While folks back in the US were deciding if or how to celebrate The Fourth of July in this year where our rights, freedom and liberty seem at high risk, even for those whose privilege generally has kept them insulated from previous or ongoing injustices and inequality, I joined the Year 9 students of the Hartmanni Gymnasium on their field trip to Natzweiler – Struthof Concentration Camp and Strasbourg. The experience of visiting a Nazi site with Germany students was one I was not about to pass up. Alan and I had discussed the impact that this usually has on his students and having me along, a Jewish teacher from the US, would add to this experience for them.
Natzweiler – Struthof was the main camp of a network of prison/forced labor camps in Occupied France and the southwest of Germany. The earliest and most numerous prisoners in these camps were French resistance fighters and other political enemies of the Nazis. Jews were shipped here from the East, some specifically to be used for medical experimentation. The camp has a very strong patriotic connection for the French and many of the memorials within the camp have a strong French and Christian nature.
When I first walked through the gate and into the camp, I immediately thought of Boris Pahor, a Slovenian who was imprisoned by the Nazis and whose memoir, “Necropolis,” I had read as part of working my way through Balkan literature. I did not however think that Pahor had been imprisoned in France, so I pushed away this thought and assumed that the camp was just similar to the one he had been in. Imagine my surprise about 30 minutes later when Alan, sharing some information about the camp with his students,said Pahor’s name and read an excerpt from his memoir! I apologized to the corner of my brain that had presented me with Pahor shortly before and promised to not doubt it in the future! In his book, Pahor recalls the conditions of the camp and his struggle to survive and to help others survive in inhumane conditions. It was his description of the camp and its conditions that caused me to unconsciously recognize it immediately on entry.
During our tour of the camp we visited the Appelplatz – the yard where all the prisoners gathered each day to be counted and recounted while standing in the hot sun or bitter cold. This was also the place where punishments and executions were publicly carried out and a gallows still stands there as a reminder. We then worked our way down the hillside to the “Punishment Block” and then the crematorium and rooms for medical experiments. Natzweiler was not a death camp, but prisoners did die from malnutrition, brutal mistreatment, disease and other causes. Others were victims of medical experimentation. These were the bodies that were cremated here.
In a room in this building were shelves full of clay urns. If a family paid to have their relative’s remains returned to them, these urns were what they were sent. This detail reminded me of a story I read years ago about a family whose father was taken during Kristallnacht and whose remains were sent to them in a box. I was curious how many actually paid to have remains sent, or how they were informed that this was an option. It is mind boggling to me that there was a mechanism for people to claim the ashes of their loved ones who had been crushed under the wheel of the Nazis and cremated in a prison camp. How many of these urns were used or do the full shelves reflect the reality that very few were ever used?
We then went back up the hill and had time to visit the permanent exhibit in one of the barrack buildings. This gave a history of the area – it had been a ski resort prior to becoming a Nazi Concentration Camp – and information about both the prisoners and the Nazi leaders who ran the camp. There were many images drawn by prisoners in the camp, as well as haunting paintings of huge eyes in gaunt faces or just the eyes. I also walked up to the large “eternal flame” monument that was at the top of the camp. Next to this was a graveyard – again with all crosses. An unknown prisoner is buried in the memorial and the impression of a “typical deportee” is seen in the stone flame shaped structure.
After we were done touring the camp, Alan and his colleague had the students circle up for a debrief on the experience. The students had been very serious and respectful throughout the tour and many were very clearly impacted by the experience. At one point one student had felt faint. Several of the girls warned their peers in another group as we passed each other. They were clearly very upset by the crematorium and punishment blocks and wanted to be sure that their friends were prepared for what they would see. In the circle they asked great questions and expressed their shock about what they had seen. A few questions stood out.
One of these is an eternal question about Nazi work camps. Why did they mistreat and starve their workforce? If these prisoners were doing necessary labor, wouldn’t you want to keep them strong and alive? I was asked this privately before it was asked again in the circle. My answer was that they did not see their prisoners as human and felt that there was a never ending supply of “sub-human” laborers to replace those who died. I think my answer seemed so unbelievable that they had to ask it a second time to Alan. His answer was much like mine.
Natzweiler Struthof sits in the Vosges Mountain range and really is surrounded by natural beauty. The question was asked “Do you think that the prisoners ever had the time to appreciate the beauty around them?” I first said “I don’t know that they had the strength to lift their heads high enough to see the beauty of the nature around them. I then explained that many camps were in beautiful places as they were remote so that they were harder to escape. This juxtaposition has struck me at various places where evil happened in a beautiful setting. I mentioned Ponary in Lithuania which is where this desecration of nature by evil first struck me. I said that I found it sacrilegious.
As we left the camp the students were quiet and reflective. They all were clearly impacted by what they had seen and learned. Sadly my German, and the fact it was my first time with these students, did not make possible a deep discussion on what they were thinking beyond what was offered up in the circle, but it was clear that the implications of such a place were not lost on them. Walking back to the bus I had a conversation with one of the other teachers, it was their first time at the camp, and they expressed a sincere desire that the prisoners had been able to find some hope or beauty in their surroundings and that it gave them strength to keep going. I mentioned Viktor Frankl and “Man’s Search for Meaning” and Frankl’s conclusion that we all need something to give us a reason for living and his focus on the “why” of living that allows us to survive the “how” we are currently in.
After this somber morning, we went into nearby Strasbourg for a short visit. I stayed in the general area of the cathedral and enjoyed its amazingly detailed exterior and the beautiful stained glass windows inside. Really just a taste of this beautiful city and reason to return.
So, back to this all being on the 4th of July – Making such a visit on this day was an excellent reminder of what we need to avoid and that we must always stand up to oppression – our own or that of others. Whether we are fighting for democracy in our own country, supporting those doing so in Ukraine, or speaking out against ongoing violence in other parts of the world, we cannot evil win.