Diana Mara Henry would be happy to send you the 42-page paper about the memoirs by survivors of Natzweiler-Struthof for a donation, by hard copy and to your street address. A part of this article was presented at the Association for Jewish Studies Conference in Los Angeles on December 22, 2009 in the session:10:45-12:45pm: "Working with Survivor Testimony and Memoir in Writing Holocaust History." Please send your request by e-mail.
The panel presentation follows:
Copyright © Diana Mara Henry
LIFE WAS NOT BEAUTIFUL
Survivor memoirs of a little-known Nazi concentration camp,
Distinguished colleagues, scholars, friends, it is an honor to present this comprehensive survey of the survivor literature of a little-known Nazi konzentrationslager in eastern France. Together with a bibliography on the camp, this is the first presentation of such an inclusive picture of the literature, videography and film record of Natzweiler-Struthof . Natzweiler/ KLNa to the Nazis, one of the least discussed of the concentration camps, with its population of almost entirely non-Jewish inmates, and Jewish resistors not identified as Jewish, makes an important case study of revolt. It is hoped that this guide to the resources will open up a rich avenue of scholarship.
The memoirs of Natzweiler-Struthof provide primary material for a serious exploration of the history of repression and resistance in the second World War.
All the writers known to have written about Natzweiler belonged to a category which deserves to be studied far more extensively than it has been in the U.S.: they were resistors condemned under the NN -- “Nacht und Nebel” decree. Singling out political prisoners and destining them for special handling, including obliteration of their traces, the NN decree was signed by the Wehrmacht’ s commander in chief for the Western occupied territories, Keitel, on 12/7/41 and followed up by a complementary decree in 1942.
From 1942 on, the KLNa was mostly dedicated to the incarceration and death of resistors. By 1943, Himmler decided to group all those arrested under this decree at Natzweiler.
The phenomenon of opposition to the Nazis under many forms and guises is represented in these memoirs of Jews and non-Jews who actively participated in the destruction of the Third Reich, for the enduring honor of mankind. Those who left book-length writings, their social origin, motivations, politics, personalities, styles of resistance and survival inside the camp, are outlined here.
Future generations, no matter how widely they create, fantasize, interpret, analyze, will always have these primary sources, this bedrock of memory to mine.
Wolfgang Sofsky writes that he based his masterful sociological study, The Order of Terror: The Concentration Camp (Princeton University Press, 1997) on “historiographic investigations and documentation. In particular,” he writes in his introduction, “they make use of inmate reports and testimony.”(p.14) “....a relatively small number of reports from various camps is enough to arrive at a typifying description.” (p.15) How much more typifying a description do these two dozen book-length reports give on this one camp!
Where and when and what was Natzweiler-Struthof? Why is it so little known? What documentation is there of its existence? What has been published about it? This article, of which excerpts read here today, proposes to sketch answers to all of these questions, and to the last one most completely.
So much more is known about the dozen or so other major Konzentrationslagers; only two aspects in public knowledge are of its longest-term commandant, Josef Kramer, more likely to be known as “the Beast of Belsen,” for his atrocities at that camp where he was commandant for the last months of the war; and the camp doctors’ experiments and gassings of Jews and Gypsies, authorized by Himmler, that were documented at the Nüremburg trials.
At this camp and its 70 slave-labor dependencies, more than 52 thousand inmates were registered from 1941 to 1944 and hundreds more were executed and cremated without being registered. In 1960, Natzweiler was inaugurated by then-President Charles de Gaulle as a French National Historical Monument. In 1999 the French Department of Defense launched a plan to create a museum and research center on the history of all the Nazi Concentration camps and that museum is now established.
To commemorate their ordeal and their fallen comrades, Natzweiler’s survivors return there each year, and also to Dachau, to which they were “evacuated” by the Nazis before the advancing Allied armies in September 1944. The camp is frighteningly intact, more than any other; some 150,000 tourists, many of them school children from Germany, just across the Rhine, visit each year.
