Living in a Nazi Hospital

Various views of the hospital grounds. All old photographs from gaponline.

An immense stone building stands tucked away at the edge of the valley against the Kramer. Next to it sits a graveyard where the bones of many of Garmisch-Partenkirchen’s old residents remain. The insides are still adorned with frescoes supposedly commissioned by Hitler himself. And all around tower ancient Alps that silently witness the quiet Bavarian village.

The building sits on the Lazarettstraße, a little road on a small prominence looking out onto a mountain ridge. The entry to the campus is controlled by a guard station. The building sprawls out with its long and winding corridors. The building seeps with a forgotten but lingering history. All the residents from the war are long gone. The dimly-lit halls just wander longingly in the cold of mid December. The stone walls frigid from their lack of insulation.

My room sits at the far end of the southwest wing. It lies in the shadow of the Kramer, and every morning when I'm fortunate to wake after the dawn I see it gleaming through the window. The trailhead is just below my second story room. Seemingly not much has changed since the end of the war. Some different furniture. An old refrigerator by the door. An 80 meter walk to the bathroom and showers.

But there was a time when these walls weren't called the Abrams, the US military-designated name for the facility. This place was originally the Wehrmachtsstandort Lazarett, or the Wehrmacht Garrison Hospital. 200 beds for seriously injured soldiers filled these rooms.

And yet, here I am, an American, 67 years after the war, sleeping, waking, eating, shitting, showering, existing in this once-home to invalid soldiers. The long corridors with their rooms of varying sizes spider outward. It’s easy to get lost in these labyrinthine halls. All of the decades of people who have passed through thought nothing of me. And all I can do is wonder who all those people were.

| History of the Hospital

1937. The Gebirgsjäger and Gebirgsartillerie (mountain soldiers and mountain artillery) entered the Garmisch valley. Large barracks sprung up to house all of the soldiers. And with this influx, the Wehrkreis-Verwaltung VII München (Military District Administration VII Munich) decided to build a hospital.

Some of the land, however, was owned by the Parish Benefice Foundation St. Martin in Garmisch. A land dispute ensued where the priest, Hermann Mencke, was at odds with the military. They offered him far less than his required price. The unsuccessful negotiations lasted months, and it’s unclear what the outcome and terms were. Regardless, construction of the hospital began in 1938.

The building served as a showcase of architecture. No detail spared. It perfectly fit into the Bavarian surroundings. White plastered walls, local limestone, larch and spruce wood. The Alpine folkart paintings focus on the rustic, the idyllic, and the duality between sickly compassion and youthful vigor. In a garden on the grounds grew all sorts of medicinal plants. The hospital became a crown jewel of architecture and military prowess, and it emerged a centerpiece of German pride and propaganda.

I can’t say with any great authority what happened between the end of the war and shortly before the present day. The story I heard went that the building flitted from military hospital to hotel to civilian hospital to hotel again until the US eventually acquired it. How that acquisition came about, I don’t know.

| Modern Day

Enter an unassuming entrance to the building and quickly take an immediate left. You’ll find a small doorway with stairs leading down into a basement. You wouldn’t find it or see it if you weren’t looking for it. Down there is a makeshift library, a couple of computers with abysmally slow Internet, and an out-of-tune piano on which I play horrid melodies out-of-time.

How the hell did they get a piano through the door and down those stairs? There’s no other entryway, and the only windows are tiny rectangles at the ceiling. But, like most of this old building, it’s a mystery.

I’m living here because I’m working at a US military resort. The Lazarett-turned-Abrams is the housing facility for the administrators and American workers. The rest of the employees are mostly from former-Eastern Bloc countries and the remnants of Yugoslavia who are living with families out on the economy.

Of the Abrams itself, there’s so much more and yet not much else to say. Secrets and serendipity overflow. One of the administrative employees, an Irishman who has been working with the US government since at least the 80s, is a trained pianist. And all through his childhood and studies he looked up most to the famed composer Richard Strauss. Long before he ever thought of coming to Germany. Long before he knew he’d be living in Garmisch. As fate would have it, Strauss was buried in the cemetery in 1949 beside what would become the Abrams. Today, the Irishman’s piano sits exactly 100 meters from the grave of his inspiration. A divine twist, but just everyday magic for this old building.

