Life in the Natzweiler-Struthof
The camp which Americans now call Natzweiler-Struthof
was officially known to the French as Konzentrationslager Natzwiller,
according to a book which I purchased at the Memorial site. It
was located in the Vosges mountain range in the heart of the
French province of Alsace. Life in the camp was particularly
hard because of the high altitude and the bitterly cold weather.
The following description of life in
the camp was written by Aime Spitz, one of the survivors, and
included in a book which I purchased at the Memorial site:
LIFE IN THE CAMP
During summer, we get up at four o'clock
in the morning; during winter, when days are the shortest, we
get up at six. We go to the washrooms where, half naked, we have
to wash ourselves with freezing water, we dress, then we receive
a pint of infusion or of a beverage they call coffee. Then we
go, five abreast, to the roll-call place where the S.S. count
the men of each block. The roll-calls often go on for hours,
and there we stand still, in the snow during winter, under the
rain during summer, without any coat of course.
The roll-call being over, we go to
platform I and II for the formation of the work kommandos. This
being done, we begin the hard work of the day. At noon, we come
back to the camp, another roll call is called. Hastily, they
give us our miserable two pints of soup in the block. Again we
assemble and we leave for our work; at about six o'clock, the
work kommandos come back to the camp; at six, a roll-call like
the morning one, often endless. Then we go to our respective
blocks, half naked, we wash ourselves. The poor evening meal
is distributed and we have to go to bed in the dormitories.
According to the accounts of the survivors,
the food in the camp was scanty: a pint of coffee or watery soup
in the morning; two pints of soup at noon, and a pint of coffee
and twelve ounces of bread in the evening. The bread was accompanied
by an ounce of margarine, a spoonful of marmalade and a slice
of sausage or a small piece of cheese. On Mondays, Wednesdays
and Fridays, a pint of soup was served instead of the sausage
or cheese. On Sundays, soup with a few pieces of meat was served
for the noon meal.
For those who worked, the traditional
German second breakfast was served at 9 o'clock in the morning;
it consisted of two slices of bread with less than an ounce of
margarine or a small slice of sausage.
Prisoners who were sent to Natzweiler-Struthof
were transported by train to the nearest station at Rothau, 5
miles from the camp. From there, they had to walk up the 2,500
foot mountain to the camp.
Dr. Ragot was a prisoner who survived
the camp, but died in September 1954 at the age of 44, undoubtedly
as a result of the harsh conditions of his imprisonment. The
following description of the camp was written by Dr. Ragot and
published in a book sold at the Memorial site:
ARRIVAL AT THE CAMP
We arrive at the very top of the mountain
which is totally clear of trees. The North wind blows very hard,
raising swirls of snow. As we leave on our left a large farm-house
with many annexes: the Struthof (we will learn afterwards that
those are the gas chambers and the workshops, used for the experiments),
we pass near a small villa, on the left, which even has a swimming
pool! This is the dwelling of the commandant, the sinister Kramer
and, after a few hundred yards, we are in front of the camp's
An imposing spectacle, the snow covers
everything: blocks, observation posts, electrified wire fences,
and all this whiteness is violently lighted in the dark night
by powerful searchlights, which make the moon look pale.
An unforgettable vision: the roll-call
platforms rise one above the other, like the huge tiers on an
amphitheater, the deportees are lined-up on the platform above
ours and stand out like shadow-shows on this lunar scenery.
An imposing spectacle, when one grasps
the whole of it, but what a tragical contrast between such a
beauty and the atmosphere of madness in which we were to live
henceforth, and which was so oppressive that, one night, three
of us hanged themselves.
After the abandoned Natzweiler camp was
discovered by American troops on November 23, 1944, Milton Bracker,
a reporter for the New York Times, toured the camp in early December.
Bracker had previously visited the Majdanek camp in Lublin, Poland
in September 1944, so he was aware of the Nazi atrocities committed
in the concentration camps. In an article published in the New
York Times on December 5, 1944, Bracker wrote about his impression
of the camp, as quoted by Robert H. Abzug in his book "Inside
the Vicious Heart":
"It might have been a Civilian
Conservation Corps camp. From the winding road to the bald hilltop,
the sturdy green barrack buildings looked exactly like those
that housed forestry trainees in the United States during the
early New Deal."
Abzug wrote that Bracker "had to
take the word of the French that 16,000 persons had come as prisoners
to Natzweiler between late 1941 and the evacuation in the summer
of 1944, and that 4,000 had perished." However, the online
Wikipedia encyclopedia estimates that 40,000 prisoners were incarcerated
at Natzweiler, including Resistance fighters from France, Norway
and the Netherlands, and that more than half them died, an estimated
25,000 people, from starvation, overwork and mistreatment by
the SS guards. Another web site at http://crdp.ac-reims.fr/memoire/enseigner/Natzweiler_Struthof/menu.htm
estimates that there were 10,000 deaths at Natzweiler.
The resistance fighters, who had committed
particularly heinous atrocities against German soldiers during
the occupation of Europe, were condemned to death and hanged
or shot, but the others were spared; they disappeared into the
night and fog of camps like Natzweiler. They were the Nacht und
Nebel prisoners who were not allowed to send or receive letters.
They had been deported without the knowledge of their relatives.
