Thursday, June 16, 2005

Concentration Camp

I am a little late in getting this up. I am finding I have less and less energy for writing anything these days. I also found after writing my account of the concentration camp, I just didn't have it in me to talk about the castle. Perhaps some other time.

As our time in France is coming to an end, I have come to realize that we are just not going to be able to see everything that we had hoped to see. Though the border is but minutes away, Amy and I have seen very little of Germany, and thus it shall be until another visit some years in our future. I had truly hoped to visit the many castles that countryside holds, and also to visit some of the many horrors left over from the Third Reich.

This past weekend, I was able to visit one of each of these types of things, albeit in the Alsatian mountainside and not the mythic country that is Deutschland.

Our first stop was the concentration camp Natzweiler-Struthof. Though not the traditional death camp for Jews, it was never-the-less a place of absolute horror for many German criminals and members of the French resistance.

To say that I have been looking forward to visiting a concentration camp is to miss the point. Yes, I have wanted to go for a long time, and even felt some anticipation before we left, but I can’t say that I was looking forward to it in any real sense of pleasure. Visiting a place of torture and death is not my idea of a good time. Yet, it seems these places are important, not only in a historical sense, but in a manner of trying to understand to what we are capable of as human beings.

The camp is located high in the mountains. It is a beautiful area, and I often found myself struck by the majesty of the scenery around me and then the horror of the place below my feet.

Most of the barracks were destroyed by Neo-Nazis many years back. In their foundations are little plaques inscribed with the names of the other concentration camps. This is designed to tie this camp with all the others. What remains of the other buildings is a rebuilt barrack, a kitchen and a prison in which inmates were tortured, experimented on, and murdered.

In a little ravine beside the camp little flowers now grow. A placard noted that in this area many inmates were shot dead. It said the inmates were forced to carry large boulders up the hillside and deposit them in the ravine. A soldier would often kick the tired inmate just as he was bending over to drop the boulder. If the inmate fell from this kick, a machine gunner in the watchtower would shoot the inmate pretending it was an escape attempt. For this murder, the gunner would get an extra day of vacation.

At the top of the camp is a large memorial. It is a tall spire sculpted to look like flame and smoke, engraved with the image of a man. Next to the spire are small crosses, each with the name of a resistance fighter who died for the cause of France.

In the prison building, there were many methods of torture set up. Beside the regular cell rooms, were tiny cells designed as solitary confinement. They were about 4 feet in height, and no larger than a small closet. For the smallest infractures, inmates would be locked into these cells for days at a time, given only bread and water for nourishment. In a nearby room, inmates were experimented on. They were inoculated with various diseases such as Typhoid so that doctors could notate how their bodies reacted to them. When the inmates died their torturous deaths, they were then autopsied.

A small bare room was said to be a place of execution room. Inmates, not condemned to die in the gallows, but never-the-less committing some small infracture that angered a guard enough, would be taken into this room and shot in the back of the head. A small drain in the center of the room would wash away the blood.

The most harrowing site was the oven. Like many of the concentration camps, the Nazi’s decided the most effective way to get rid of the bodies piling up, was to cremate them. This camp held but one oven, but it was enough. To see a thing in which so many were destroyed senselessly, was a thing of horror. I will never forget it.

As I walked to the exit, I took once last look down the slope of the mountain, taking in the entire camp. Thinking about all I had just seen, I said a small prayer.

Let us remember what we are capable of, so we shall not forget what we have done.

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