Natzweiler-Struthof. I don’t really feel like talking about this, but I know I should. It’s been squatting in my head for roughly three weeks, unexpressed. I haven’t even gone over the photos yet, and in deciding how to do this, I’m opting to avoid photos. I don’t like that I have my own versions of pictures I’ve seen before in textbooks. Not of this. I preferred it when there was distance, because that was true. That I have now had no distance from the subject of these photos is a lie.
So, I’ll walk you into the camp, through it, and be rid of it.
A bus, full of lively sophomore students, charts up the winding switchbacks, set against a sky painted gravitas-gray. This place has known too much death, but you wouldn’t know to see it now. Ski resort, concentration camp, monumental marker to the deaths of over 20,000 people. Death doesn’t seem like the right word; neither does murder. For many, it’s better said that their lives were taken from them. Stolen. There is no appropriate earthly consequence for this deprivation.
This was France’s only concentration camp, situated in the Alsatian foothills. It was established to quarry the pink granite discovered in Mont Louise. Over time, it hosted over 50,000 prisoners in its main camp and annexes. From 1941 to 1944, the purpose of the camp digressed, responding to the needs of war instead of wealth.
The first building is cold, with hard lines. Here we register ourselves as tourists to someone else’s hell. In the basement of this building is something dispassionately known as the Kartoffelkeller, the Potato Cellar. This was its name, a massive underground structure carved into rock by prisoners. There were no potatoes stored in this cellar. None destined for it. It survived the war, but never reached its purpose, which remains unknown today.
From here, we walk toward the main gate. It’s an imposing sight, but not one the prisoners would have witnessed. The gate that came with the camp didn’t need to yell. The main camp was surrounded by two rows of barbed wire fence, a walkway lining the perimeter with stout wooden towers strategically placed along its course. With lush forest all around and a beautiful view of the valley below, the juxtaposition alone must have been maddening. In their shoes, I may very well have been one of those pictured finding freedom while hanging from this fence. Pictured. Photographed. On these fences. I move on.
A couple of the buildings still stand, but most were destroyed. There’s a hospital, where sick people were taken. Not healed, just taken. Some prisoners were doctors before Struthof, and they did what they could without medical supplies. If you ask, why even bother with a hospital, you’ll have more to wonder than you care to understand. There were, however, some doctors here who had the supplies they needed. A table with recessed veins like a cold, white leaf is still here, shut behind a door with a small window, large enough to show that this is a room you don’t need to enter.
The crematorium, its stack jutting from the stale building and held in place by guy-wires on all sides, also survived. Good for it.
Down the hill from the main camp is an unassuming building. This is where they housed the gas chamber. It has some windows, even one on the second storey. Ask again about windows on a death house. Across the road is now a restaurant, but I choose to pass.
When we left, I wondered how it must have felt, being a sophomore here on a field trip with friends. As a chaperone, I was suspended in thought. Good thing I didn’t need to do much chaperoning, the students were quite responsible. It’s an interesting thing, being so near, physically, to things from which we’re immeasurably separated. By that I don’t mean that we’ve learned, or that it could never happen again, as though atrocities of their own measure aren’t happening today. I simply mean that when I’m meant to remember, and I stand in a place like that, I can’t conjure up a grief, a hopelessness, an emptiness or a sorrow that even begins to provide measure or meaning to the horrors that happened here. I closed my eyes, and pictured the throngs of prisoners trudge past us; up the towering hill, lifting their weary legs to each new step, and dreading the end of the stairs as much as they feared not climbing them. I felt guilty for being there, for trivializing their deaths by treating their end-of-the-line as a curiosity. Nonetheless, as they walked past our group, they raised their sunken eyes toward us and saw that their lives, though stolen, were not lost. Time had not erased the footsteps worn into the stones of Struthof.