Natzweiler was about the same size as Dora but classified “Category III”, the harshest category, like Mauthausen. Dr. Goude, a survivor, writes that Category III was the category of “Vernichtungslager,” extermination camp. “I arrived there on the 19th of May, 1944, with a group of seven intellectuals. When we entered, we were immediately overwhelmed by our brothers in misery, their robot gait, their staring gaze, their indescribably skeletal appearance which was nowhere else as bad. I knew many camps (Buchenwald, Natzweiler, Wesseling, Dachau, Auschwitz,) but nowhere did I feel more painful pity than at the Struthof.” (as quoted by Allainmat, p. II)
In describing Natzweiler as Category III, an extermination camp, Allainmat, reporter and researcher, in his encyclopedic 1974 work, Auschwitz en France, claims a mortality of 40% for prisoners of this camp, and compares this figure to one of 15% mortality for Buchenwald. The camp’s museum now states 50% mortality.
The only survivor memoirs available to the public in English are Boris Pahor’s Pilgrim Among the Shadows, Floris Bakels’ Nacht und Nebel, and Arne Brun Lie’s Night and Fog. In French are Leroy, Linet, and Nevers La Resistance en Enfer, Marlot’s L’enfer d’Alsace (sold as a guide book at the camp) and Rosencher’s, Le sel, la cendre et la flamme. The memoirs of Joseph Scheinmann, Call Me André (his nom de guerre) are complete and will be a major contribution when they find a publisher. Beside the two dozen published but mostly now out-of print memoirs, I have collected and read about a dozen other accounts, by survivors who have written shorter accounts, or not been able to complete them, and who, like their published counterparts, are suffering still.
These accounts demonstrate that the persistence of memory of these atrocities is not an act claimed only by the Jews: only two of the known memoirs were written by Jews. The most recently published memoirs are by a Norwegian, a Dutchman and a Slovene: non-Jews. This should set aside the challenge so often put to a Jewish person interested in this period of history: “Why can’t you put the Holocaust behind you?”
Every one of the authors so far known to have written about Natzweiler, and included in this survey, was sent there as punishment for acts of resistance and sabotage of the German war effort. The NN and other political prisoners of the Nazis were destined to slave labor and extinction. They were not much ahead of the Jews, Gypsies and Slavs, the “untermenschen” (subhumans) of the concentration camps. (Sofsky: The Order of Terror: The Concentration Camp, Chapter 10.) None decided to bury the memories. Immersed in political and armed resistance to fascism, fighting for national liberation, each has ideals to convey as well as dramatic stories to tell.
Read together, the survivor accounts of a camp of this “small” size recreate a warp and woof of the struggle for life in the camp. The episodes which these authors recalled and wrote down, over a period of 50 years and in six different countries, provide some of the best “proof” to the deniers that such events ever happened. The memoirs originally appeared in French, English, German, Norwegian, Dutch and Slovene. Unorchestrated, the survivors give their description of many of the same scenes, and the scenes come alive as one reads more and more accounts.
Though they arrived in Rothau station on different trains, the survivors all record the typical greeting given prisoners arriving at the concentration camps: shouts and truncheons cracking down over their heads, dogs barking and biting. Arriving on different days, the authors record seeing white handkerchiefs waved, and women’s faces bathed in tears, behind the curtains of the Alsatian homes they passed on their way up the mountain.
Familiar with the scenes from each previous encounter in the reading, one has a sense of being there more concretely each time. For instance: SS Rottenführer (Corporal) Ehrmantrautt urinating on his victims’ face and having his dog tear their flesh, or rummaging in their rotting flesh wounds with his cane to stir the maggots, or putting huge stones under and over their broken and powerless bodies to hold them down in the blazing sun for hours.
The reader can see SS Oehler (aka “Jo-Jo la terreur” or “Jo-Jo la matraque”) and SS Fuchs tripping or punching men with their overloaded wheelbarrows of stones into the ravine, to be shot by the watching sentinels in the guard towers above. You can see thousands standing at attention for hours until nearly a hundred drop dead in sub-zero temperatures while the camp was searched for a missing pack of cigarettes that never showed up.
The reader can see these same scenes from many different angles -- the people step out from the page: their names are familiar; they are remembered in these and other situations, across the books. There are discrepancies by witnesses who were risking their lives to watch some actions, although forbidden to do so, but these do not change the accounts to fiction.