New workers come in quarterly. Hardly any of them are older than 25, an inconsequential fact until you consider the soldiers who filled these walls were probably just the same. And of all of us here, I don’t think any of us could have had the fortitude for a military life so young or ever at all. Though the odd thought occasionally scrapes at my brain that a once magnificent testament to German architecture and a Nazi outpost is now little more than an extension of a college dorm. And who knows further still what it will one day become.

| Garmisch-Partenkirchen

Up until 1935, the towns of Garmisch and Partenkirchen were separate entities. The small, disparate towns each had their own swirling histories. Partenkirchen emerged from the Roman town Partanum, a town on a trade route between Venice and Augsburg. To this day, the main road follows the same path laid down by the Romans millennia ago. Garmisch came to exist around 800 AD, likely the product of a Teutonic tribe settling in the valley. The distinct dualistic identities of these towns remain. Garmisch holds the modern world with the train station, some high-end shops, and traffic lights. Partenkirchen’s carless main street, fresco-adorned walls, and shrines to St. Anthony provide a rustic air and give a glimpse into the valley’s past.

They were merged in Hitler’s vie for the 1936 Winter Olympics. The two towns alone were too small to realistically compete. But by combining them into the joint village of Garmisch-Partenkirchen, he produced a town large enough to play host to the games. It was a move that worked in his favor.

The Wehrmachtsstandort Lazarett sits as an unassuming prominence at the edge of this small village group. Like the rest of its surroundings, it blends in a nearly forgotten mix of past and present. The typical American has likely never heard of Garmisch-Partenkirchen, and really has no reason to have. For Germans outside of Bavaria, the village is a place they know exists. They’ve heard about it and read about it. Some might have even vacationed there once.

For me, it is a town of magic. The way the moonlight falls on the snowy peaks and dramatic cliffs of the mountains is something that no camera could capture. And on Christmas Eve the citizens of the town flock to the cemetery beside the Abrams with candles in a long procession of remembrance for their dead. This is a close-knit world with a deeply spiritual undertone, unlike much of the modern West. Tradition holds strong, and the spirits of those who lived across the twenty or more centuries linger in the valley, if but only in the candlelight of their descendants and the breeze through the air. It is a world that few ever see.

Everywhere you turn in the towns, like the hospital, is filled with some glimpse of history, art, and humanity. And most of it you will never know further than what you see before your eyes. But now that hospital and these towns have become a part of my history. They have interwoven themselves with a piece of my identity. And though my circumstances in coming to live at this once-Nazi hospital are strange enough, that’s part of the magic this place holds.

Growing up learning of Nazism, one hears largely of the Holocaust and other atrocities committed by the regime. And though gravest atrocities they most unmistakably were, textbooks and courses glide over the construction, the mindset, and the existence of the common solider, the citizen, and the town of German society. It’s akin to having to read Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front to get an understanding of the life of a German infantryman in the First World War. And yet it does this for every bit of history it teaches. We aren’t taught to think about what happened to all of the buildings, all of the art, all of the culture, and all of the individual people that arose during the time. All of that changes when you find yourself living in a Nazi hospital filled with frescoes once home to critically-injured soldiers younger than you. And never in my youth did I dream something like that would become a part of my life.

My purpose for this essay extends well beyond the walls of the Abrams. It extends beyond the magic of Garmisch-Partenkirchen. And it extends beyond the borders of Germany and every country on Earth. In my experience, history classes show unmistakably an us-and-them mentality, with the us being the native land or the closest allied nation in a case where the native land isn’t involved. This is an inherently flawed structure. History is a thousand intertwining rivers all twisting to the present and flowing to the future. It’s the people living daily life who ultimately see history through day-to-day. Big events are great for textbooks and documentaries, but they don’t capture the soul of visiting your father’s grave habitually every Christmas Eve, a tradition that has been passed down through uncountable centuries. They don’t capture the artist who painted a nameless fresco. And many times they don’t even capture his work.

Without this article, there’s a good chance Garmisch-Partenkirchen would never appear on your radar. There’s an even better chance you’d never know it contained a Nazi hospital, let alone one of the most prominent ones in all of Germany. But they are as much a part of history as the Beer Hall Putsch, Basho’s travels through Japan, and the Norman conquest of England. And reading this is now a part of your history, the history of your life, and ultimately the history of all of your descendants.

My purpose for this is twofold:

  1. Discover the history around you, wherever you are. Live it, breathe it, and unfold it.
  2. Be aware of your own developing history and the world that surrounds you.

Think beyond textbooks. Think beyond everything that’s instilled in you. Weed out the stuff you’ve been taught that turns out to be wrong or biased. Explore life for what it is. Immerse yourself in history, culture, life, art, language, and people. Constantly question your viewpoint. Learn of a different time. Find your Nazi hospital.

Addendum

This piece is written about my experience living in the Abrams building in 2012. Often to my dismay I no longer live within those walls or among those Alps, although I am hopeful I’ll return soon. They are an unbelievably gorgeous and otherworldly experience.

For now, last I’ve heard, the American employees were moved out of the Abrams facility. The building was then used to house refugees from the Middle East following the rise of the Islamic State. But even that is of a few years ago. Its current status is unknown to me.