by Neil Madden
Some 60 km southwest of Strasbourg, nestled high in the Vosges Mountains, is Le Struthof, the sole Nazi concentration camp built on what is now French territory.
“We get 180,000 visitors each year,” said Fr?d?rique Neau-Dufour, who for the past four years has been director of the European Centre of Deported Resistance Members (CERD, in its French acronym) which oversees the museum.
A noted historian, who has published many works about France during the two world wars of the 20th century, she explained to Xinhua the role Le Struthof plays today.
“Of the total number of visitors, about half are foreign, and the majority of these actually come from Germany,” the CERD director said.
A visit to the site is also an important part of the calendar for many schools on both sides of the Rhine, she said. “We have dedicated teaching guides who educate students about what happened here and the importance of learning from the past.”
This process is an important route, she believes, to making sure it is never repeated.
“Following the war, Germany went through a period of self-examination about the Nazi era which paved the way for reconciliation,” she said. “This responsible approach should serve as a model for other countries that have been guilty in the past of crimes against humanity. For this reason I had the European Union flag hoisted alongside the French ‘tricolour’ because this place is about preserving a memory for all of Europe.”
Opened on May 1, 1941, Le Struthof was the central part of a network of nearly 70 camps known as KL-Natzweiler. Other sites in the network were located on both sides of the River Rhine, following the Nazi government’s annexation of the entire Alsace-Lorraine region in June 1940.
Today, Le Struthof and the CERD have become a working museum, a memorial to this dark episode in modern European history.
On the opening of the CERD in 2005, Hamlaoui Mekachera, then France’s minister for veteran soldiers, said: “Le Struthof remains a memorial to the deportations, not just for France, but for all Europe.”
“It’s up to us to do all we can to ensure that no one is allowed to remain ignorant about this subject,” said Margaux, a young student after visiting the site.
On the day Xinhua visited, a group of 14-15 year old German students were visiting from the Kant High School in Weil-am-Rhein, a German town near the Swiss border. The students explained that for them it was important to come here to get a sense of the atrocities that took place at this forbidding location.
One said that even though students study the history of WWII and the Nazi regime in school, visiting the camp brought home to him what really happened at that time.
“After seeing this place, I am left wondering how we can still be witnessing in Europe a rise in groups professing neo-Nazi ideology,” said another.
A quote in a CERD brochure from Pierre Rolinet, a resistance fighter deported to the camp, reads: “Never forget what we went through, there are still pockets of hatred and xenophobia.”
Of the around 52,000 detainees of the KL-Natzweiler comps, nearly 22,000 died there.
Le Struthof was the first concentration camp in Western Europe to be liberated by Allied forces, in November 1944, but with the subsequent discovery of the larger extermination camps in Central and Eastern Europe, such as Auschwitz and Bergen-Belsen, attention drifted away from the site.
Used primarily as a center for political prisoners and resistance fighters from all over Europe, 40 percent of the detainees who passed through the doors of the camps that made up KL-Natzweiler died there, rendering the complex one of the deadliest in the whole Nazi terror machine.
A memorial to deportees was opened in 1960 by General de Gaulle and the remains of an unknown deportee were buried in the crypt, just as the “unknown soldier” lies beneath the Arc de Triomphe in Paris.
Among the horrors committed during the camp’s existence, a gas chamber was installed in a nearby “salles des fetes” in which gruesome experiments were conducted on victims, many of them gypsies, to test the effects of phosgene gas.
In August 1943, 86 Jewish victims were brought from Auschwitz to be gassed at the chamber by the Nazis with an intention to collect their skeletons to “prove” the alleged “inferiority of the Jewish race.”
In the main camp, detainees were used as slave labor in a local quarry to extract the pink granite that gives much of the Vosges Mountains their distinctive hue. The stone was quarried simply for export to Berlin to be used for monuments to the glorification of the Third Reich.
Today, a 1.2-million-euro restoration project is underway at two of the remaining barracks, one of which contains the infamous crematorium where victims’ bodies were disposed of. This is being readied for an official visit by French President Francois Hollande who will come to Le Struthof on April 26 as part of a national day to commemorate the WWII deportations.
Such events are an important part of Le Struthof’s modern life. However, Fr?d?rique Neau-Dufour emphasises the many other ways the CERD brings history alive, particularly for younger generations, including films, exhibitions and staged events.
For example, in March the French and German under-18s football teams played friendly matches in Alsace, and a visit to Le Struthof was included. Enditem