Despite their similar content, these memoirs are very different in organization, tone and ideological stance. Marlot and Aziz try to put it all in perspective, and order the chapters in response to the questions a logical person might ask about the camp. “Who, where, when and how?” --SS and Kapos, starvation, torture, overwork, murder, the crematorium, the gas chamber, the dissecting table, and the “infirmary.” Béné’s is an historical account packed with facts, figures, names and dates. Pahor’s, phantasmagorical and hallucinating, has no chapters and no full names. The last of the five questions, “Why?” is the question which is answered in the most varied of ways. And the authors all try to answer: “Why write these memoirs?”
What follows is a short introduction to each book, with a glimpse of the survivors’ life stories and careers in the resistance that brought them together at Natzweiler.
“I was born with the century,” Eugène Marlot used to say to me. The author of L’Enfer d’Alsace (The Hell of Alsace), which is sold as a guide to the camp, died in 1998. His ashes were strewn there, witnessed by a dwindling number of the survivors, at the annual commemorative ceremonies of June, 1999. Marlot, who arrived on his 43rd birthday, was one of the oldest men to survive the horrors of Natzweiler.
A French Socialist, Marlot was caught, he always stressed, “By French policemen, and put in a French Jail, and tried in a French court” for printing false documents to allow Frenchmen to get out of the STO-compulsory labor in Germany. (They never discovered his role in printing and distributing the monthly underground newspaper of Burgundy, ESPOIR.)
1943-1945 La Résistance en Enfer (Resistance in Hell), the cooperative memoirs of Leroy, Linet and Nevers, is the most defiantly up-beat, ideologically driven of the works, written late from the perspective of their lifelong dedication to the Communist party. Resistance, as they interpreted it in their 1992 account, meant not only organizing a network of dependably loyal and like-minded prisoners for the exchange of ideas and evaluating possibilities for escapes, but also the sharing of food, songs, hopes and dreams for the future
“One of ours is an interpreter!” these men write in a sketch of “André Peulevey,” who weaves in and out of their narrative like a guardian angel hovering over his charges, taking the boot instead of them. A secret Jew, Joseph Scheinmann, AKA André Peulevey, after some time at Natzweiler, was made a Kapo (a prisoner-boss). It is rare to find a survivor acknowledge, much less claim, to have been such.
Perhaps that is why Scheinmann’s Communist “camarades” wanted to protect him from possible misunderstandings by calling him an “interpreter” instead of a Kapo. His memoirs, titled “Call Me André,” add a vivid depiction of the espionage activities for which he was arrested to the acts of underground publishing, armed resistance and sabotage which landed the other French Nacht und Nebel (“NN”) prisoners in Natzweiler.
Scheinmann was second in command of the resistance network of 300 persons run through the SNCF, the French National Railroads, by André Turban, its director for Brittany. His assumption of role of interpreter for the SS, for which he was eminently qualified, having been born in Munich, but which he concealed along with his Judaism and so much more, and his shrewd manipulation of the German character that he knew so well, made him a lethal force for 15 months before he was caught in December 1941 after a training mission to Britain.
When Scheinmann met Henri Rosencher, whom he had known at Natzweiler, on the Champs Elysées, in line at a cinema after the war, he admitted to him: “I was not ‘Peulevey.’” To which Rosencher replied, “I was not ‘Breuillot’...” Le Sel, la Cendre et la Flamme (Salt, Ash and Flame), Rosencher’s 1985 memoirs of his armed struggle against the Germans in North Africa and the Vercors include the least number of pages of all these books on Natzweiler. Yet more than enough of the shared memories are included: the bestial “Fernandel” crushing the skull of a prone prisoner, the hundreds of shaved heads – eventually identified as women and men of Alliance Réseau of the Alsatian resistance -- who were marched to the crematorium just a couple of days before the camp’s evacuation, the smell of burned flesh.
This young Polish Jewish émigré, also a secret Jew at Natzweiler, was en route to finishing his medical studies when he threw himself into the armed resistance on two continents and, like André, always pined for the fact that despite their great acts of heroism and derring-do, were unable to save their parents from the gas chambers at Auschwitz.
Some of the most tragic misinformation of the literature is unwittingly featured on the back page of Aimé Spitz’ noble “reportage”, Struthof Bagne Nazi en Alsace. Listed there are the death and imprisonment sentences imposed on the Nazi cadres of the camp, after trials that lasted a decade. One cannot help but wish it were true. Spitz’ last sentence reads: “The deportees will never forget Struthof nor will they ever be able to forget that the torturers of Struthof were returned to the Federal Republic of Germany.” Although he lived to see their sentences commuted, he did not live to see the mass murderers released, collecting pensions, and living out peaceful lives at home.
