Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Museum Tour: Struthof

Struthof, a picturesque ski resort in the mountains of Alsace, was turned into a concentration camp in the spring of 1941. The region in which the camp is located (Alsace-Lorraine, or Elsess-Lothringen in German) had actually been annexed and declared part of the German Reich at the time of its creation; however, it was the only Nazi concentration camp built in 'modern-day' France.

KL-Natzweiler (as the camp is now called) would house approximately 52,000 prisoners over the next three years, just under half of whom would die in the camp. It was the first concentration camp in Western Europe discovered by the Allied Forces. However, the American soldiers -- arriving in Alsace to liberate the city of Strasbourg -- found but an empty shell of the camp; the Nazis had evacuated it several months prior. Since the end of the war, the site has been preserved as a lieu de memoire, or place of memory. In addition to restored camp buildings, the site now includes a cemetery, memorial, and center of commemoration.

If you like, you can follow along my (super unofficial) tour with this interactive map. (Please note that although all other links connect to the English version of the official Struthof website, this link is only available in French.)

Lieu de Memoire


"Aux héros et martyrs de la déportation, la France reconnaissante."

In addition to the cemetery (in which are buried French victims of various concentration camps) and national memorial, the site features an eternal flame in honor of the unknown victims of the camp.

Le Musee de KL-Natzweiler

My visit began just outside of the camp itself, with the unexpected discovery of the chambre à gaz. It's located off the side of the road, just fifty feet away from a local restaurant. (Discover the interesting story behind that restaurant, which is still in service, here.) Unlike other camps, in which poison gas was used as a method of mass extermination, the gas chamber at Struthof was created as a place of medical experimentation. Read more about it here.

The first of the camp's main buildings is the Kommandantur. This villa -- complete with a swimming pool -- was the home of the camp's commander. Although it looks like any other house, it's not easy to forget what it was; the home is separated from the path to the camp by a barbed wire fence. This old photo (courtesy of the Struthof official website) shows what it looked like during WWII.

L'enceinte du camp (the camp enclosure) looks much like it did during WWII ... but there was something uncomfortably commercial about the ticket window and bold posters that made me feel like I was waiting in line for a log ride at Disneyland, not entering into a concentration camp.

The museum is located in one of les baraques (the deportees' barracks), the only such remaining structure on the site (visible in the right side of the photo below). Other buildings still standing/reconstructed on the site include the nearby kitchen block and the crematorium and prison, both located at the bottom of the hill and visible in the photo above.

The museum was first opened in this barracks in 1965, but this first museum was almost completely destroyed in 1976 when neo-Nazis attempted to burn down the site. Although the museum later reopened in 1980, it was redesigned after the opening of the CERD. The new museum, opened in 2005, attempts to give a sense of daily life in the KL-Natzweiler Camp. The museum pays particular attention to the over 50,000 prisoners who passed through the camp during the 1940s. (You can read statistics about the deportees here.)

Although many of the camp's prisoners were deported because of their religious or cultural affiliation, the majority were political prisoners. Of these, many were members of the Resistance and/or victims of the Nacht und Nebel initiative. Loosely translated to "Night and Fog," NN was an effort undertaken by the Nazis in order to eliminate political opponents in total secrecy. NN prisoners, brought to Struthof from all over Europe, received particularly horrible treatment and rarely survived imprisonment. Their families were not informed of their fates and even typically-meticulous camp records did not always list their fate.

Le Centre européen du résistant déporté

The Centre européen du résistant déporté was inaugurated in 2005. It's meant to represent and remember those who fought oppression throughout Europe during WWII.

The CERD's permanent exhibit is located in the basement of the building. It's a dark, eerily quiet space that traces the history of resistance and deportation in Europe. From a visual perspective, the exhibit is incredibly well-done, although the sleek finish of its back-lit displays occasionally comes off as impersonal and overly polished.

As you can see in this photo, the illuminated exhibits surround a fenced-off concrete structure. Called the Kartoffelkeller, or potato cellar, this building was built in 1943-1944 by camp prisoners. According to the museum, no one has ever been able to discover what the purpose of the building was intended to be. Given the Nazis penchant for documenting every detail of their undertakings, it's an uncertainty that I found particularly chilling.


As far as concentration camps go, KL-Natzweiler was small potatoes ... nothing like the infamous killing sites now scattered throughout history textbooks. I had never heard of it before beginning my research and have observed that the name is not particularly well-known, even in within France. However, after my brief visit, I have to say that the site is one of the most striking -- if not the most striking -- sites related to WWII and to the Shoah that I have ever seen.

I walked to and from the site, a distance of almost eight miles roundtrip. It was a LONG walk, but it gave me time to think about what I was seeing. With its rolling hills, green pastures, and picturesque villages, the area around the camp is undoubtedly some of the most beautiful paysage in France. It's a strange contrast that only becomes more striking the closer you get to the camp itself. How could something so horrible happen in a place so beautiful?

For visitors asking themselves this very question, the museum provides an answer in the form of a small plaque on the barracks features a quote from Léon Boutbien, a member of the Resistance deported to the camp ... "Ceux qui admireront la beauté naturelle de ce sommet ne pourront croire que cette montagne est maudite parce qu'elle a abrité l'enfer des hommes libres." ("Those who will admire the natural beauty of this summit will be able to think only that this mountain is cursed because it served as the hell of free men.")

Plan Your Visit

ACCESSIBILITY. Struthof is located approximately 60 km (or one hour, by road) from Strasbourg. According to the Struthof's official website, the site is not accessible except by car or chartered bus. This isn't entirely true: as you read above, I was able to make the hike from the nearby town of Rothau without much trouble. The unique hike follows the path taken by the prisoners deported to Struthof and informative plaques are scattered along the route. However, walking to Struthof is a big undertaking and not something that I would recommend for the typical tourist. The trails are marked, but not always easy to access. If you would like to make the hike, consider buying a map of Alsace hiking trails and contacting the Office de Tourisme de la Vallée de la Bruche, who will be able to give you some advice. Make sure to bring sunscreen, bug spray, and plenty of water, and to allow approximately two hours to make the trip from Rothau to Struthof.

The Rothau train station, where deportees arrived on their way to the  KL-Natzweiler concentration camp.

Although the official website claims that all information is offered equally in English, French and German, I found the museum was geared primarily towards French- and German-speakers. English-speaking visitors will have no problem at the CERD, which features extensive English translations.

PRICES. Admission to the memorial and former concentration camp is free for all visitors. However, guests wishing to visit le Centre européen du résistant déporté (CERD) -- also located at the site -- must purchase a ticket. Find individual ticket prices here.

MORE INFORMATION. Click here to access the official website and find out more about a visit to Struthof. If you are unable to visit the camp at this time but would still like to see and learn more, you can conduct a virtual visit on the camp's website.

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