get the role of Jacob. His wife, Heike, who is 39 years younger than Geschonneck, said smilingly, "He was always stubborn." Once, during a rehearsal, Bertolt Brecht yelled at him and Geschonneck shouted back that he could yell louder and walked off. Geschonneck now depends on a wheelchair and his hearing isn't good enough to watch TV. Instead, armed with reading glasses and a magnifier, he reads newspapers and books all day long. He's currently reading Sigrid Damm's biography of Schiller and the correspondence between Goethe and Madame von Stein. His son Alexander is going to give him the autobiography of the film director Michael Verhoeven for his birthday. In 1950, Michael's father, Paul Verhoeven, picked Geschonneck for the role of the Dutchman, Michel, in the film The Cold Heart. This passionate singer, who can be seen in many such film roles, still sings songs from the Three Penny Opera in bed. And, as always, he is interested in what's happening in the world. One of the mottos of this committed Communist, who grew up in very poor circumstances in Berlin's Acker Street, is, "One must never tolerate injustice."

After the fall of East Germany, Geschonneck acknowledges that he had believed in the German Democratic Republic. He still believes that Socialism is a more just society, in any case, without the errors that were made in practice. The crimes of Stalin moved him deeply and he recognized and spoke about the mismanagement in East Germany, to the displeasure of the Party leadership. Film roles which pictured Communist leaders such as Ernst Thälmann as faultless icons did not interest him. Instead, in Konrad Wolf's banned film, Sunseeker, a film about the conditions in a uranium mine in East Germany, he played the role of a rebellious miner. He ranks Banquet for Achilles among his favorite films. In that film he played the role of a worker in the state chemical enterprise Bitterfeld who uses the occasion of his retirement to get even with his former colleagues. He was frequently awarded the East German National Film Prize and in 1993 he was honored with the Federal [West] German Film Prize.

In 1995, for the first time, Geschonneck played in a film directed by his son Matti. It was the film Matulla and Busch and, as he announced at the time, it was to be his last. "One must retire in dignity," was the brief comment of the wizened star.


The story of the Cap Arcona

The Cap Arcona before she was overtaken by barbarism.
The Cap Arcona afterward.

The Cap Arcona [Cape Arcona] was a German, steam turbine-driven, twin-screw steamship and the flagship of the Hamburg-South America Line. It was 644.3 feet long, 84.7 feet wide, carried 1,315 passengers, and was manned by a crew of 475. The Cap Arcona began its maiden voyage from Hamburg to Argentina on November 19, 1927. It made 91 such trips, whose normal duration was 15 days. Its last peacetime voyage ended in Hamburg on August 25, 1939. Thereafter it was requisitioned by the German navy and used exclusively in the North Sea. Beginning in late 1944, it was used to transport refugees from East Prussia to western Germany as this part of the country was threatened by the advance of the Soviet Red Army.

After the completion of this task, the Cap Arcona was abandoned by the navy. On April 28, 1945, 12 days before Germany capitulated, the Cap Arcona was loaded with 4600 inmates from two concentration camps, Neuengamme (in Hamburg) and Fuerstengrube (a satellite camp of Auschwitz in southwestern Poland). Additional prisoners were placed aboard two smaller ships, the Athen and the Thielbek.

By May 3rd, the Cap Arcona, partially disabled due to mechanical problems, and the accompanying ships were in Luebeck bay, just off Neustadt, when she was attacked by British aircraft. Due to the shallow water, the Cap Arcona came to rest on her side. Approximately 7,000 to 8,000 prisoners aboard the Cap Arcona and the Thielbek were killed. There were only a few hundred survivors. The exact number is not known.

One version of the story is that the boarding of the prisoners with the knowledge that the ships would be attacked by Allied aircraft was a cynical trick by the German police authorities to have the prisoners killed.

Another version is that Count Folke Bernadotte, the Vice President of the International Red Cross had arranged for the transfer of prisoners to Swedish hospitals and that this was the purpose of the Cap Arcona's last tragic voyage. Such transfers had previously taken place.

German Wikipedia concludes their entry on the subject as follows:

To this day, the responsibility of the German and British participants in the tragedy near Neustadt have not been judicially examined since the circumstances are not entirely clear. It is said that Red Cross radio operators attempted to warn the English against attacking the ships and to have notified them of the true situation on board.

The last word is that the RAF has sealed all records connected with the attack on the Cap Arcona until 2045.