Paris’ Memorial To The Martyrs Of The Deportation

DSC_0524_2

A driver in France told me that people are quick to blame other nations, but the French need to remember that the Vichy government and the French put up little resistance to the deportation of its citizens.   While this is debatable, the memorial is uncontrovertibly moving and thought-provoking.

DSC_1074DSC_0517_2

The Memorial des Martyrs de la Deportation is a memorial to the 200,000 people (deported from Vichy France to Nazi concentration camps between 1940-45, during World War II.   85,000 were political activists, resistance fighters, homosexuals and gypsies.   Only 2,500 of those deported survived.

DSC_0518_2

Behind Notre Dame on the Isle de la Cite on the site of a former morgue, it is a quiet gem of a memorial.  It was designed to represent features of the concentration camps with narrow passages, tight stairways, spiked gates and restricted views of the horizon.  The installation is a long narrow corridor lined with small stones of quartz crystal.  Each stone represents one of the individuals deported during World War II.  It was designed by French modernist architect, writer and teacher, Georges-Henri Pingusson.  It was unveiled by President Charles de Gaulle in 1962.

DSC_0520_2 DSC_0522_2

Advertisements

The Mystery Of The Anti-Personnel Mine In Geneva

DSCN1391

I was surprised when, on the way to the grocery store (it’s in the street between Migros and the Co-op at Eaux-Vives 2000 across the street), I saw this in the road.  It reads “Here laid an anti-personnel landmine.”  It stopped me dead in my tracks.  A land mine?  In Geneva?  Has anyone else noticed this?  Does anyone know anything about this?  I’d love to know who placed it there and why.

During the second world war, Geneva was virtually surrounded by nazi-occupied France.   Switzerland developed the National Redoubt plan to defend the country from the Nazis, but everyone knew that Geneva would have been left to occupying forces as it was not easily defended.  Landmines as we know them were developed during World War II (1939 – 1945).  They were widely used as anti-tank devices.  Smaller anti-personnel mines prevented the removal of anti-tank mines.   Even today, some land in France is not useable because of the mines on it.  Could it be from that period?

Since World War II the proliferation, production, sale and trade in landmines grew. Today, there an estimated 110 million anti-personnel mines in the ground around the world, another 100 million in stockpiles and 5-10 million more mines produced each year.   The Swiss Confederation signed and ratified the Convention on Cluster Munitions.  It took effect on the 1st of January 2013.

Natzweiler-Struthof, The French Concentration Camp

He was surprised to see signs for a concentration camp when we were in Alsace.  Hidden away in the Vosges Mountains, the Natzweiler-Struthof is the only concentration camp established by the Nazis in what is now France.   I went to see it.  Like the Holocaust Exhibit at the British War Museum, other concentration camps or pretty much any other sign of such horror, I found myself disassociating myself from what I was seeing so that I could continue to view the disturbing exhibits.

A camp for political prisoners, including those involved in the resistance movement.  Nevertheless, the death rate was 40% due to the strenuous work (Prisoners worked in nearby granite quarries and in construction projects) medical experimentation, poor nutrition and mistreatment by the SS guards.

As the industrial production requirements of the was increased, Natzweiler developed a system of  up to 50 adjacent sub camps (shown on the map above).  The death rate at these camps was 80%.  I was surprised to learn that one such camp was Neckarelz.  There, they converted an existing gypsum mine into an intricate tunnel system that housed a relocated Daimler-Benz Aircraft engine plant!

Many “Night and Fog” (Nacht und Nebel, a German effort to subdue a growing anti-German resistance) prisoners were detained there.  Suspected resistance fighters just disappeared in night, the Germans held many of them at Natzweiler-Struthof.

The camp holds also a crematorium and a jury rigged gas chamber outside the main camp.   Natzweiler-Struthof gassed more than 80 Jewish prisoners and sent their bodies to the Strasbourg University Institute of Anatomy where anatomist Dr. August Hirt amassed a large collection of Jewish skeletons used in his quest for anthropological evidence Jewish “racial inferiority.”  He was attempting to create a museum in which (in his words) “sub-humans, in which proofs of the degeneracy and the animality of the Jews would be collected.”

