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EL-DE Haus

NS-Dokumentationszentrum

  
   - darkometer rating:  7 -
  
A former Gestapo HQ and prison in Cologne, west Germany, and now also home to the city's documentation centre about the Nazi era.  

>More background info

>What there is to see

>Location

>Access and costs

>Time required

>Combinations with other dark destinations

>Combinations with non-dark destinations

>Photos

    
More background info: The building gets its odd name from the initials (pronounced the German way) of the businessman Leopold Dahmen who planned the building. Initially it was meant to be a mixed-use business and residential building, but from 1935, before construction was even completed, Dahmen rented it out to the Gestapo, who occupied the house until March 1945. 
  
Instead of the originally planned underground garages, the Gestapo had ten prison cells set up in the basement, together with guardrooms, basic bathroom facilities and a gallows. The upper floors were used as the Gestapo's Cologne HQ. 
  
The basement was also routinely used to extract confessions through torture from those arrested. In the beginning, it was mostly political prisoners who were taken here – later, during WWII, also POWs from various countries, in particular the Soviet Union, Poland, France and the Netherlands. Cologne's former mayor, who was deposed by the Nazis in 1933, also briefly passed through the EL-DE Haus prison. 
  
The cells, originally designed to hold no more than 4 to 6 inmates each, were later totally crammed with up to three dozen prisoners. Also, the cells were initially only intended to be used in between interrogations, but later some prisoners had to spend weeks on end locked up down here. Needless to say the conditions were more than inhumane. The Gestapo also increasingly performed executions on site. 
  
It is not without irony, then, that this house, right in the heart of Cologne, survived WWII practically unscathed – even though all around about 95% of the inner city was reduced to rubble in the Allied bombing raids (see under Cologne). 
  
After the war, the EL-DE Haus was occupied by various offices of the city administration. It wasn't until the early 1980s that a first memorial was set up here. 
  
This was partly due to the “guerilla” action of a committed teacher – who one night had himself secretly locked in the cellar together with a photographer, who documented the inscriptions on the cell walls that night. The publication of these photos and the subsequent debate paved the way for the basement being turned into a memorial in 1981. 
  
The “NS-Dokumentationszentrum der Stadt Köln” ('National Socialism Documentation Centre of the City of Cologne') followed in 1988. In later years it was further expanded and now occupies several rooms spread over two floors. 
  
Over the past 15 years or so the centre has raked in an impressive number of awards as well.    
  
  
What there is to see: The building looks inconspicuous enough from the outside. You probably wouldn't think it could hold such a dark secret inside. Before you go in take a quick look at the coat of arms and logo on the corner of Appellhofplatz and Elisenstraße, where you can see the name “EL-DE” in stonemasonry at the first-floor level. You also see these letters in gold above the main entrance door.
  
Inside on the ground level you'll find the reception desk, where you have to pay your admission fee, as well as a small bookshop and a resources room with two computer workstations. But there's also an original element of the building from the 1930s, namely the porter's lodge, which has been preserved as it was – except that these days it is no longer staffed and you can step behind the window yourself. 
  
You can then take the steps down into the cellar – the very same steps the prisoners would have been forced to take. The bars, locks and cell doors down at the bottom are also still original.
  
The cells are aligned along two corridors that are at a right angle to each other. In the centre, where both wings meet, you first enter a special memorial room with a visitors' book. In the room next to this, panels provide explanations about the inscriptions by prisoners found in the various cells. A tiny and narrow door leads to a minuscule dark solitary confinement cell.  
  
Various info panels provide all manner of yet more background information, about the prison itself, the Gestapo methods as well as about a number of individual victims. Down here everything is bilingual, in German and English (unlike in the exhibition upstairs), so it should all be sufficiently self-explanatory. Some of the texts are quite long, so be prepared for a lot of standing-up reading. 
  
In addition to the texts, photos and wall inscriptions, a few artefacts are also on display in glass cabinets, including old keys or a cloth patch saying “Ost”, for “Ostarbeiter”, i.e. what POW forced labourer from the Soviet Union or Poland had to wear on their clothes. 
  
The cells in the other wing are particularly rich in wall inscriptions left behind by the prisoners. Many are in Cyrillic (Russian or Ukrainian), but info panels help explaining some of them. In addition to texts, prisoners also left wall drawings e.g. of women. 
  
At the end of the corridor, past a barred gate to another set of stairs and a utility room with yet more artefacts, a gate leads to the inner courtyard. This is where executions took place during the Gestapo's use of the building – today it is all modern and residential-building-like. A small side room by the gate, formerly the guardroom, now serves as a room of remembrance, where names of victims are projected onto the bare walls. 
  