“NN” by André Ragot, a doctor who ministered to the prisoners in the Natzweiler and other camp infirmaries advocated the death sentence for all Germans involved in the war effort. In fact, of all the mass-murderers at Natzweiler, only Kramer was executed, by the British, and that for his role at Bergen-Belsen.
Charles Béné’s Du Struthof à la France Libre, is a book-length account of the only successful excape from Natzweiler, which is summarized in many of the other accounts. His L’Alsace dans les Griffes Nazies,” (Alsace in the Nazis’ Claws) is a six-volume series, the fifth of which concerns the police organization, prisons and deportation camps of Alsace, which was not only occupied, but annexed by Germany after its armies overran France in 1940. Eight of its 13 chapters describe and document Natzweiler, where its author was interned. Béné compiles such a wealth of detail -- in his recording of incidents, scenes, processes and people that made the camp function as a system of ceaseless varieties of torture and murder -- that it has so far defied reading by even this dedicated researcher. Another chapter deals with the nearby internment and work camp of Schirmeck-Vorbruck, and the rest of the chapters, along with a very detailed personnel list, describe the structure of the Nazi police state in Alsace.
Concerning Schirmeck, although it is not the same camp, the 1995 memoir, I, Pierre Seel, Deported Homosexual: A Memoir of Nazi Terror tells all on the horror of that nearby “reeducation camp” from which he was released after six months of degradation and deprivation more than 50 years earlier.
Floris Bakels’ diaries form the basis of Nacht un Nebel, (Night and Fog) Published in 1993, it is possibly the latest of the eyewitness accounts to be published about Natzweiler, and also the earliest, in part, to be written: it is based on his concentration camp diaries which were hidden in the rafters of Natzweiler before the camp’s “evacuation” on September 2, 1944, to Dachau.(115)
Bakels’ diaries, while providing contemporary accounts of the same events as those the other inmates recorded from memory and the camp archives, play counterpoint to all the other memoirs: as a “proeminenten” by his Dutch nationality, which was respected as Aryan by the Nazis, Bakels held a desk job, lost about ten kilos less than the others, possessed and smoked cigarettes by the pack, received packages from home , cooked, and even kept his faith in God.
From another perspective, and also available to the English language reader, comes Pilgrim Among the Shadows, by Boris Pahor, most “literary” of the existing memoirs. Pahor, the deservedly celebrated author of some 15 books, deals with the guilt of the survivor, also a theme in his 1958 book, recently translated from the Slovene into French as Printemps Difficile (Difficult Spring).” Pahor, born in Trieste, fought for Slovene national liberation and was arrested and sent to Natzweiler in 1943 as anti-German, anti-fascist, told an interviewer for Le Monde:
“I only know how to describe the dying and the dead...After our return, thousands committed suicide....It was difficult to return. With the guilt of knowing that, if they are still living, it is because they ate dead men’s bread....I write as if I was in the morgue.”
This self-assessment undervalues the glittering attraction of his writing as he shifts the reader’s attention between the living tourists and the dead victims (both the “Shadows” of the title), whom he sees and reaches out to during his return to Natzweiler. He at first resents the motorized procession of tourists “distorting the dreamlike images that have lived in the shadows of my mind ever since the war….Their eyes will never see the abyss of desolation that was our punishment for believing in man’s dignity and freedom.”
I will end this part of the account with Arne Brun Lie’s Night and Fog, 1990, the memoirs of a Norwegian teenager who at 16, in 1944, after a few weeks of dabbling in the resistance, was arrested as an NN, avoided execution for reasons he never discovered, and spent the last year of the war in Natzweiler, Dautmergen, and Dachau. With your permission, during the question period, I will read a couple of pages of his recollection and response to his arrival at Natzweiler. It brings together all the themes of this paper, in the remembered voice of a disrespectful but already wise adolescent. Thank you.
Copyright © 2009 Diana Mara Henry firstname.lastname@example.org http://www.natzweiler-struthof.org
Diana Mara Henry would be happy to send you the 42-page paper about the memoirs by survivors of Natzweiler-Struthof for a donation, and/or a bibliography. Please send your request by e-mail.