Natzweiler-Struthof Concentration Camp
Located in annexed Alsace, the Natzweiler-Struthof camp was discovered by the Allies in November 1944. The history of Natzweiler is unique, as it continued its deadly activities in satellite camps across the Rhine until 1945.
The Natzweiler-Struthof concentration camp was opened by the Nazis in May 1941, in Alsace which had been annexed de facto by the 3rd Reich. It mainly held political deportees and resistance fighters, and was the concentration camp located the farthest to the west. Given its geographical location, it was the first camp discovered by the Allies in Western Europe, on 25 November 1944, while the Red Army had discovered the Lublin-Majdanek camp on 23 July 1944. But the story of Natzweiler did not come to an end with the arrival of American soldiers in Alsace: pulled back into its satellite camps across the Rhine, the camp continued its murderous activities until April 1945.This was a unique, terrifying case that led to the death of thousands of deportees well after the main camp had been "liberated".
This unique history is the subject of the "La liberté nous reviendra : la double fin du camp de Natzweiler" (Liberty will be ours: the twofold end of the Natzweiler camp) exhibition, organised in a scientific partnership with the State of Baden-Württemberg and the German memorials of Natzweiler's satellite camps, represented by the Gedenkstätte Neckarelz. Cartography holds a major place, as it gives a better vision than any long text of the unique nature of a concentration camp located on the Reich's western borders.
In the summer of 1944, as the Allies and the Free French were advancing from Normandy and Provence, the Vosges became the last natural line of defence for the Germans. The Nazis increased their repression against the local population, accused of helping the Allies, and undertook vast deportations, as well as summary executions of resistance fighters – notably at Struthof. On 1 September, the Concentration Camp Inspection, (IKL, organisation in charge of the concentration camp system) in Oranienburg ordered the evacuation of camp's approximately 6,000 deportees by train. The camp's commander, Fritz Hartjenstein, drew up a memo for this: "Detainees in good physical condition can be crammed together more than those who are ill or unfit for work. […] The camp and its outbuildings must be left perfectly clean and orderly".
The evacuation was completed in November 1944. On 25 November, when a detachment of the American 3rd Infantry Division entered through the double barbed wire fences, the Natzweiler-Struthof camp was empty. No deportees were found, dead or alive. The facilities were intact, however. The barracks, the crematorium ovens, the gas chamber, the mountains of clothes and piles of hair provided a look into reality of the "Hell of Alsace".
And yet the soldiers had only partially understood. Dozens of other camps were discovered during the winter of 1944-1945 and the name Natzweiler disappeared in the endless lists. But the concentration camp complex was reorganised thanks to the satellite camps located to the east of the Rhine. Its administration was moved first to Dachau, then Guttenbach and Binau. Not only did they keep the name "Natzweiler camp", but twenty new satellite camps were set up and 19,833 new deportees were registered between September 1944 and April 1945! Some came from camps located in areas liberated by the Allies – as was the case of the Hungarian Jews who streamed in between December 1944 and January 1945. While Germany was disintegrating, the obstinacy of Natzweiler was surprising. It bears witness to the never-say-die attitude that had taken over in Nazi Germany in the face of defeat.
For the deportees, who were suffering from overpopulation in the concentration camps and the chaos that, little by little, was taking over Germany, survival was increasingly difficult. In the workshops, which were often underground to protect them from the Allied bombs, they had to work day and night for SS companies or private companies such as Daimler, Krupp and Mauser, notably. The mortality rate skyrocketed. Isaac Wassertein is one of the ten deportees presented in the exhibition. In the Bisingen satellite camp, he and his comrades were forced to extract the oil from oil shale to make fuel: "It was very hard work... We had next to none of the tools necessary for the task. The stones were so cold and so frozen that our fingers stuck to them. It was like the slave work in Ancient Egypt". Several objects made by the deportees are presented in the exhibition: a piece of the wing of a Messerschmitt aircraft, a can of shale oil, an MP 40 sub-machine-gun...
The real end of the Natzweiler camp, in April 1945, was an ordeal that had little to do with the usual scenes of "liberation". A drawing and a map explain the bestiality of this episode. The drawing is by a Pole, Mieczys?aw Wisniewski, a talented artist deported with his brother Tadeusz to Dachau, then to the Mannheim-Sandhofen camp (a Natzweiler satellite camp). In March 1945 he arrived at the Kochendorf camp and was then evacuated on foot to Dachau. When this camp was liberated, he fell into a coma caused by typhus. Much later, he represented what this death march was, in a pallid setting, with dazed deportees too weak to walk and killed point-blank on the roadside. The map, by German historian Arno Huth, summarises the complexity of the evacuations, marches and transports during the final weeks of the war. Obsessed with the idea of not leaving a single deportee in the hands of their liberators, the Nazis kept moving them endlessly, sometimes without any precise destination, at the price of thousands of deaths.
The exhibition is presented at the European Centre of Deported Resistance Members, inside the former main Natzweiler camp, at Le Struthof. It includes a wealth of filmed testimony by a French deportee at Natzweiler, Albert Montal, who suffered the death marches between the satellite camps. Thanks to the commitment of the Office National des Anciens Combattants et Victimes de Guerre (National Office of Veterans and Victims of War) and support from Baden-Württemberg, several copies of the exhibition have been set up to present it at other sites, notably at the former Natzweiler satellite camps. Some forty institutions, associations and memorials will host it during the year 2015, on both sides of the Rhine. This enthusiasm for writing our common history is drawing a new map, that of our shared – and accepted – memory.
Le KL Natzweiler et ses kommandos : une nébuleuse concentrationnaire des deux côtés du Rhin, Robert Steegmann, La Nuée bleue, 2005.
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