Strasbourg University faculty member, Professor Otto Bickenbach, used the gas chamber in pseudoscientific medical experiments involving mustard gas and other vesicants .  Many victims of these experiments were Roma (Gypsies) who were transferred from Auschwitz for use as guinea pigs.  Doctor Eugen Haagen,  the chair for hygiene and bacteriology at Strasbourg University was in charge of medical experiments on the camp.  He conducted experiments on prisoners involving typhus and yellow fever.  The operating room below was the site of many of these “experiments.”

With the Allies closing in, Nazis evacuated the camp sending prisoners on a “death march” in September 1944.  On November 23, 1944, it became the first concentration camp in Western Europe liberated by the Allies.

One of the most unusual and surprising things I saw was art.  Several talented artists (Henri Gayot, Jacques Barrau, Ernest Gillen, Rudolf Naess) were held and the camp and some of their art survived.

Shockingly, neo-Nazis burned the camp museum in 1976.  It was subsequently rebuilt, but important artifacts and buildings were destroyed in the fire.

As disturbing as it was, I am grateful to have had the opportunity to step behind the formerly electrified fences and learn about what happened there.

Why Didn’t Hitler Invade Switzerland?

A comment on yesterday’s post got me thinking about this.  Hitler even had plans (Operation Tannenbaum) to invade Switzerland sitting in his desk drawer.   Why didn’t Hitler invade Switzerland?  Books could be written about this.  Heck, there probably already have been.  I did a bit of research and tried to grossly oversimplify things to post a bit about it here.

Switzerland impressively mobilized its army reserves and civilians.  They were well prepared, increasing food production, developing communication networks, etc.  More or less, they did everything they could to avoid an invasion.  In addition to the devastation wrought by war, the Swiss (who’d had a functioning democracy for over 500 years) were terrified of losing their independence.

The Swiss population was overwhelmingly opposed to Nazism.   They were, however, in a difficult position.  Switzerland is a country with no natural resources; it was surrounded by fascist powers, the Axis countries.

Switzerland tried to avoid antagonizing Germany by making it difficult for the Jewish refugees to enter Switzerland.  In 1938, they imposed a special visa requirement for “German non-Aryans” and expanding the visa requirement to all foreign nationals (including Jews fleeing from other countries) the next year.  They closed their border crossings and criminally prosecuted those who sheltered Jews hiding from Nazis.

With Hitler’s rise, the Swiss feared a German invasion and tweaked the National Redoubt (the Swiss national defense plan).  They installed defenses (like the Toblerone line) that were intended to slow down an invasion enough to allow it the military and government enough time to withdraw into the easier-to-defend alpine areas.  Switzerland built oodles of forts (most camouflaged like Fürigen)in the center of the country (we’re hoping to visit more of them).

Essentially, Switzerland was prepared to cede some terrain to Germany in hopes of retaining more easily defendable areas.  Sorry Geneva, you would have been left to the Nazis.   You might have still been able to take part in guerrilla campaign.  Hitler would have had to devote significant forces to conquering and holding the area (and experience huge losses).   Switzerland hoped to deter an invasion by demonstrating that an invasion would have a high cost.

Why buy the cow when you can get the milk for free?  Germany was able to use Switzerland’s train lines to Italy during WWII. We’ve all heard about the sealed rail cars that passed unchecked through Switzerland from Italy to Germany.  The Swiss rigged every bridge through the mountains with a incendiary devices, destroying the valued Swiss supply lines.  Switzerland also made economic concessions to Germany.  They hoped Germany would do a cost benefit analysis and decide that it wasn’t worth it.

Switzerland conducted a delicate and escalating dance with Nazi Germany.  For example, Germany continually violated Swiss airspace.  Germany threatened the Swiss after they shot down 11 Luftwaffe planes (that were flying over Switzerland).  The Swiss army ordered this stop, they forced the planes to land at Swiss airfields instead.  Hitler (unsuccessfully) sent saboteurs to destroy the pesky airfields.  Relations on a personal level (with bankers) were a little less tense.

In the end, Switzerland may have just gotten lucky that Hitler got busy fighting a war on two fronts (eastern and western fronts).

