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.

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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).

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.