When remembering is the future
The abandoned site of a horrific Nazi death camp built in the Vosges mountains in Alsace is to be transformed into a timely European memorial to resisitance fighters. Thérèse Jauffret reports.
The idyllic setting of the summer sun beating over the Vosges mountains cannot disguise the sinister presence of Natzweiler-Struthof, the notorious Nazi concentration camp where 22,000 prisoners were killed between May 1941 and September 1944.
The only camp of its type to be erected on French soil, officially a hard labour camp, its victims were chosen because they were Jews, Gypsies or French resistance fighters. In all, prisoners from 20 different nationalities met their deaths at this site, tucked high in the forested hills of Alsace.
"There was a room beside the gas oven, piled high with corpses — just thrown there anyhow. It was a horrific scene. When the oven was heated, we put into it seven bodies for the first burning, and for every burning session after that we put in just five, maybe six, because the extreme heat from the oven made the corpses twist."
This nauseating account is from one of the camp's surviving prisoners, Alexandre Maurice.
"As of May, 1944, about 50 corpses were burnt there every day," continued Maurice. "When we arrived there, the camp commander told us that the only way we would leave was through the gas chamber chimney."
Another of the camp's few surviving French deportees, Roger Laporte, recalled: "During four days, fired morning and night, the gas ovens never stopped burning," he recounted. "The chimney glowed red with the heat, right up to its tip."
With the liberation of France at the end of World War II, Natzweiler-Struthof was quite simply abandoned and largely forgotten in public memory, even though the French government preserved the site as a memorial.
Now, a plan is launched to make the camp home to a new European centre dedicated to resistance fighters deported by the Nazis, and it is due to open in 2005.
Announcing the project in June, French junior minister for war veterans, Hamloui Mekachera, said the centre would open in time to commemorate the 60th anniversary of the liberation of Nazi camps in Europe.
Natzweiler-Struthof would serve to call on younger generations "to fight for the values of our society," Mekachera said.
"We have an educational duty to transmit to our young people the sense of values of the thousands of Europeans who were incarcerated here," he added.
Although specifically intended as a labour camp, Natzweiler-Struthof bore all the features generally associated with most concentration camps and many are still preserved at the site including four cell blocks and a crematorium.
Another relic of the Nazi crimes is the camp's gas chamber principally used to dispose of victims who had undergone medical experiments.
"A group of 86 Jews from Auschwitz was gassed here in order to provide a collection of skulls corresponding to (what the Nazis regarded as) typically Judeo-Bolshevik norms", said Olivier Lalieu, from the Memory, Patrimony and Archives department at the French defence ministry. Indeed, a 1980's war crimes trial in Germany focused on these and other grisly medical experiments conducted in the camp.
The future centre will not be a sophisticated structure: "Very simple horizontal walls, showing precious little of the surrounding countryside," architect Pierre-Louis Faloci said.
Built above and around a huge indentation into the rock face carved out by the camp inmates to the outside of the camp known as "the potato cave", it would thus allow "the immense emotional effect of the site" to show through to visitors, he pointed out.
Natzweiler-Struthof had acted as a feeder camp to other labour camps, mostly in Germany, but also to the site at Thil in eastern France where V-1 flying bombs were manufactured towards the end of the war.
A total budget of around EUR 10 million will be provided for the centre, with the European Union donating close to 20 percent of the figure.
The centre will show how men and women fought the Nazis across Europe and will make available multilingual documents, audiovisual displays and witness accounts of the Nazi horrors.
The camp will be maintained as a museum in the period up to 2005, presenting the history of the site together with that of around 60 other Nazi labour camps in Europe where some 45,000 prisoners were forced to serve the German war machine.
3 July 2002
©AFP and Expatica France