Prague’s Jewish Quarter

Jews have lived in Prague since 965 In the 13th century, Prague’s Jews were banned from living outside a particular area of the city.  They had to leave their homes and settle in a prescribed area, the Jewish Quarter, also known as Josefov.  During the mid 1500’s, Prague’s Jewish population almost doubled as Jews were expelled from Moravia, Germany, Austria and Spain.
In 1708, Jews were 1/4 of Prague’s population and by the early 18th century, more Jews lived in Prague than anywhere else in the world. In the 19th century, Prague’s Jews gained freedoms and began integrating into society.  All that changed when the Nazis came in 1939.
Initially, the vast majority of Czech Jews were imprisoned in Terezin, a ghetto north of Prague.  Others were sent directly to concentration camps.  More than a quarter of a million Czechoslovak Jews were murdered in the Holocaust.  Today, there are estimated to be 10,000 to 15,000 Jews in the Czech Republic.
The synagogues no longer need to serve large populations.  Rather than let them fall into disrepair, have become different parts of the Jewish Museum in Prague and are best preserved complex of Jewish historical monuments in Europe.  Six synagogues remain and have been restored.  Together, they comprise the Jewish Museum.*  The sites include:

  • Jewish Town Hall (Židovská radnice) – This 18th century rococo town hall Jewish Town Hall has a clock tower whose hands run backwards as Hebrew reads from right to left.   Part of the building dates from 1586.

  • Klaus Synagogue (Klausova synagoga) – It is 16th century baroque synagogue that houses Hebrew prints, manuscripts and has a good exhibition explaining Jewish traditions and customs..
  • Maisel Synagogue (Maiselova synagog) – This 16th century synagogue was once destroyed by fire.  Now, it houses a collection of items brought to Prague by the Nazis with the intention of establishing a museum of vanished people.

  • Pinkas Synagogue (Pinkasova synagog) – This 16th century synagogue was rebuilt many times since it was founded in 1479.   After WWII it became a memorial to the 77,297 Jewish Czechoslovak victims of the Nazi Holocaust.  These numbers do not include Slovakian Jews, only Jews from current Czech territory.  Each of the victim’s names is written in alphabetical order on the walls with their date of birth and the date they were last seen alive.  The building is silent except for prayers and a reading the names of the dead, which alternate over the sound system.

  • Spanish Synagogue (Španělská synagog) – This 19th century synagogue is a stunning building named after its Moorish interior.  It contains an exhibition of the life of Jews in the Czech Republic.   Despite it’s appearance, it was never used by Sephardic Jews, but was an early Reform temple.

  • Old New Synagogue (Staronová synagog) – Dating from 1270, this Gothic synagogue is the oldest working in Prague.  It is legendary and reputed to be the home of the famous Golem of Prague.  It requires an additional ticket that can be purchased at the same time.

  • Old Jewish Cemetery (Starý židovský hřbitov) This 15th-18th century cemetery is  Europe’s oldest surviving Jewish cemetery and one of the most unusual sites. Founded in 1478, it is Europe’s oldest surviving Jewish cemetery.  As Jews were not permitted to bury their dead outside the Jewish Quarter and space was tight, there was a severe lack of space. 100,000 people are thought to be buried here.  To fit them all, people had to be buried on top of each other. There are about 12 layers and over 12,000 gravestones.   Since Jews do not believe in moving the dead, even when permitted to bury outside the quarter, they did not move the bodies to make more space.

It is customary for Jews to put small stones on a gravesite when visiting it.

Over the years, the bodies accumulated.  Now the cemetery is over a story above street level.

I found the concept of having a museum divided between several important buildings all within close walking distance to each other really interesting and easy to manage.  Each one has a different focus and so they compliment each other, rather than overlap. It was an incredibly interesting and moving morning.






Annecy

There are two real reasons to go from Geneva to Annecy, France.  First, the high Swiss Franc (more about that in future posts) means that shopping in France where they are on the Euro (which is low in comparison to the Swiss Franc) is very cheap.

The second is the cute old town.


We went to Annecy after we first arrived to test out driving and try to begin our sightseeing adventures. We had a picnic by the river and took in the sights. After the craziness of move and the chaos of the boxes surrounding us, it was a nice repose.

I took this last picture because the sight of the plaque caught me off guard. It was on the side of a school near the beautiful lake.
For those of you who don’t read French, here is what it says:


 In memory of the school’s Jewish students who were stopped November 16, 1943, taken by the occupying Nazis deported and assassinated at Auschwitz [list of names and ages] April 1995 – fiftieth anniversary of the liberation of the Nazi camps.  


On such a beautiful day, it was quite startling to see and moving to read.