The whole basement prison tract oozes a palpably grim atmosphere – and the stories relayed by the information panels match this visual grimness. 
  
But then you can head upstairs to the actual main exhibition of the NS documentation centre, which starts on the first floor and continues on the second. 
  
NOTE that up here the regular commodification is no longer bilingual but in German only. So if you don't understand German it may be advisable to hire an audio-guide from reception, or else you won't get all that much out of this exhibition. 
  
The exhibition is spread out over various rooms that have all been painted in a blotchy, mock-dirty yellow fashion that makes them reminiscent of the prison cells in the cellar. 
  
Along the walls are various photos, texts, documents, posters, as well as several video screens and audio-stations playing additional material. The content is organized partly chronologically (from the rise of Nazism to the end of WWII) and partly topically. 
  
This mix of media and topicality is commendable, but somehow I still found it hard to keep my concentration going and the style of presentation seemed ever so slightly too “dull”. It's all very didactic, of course, and maybe much more directed at a younger (school-age) clientele, but to me it was occasionally verging on the “patronizing” the way historical developments are narrated here. That's just a personal impression, not really a serious criticism. 
  
There is also an awful lot to take in by sheer volume, so I ended up following a somewhat selective approach. For example, at a wall with a set of audio-stations where you could listen to interviews with survivors ordered by victim group (homosexuals, Sinti & Roma, 'asocials', etc.) I opted for just one exemplary one. This one alone had a running time of over half an hour and there was nowhere to sit, soon my feet began to hurt from all the standing so I gave the other audio tracks a miss. Providing more seats is definitely something I'd recommend to the museum for improvement of the exhibition.
  
HOWEVER: the good news is that you can also access all these audio tracks and videos in full length on the museum's website's online 360-degree virtual tour (see below). The bad news, for some at least, is that all this material is available in German only, both online as well as at the exhibition.
  
One exhibit I found quite illuminating was a wall with lists of organizations in society with those outlawed by the Nazis crossed out – which included things like free thinkers (no surprise here) and unions, while sports and dog-breeding clubs and such like were left in peace. That's telling of the Nazi ideology, of course. 
  
There are also a few original artefacts on display, including some Nazi symbolism in the form of swastika flags and the like – but one item especially caught my eye: a “Mutterkreuz”, or 'mother's cross'. These pretty little medals, with a small swastika in the centre, were handed out to women who gave birth to four or more children (the Führer thought ahead – namely of the cannon fodder he'd need in years to come). 
  
This object touched me in particular because of a personal connection: my first wife's grandmother, who lived in Berlin at the time and had a total of six children, actually refused to accept the 'mother's cross' when she was offered it. It may have been only a small act of resistance, but still. (She also refused to ever do the Nazi salute when Hitler's motorcade passed through the streets, and during the final weeks of the war and the Battle of Berlin provided shelter for a Jewish man ... so it was several such elements of civil resistance). 
  
Topics also covered in the exhibition include organized resistance (e.g. Weiße Rose), racial politics and the “euthanasia programme” and, of course, the Holocaust. But here is not the space to go into the details about all that. 
  
The exhibition proper ends with sections about the bombings of Cologne and the suffering of the civilian population in the last phases of the war and immediately after.
  
Adjacent to the exhibition is also a “pedagogical centre”, oddly “furnished” with all manner of household objects hanging from the ceiling and furniture stacked high against a wall. I guess this is where school group sessions would be accommodated. There were also yet more computer workstations for more in-depth study. 
  
Back on the ground floor, the bookshop may also be worth a look, but otherwise this is it.  
  
All in all, I ended up with a somewhat mixed impression of the EL-DE house. The prison memorial in the basement is certainly impressive, both for what it is and what there is to see, especially the preserved, often touching wall inscriptions by inmates and other original elements, but also for just the right amount of (bilingual) info and interpretation panels. The upstairs exhibition, however, which is only monolingual, in my view suffered a little from information overload and at times a bit too “dull” a style of presentation. Given the many awards the place has won I was expecting a bit too much perhaps – or maybe I am quite simply not part of the key clientele. It is indeed the policy of the house to focus on younger visitors and school groups. I wonder, though, how attention-span-challenged teenagers fare in this exhibition, when even I, as a seasoned and mature memorial-goer, found a bit taxing. But I guess that's why they take school groups round on pedagogical guided tours ...
  
  
Location: on the corner of Appellhofplatz and Elisenstraße in the western part of the inner city centre area of Cologne, Germany.  The address is Appellhofplatz 23-25.
  
Google maps locator: [50.9407, 6.9502]
  
  
Access and costs: fairly easy to get to, a modest admission fee is charged. 
  
Details: From within the inner city centre core of Cologne, the EL-DE Haus should easily be walkable for most. The walk from the cathedral, for instance, takes only about ten minutes. But if you do want to come by public transport, the Stadtbahn metro stop “Appellhofplatz” is just outside (line 5 – connections to lines 3,4 16, and 18 nearby).    
  
Opening times: Tuesdays to Fridays 10 a.m. to 6 p.m., Saturday and Sunday from 11 a.m., closed Mondays. 
  
Admission: 4.50 EUR (some concessions apply, holders of the KölnPass get in for free)
  
You can rent audio-guides (2 EUR) which are available in six languages (German, English, French, Spanish, Polish and Russian).
  
Tracks from the audio-guide available at the museum can also be accessed on the Internet from the centre's website (museenkoeln.de/ns-dokumentationszentrum) during the online 360-degree virtual tour. The videos and interview audio tracks that can be activated along this tour, however, are all in German only. 
  
  
Time required: very much depends on whether or not you can understand German. If not (and if you don't want to use an audio-guide), then a good half an hour or so may suffice, but if you have a decent command of German and really want to read everything and listen to all the audio(-visual) material available, then you can easily spend several hours here, probably more than half a day. The audio-guide's total running time of about 200 minutes should be an indication.
  
  
Combinations with other dark destinations: see under Cologne.
  
  
Combinations with non-dark destinations: see under Cologne
  
  
  
   
  • EL-DE 01 - corner houseEL-DE 01 - corner house
  • EL-DE 02 - corner markerEL-DE 02 - corner marker
  • EL-DE 03 - entrance to the documentation centreEL-DE 03 - entrance to the documentation centre
  • EL-DE 04 - former receptionist boothEL-DE 04 - former receptionist booth
  • EL-DE 05 - insideEL-DE 05 - inside
  • EL-DE 06 - down in the prison tract in the basementEL-DE 06 - down in the prison tract in the basement
  • EL-DE 07 - cell doorsEL-DE 07 - cell doors
  • EL-DE 08 - cellEL-DE 08 - cell
  • EL-DE 09 - dark isolation cellEL-DE 09 - dark isolation cell
  • EL-DE 10 - memorial room and bookEL-DE 10 - memorial room and book
  • EL-DE 11 - exhibitsEL-DE 11 - exhibits
  • EL-DE 12 - no exitEL-DE 12 - no exit
  • EL-DE 13 - barred stairwayEL-DE 13 - barred stairway
  • EL-DE 14 - courtyardEL-DE 14 - courtyard
  • EL-DE 15 - remembrance roomEL-DE 15 - remembrance room
  • EL-DE 16 - cell with writings left on the walls by prisonersEL-DE 16 - cell with writings left on the walls by prisoners
  • EL-DE 17 - drawings tooEL-DE 17 - drawings too
  • EL-DE 18 - wall messages in CyrillicEL-DE 18 - wall messages in Cyrillic
  • EL-DE 19 - exhibition upstairsEL-DE 19 - exhibition upstairs
  • EL-DE 20 - in the exhibitionEL-DE 20 - in the exhibition
  • EL-DE 21 - old Nazi notice boardEL-DE 21 - old Nazi notice board
  • EL-DE 22 - associations of free-thinkers and unions were bannedEL-DE 22 - associations of free-thinkers and unions were banned
  • EL-DE 23 - Nazi relicEL-DE 23 - Nazi relic
  • EL-DE 24 - mother crossEL-DE 24 - mother cross
  • EL-DE 25 - resistance through flyersEL-DE 25 - resistance through flyers
  • EL-DE 26 - prisoner documentsEL-DE 26 - prisoner documents
  • EL-DE 27 - arm band from TheresienstadtEL-DE 27 - arm band from Theresienstadt
  • EL-DE 28 - audio station with interviews with survivorsEL-DE 28 - audio station with interviews with survivors
  • EL-DE 29 - video tooEL-DE 29 - video too
  • EL-DE 30 - touch-screen workstations for independent studyEL-DE 30 - touch-screen workstations for independent study
  • EL-DE 31 - view out the window to the old courthouseEL-DE 31 - view out the window to the old courthouse
  • EL-DE 32 - exitEL-DE 32 - exit
  
  
  
  
 
 
     

>More background info

>What there is to see

>Location

>Access and costs

>Time required

>Combinations with other dark destinations

>Combinations with non-dark destinations

>Photos

  

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