Approximately 7,000 prisoners in the
concentration camp system were in the Nacht und Nebel category
and most of them were French resistance fighters. The majority
were sent to Natzweiler or the Gross-Rosen camp which is now
located in Poland, but was in the Greater German Reich at that
The following description of life as
an N.N. prisoner in the Struthof section of the camp was written
by Pierre Suire, one of the survivors:
I arrived in the camp at Struthof
on May 19, 1944 with a group of seven intellectuals. When we
arrived, we were at once impressed by our companions in misery,
by the fact that they walked like robots, by their intent look,
their skeletal aspect which was indescribable and has never been
equaled. I have known many other camps (Buchenwald, Natzwiller,
Wesseling, Dachau, Auschwitz) but nowhere else have I felt such
a painful pity as at the Struthof. What first intrigued us were
the huge letters N.N. painted in red on their clothes... These
were men completely cut off from the civilized world.
They never received any letter, any
parcel or any exterior news. It was complete degradation, frenzied
work and the furious brutality of the kapos and of the heads
of the blocks. The deportees did not benefit from the effective
five hour sleep, for vermin would trouble them. The evening rest
usually granted on Sundays was suppressed. But, on the contrary,
flogging all day long - with the dogs constantly at one's heels
- when one is obsessed by the fear of a breakdown, of the reduced
food, the complete lack, in the beginning, of medical care, the
dreadful experiments that were supposed to be scientific, human
grafts and gas chambers.
The first prisoners sent to Struthof
had to work in building the Natzweiler-Struthof camp. The following
description of this work was made by Professor Simonin in a speech
delivered in the camp after France was liberated:
We can see the starving work teams,
walking skeletons who carried the stones, the beams, the boards
or the turf from the hills of the neighborhood for the construction
of their own prison. We can hear the hysterical voices of the
S.S. who never stop pushing their slaves towards ever-renewed
efforts, inhuman efforts which inevitably lead towards physical
and mental degradation, towards a terrible death, far from their
country, far from their loved ones.
The prisoners who worked in the camp
were divided into kommandos. One kommando was given the task
of digging a Kartoffel Keller or a cellar that was 100 yards
long by 20 yards wide and 4 yards deep for the storage of potatoes.
Other kommando groups worked on building roads. One kommando
was made up of prisoners who were incapable of heavy work; they
were given the task of making nets for the conveying of torpedoes;
this was known as the "spinning" kommando (the weberei).
The camp had an Infirmary or hospital
that was at first in Block number 4, which was finished at the
end of 1941. According to a book written jointly by several of
the survivors, Block number 5 was originally used for the Schonungbedürfig,
or prisoners who were exhausted and needed rest. In the summer
of 1944, block number 5 was used for prisoners who were the subjects
of the medical experiments and block number 2 was reserved for
the exhausted prisoners.
According to Dr. Ragot, a survivor of
the camp, room number 1 in block number 5 was called the "shot
room" by the prisoners because this is where the sick and
the wounded were brought to be killed during the night with an
injection of petrol or paraffin.
Blocks number 1, 10, 11, 12, 13, and
14 were for the prisoners who were healthy and there were 7 blocks
reserved for the Krankenbau or the infirmary. Block number 8
was used for prisoners who had contagious diseases.
Dr. Ragot, a medical doctor who was a
prisoner in the camp, wrote the following description of the
care of the sick at Natzweiler:
The infirmary was forbidden to the
French: the wounded and the sick were thus carried to work on
the back of some valid companions; then they were put on the
ground stripped to the waist, under the sun, preferably with
a sharp stone under their back, and another one on the stomach,
and they were drenched with cold water. At noon, they went back
to the camp in the same way, but they lay on the roll-call place
during the half-hour of the soup that they were not allowed to
eat because they had not worked.
It was only at the beginning of 1943
that the French were allowed to receive care and bandaging in
the infirmary. At the end of October, their admission was complete.
Professor Simonin, in a lecture given
at the camp after France was liberated, said the following:
We can see 18 French N.N. arrive,
dressed in rags with coloured stripes. We can see them fall under
the weight of their wheelbarrow, stand up again, fall again drenched
under showers of water, lying on the floor, their eyes filled
with fright in front of the obvious wish of killing them in a
few days, in a "normal way", just by work. We can see
their purulent wounds, the worms in their living flesh and the
coffins that carried them to the crematorium. We can hear the
tommy guns which killed those who tried to oppose too strong
a physical resistance, pushed down from the top of a ramp by
kicks of a beastly kapo.
The work in the camp was supervised by
kapos, who were prisoners themselves. They were usually German
criminals who had the power of life and death over the prisoners,
according to the survivors, who accused the kapos of killing
prisoners while they were on work details.
The following was sent to me in an e-mail
message from a visitor to this web site:
"A very reliable and detailed personal
description of life as a Nacht und Nebel prisoner in Natzweiler-Struthof
also is found in the memoirs of former Norwegian prime minister
Trygve Bratteli: Fange i Natt og Tåke, 1980. Mr. Bratteli's
memoirs in particlur describes the different effects on the human
mind of severe starvation: Endlessly discussing with your fellow-prisoners
which was the best meal you ever had and endlessly discussing
the best meal you are going to have in the future. When you suddenly
lost every interest in this fundamental gastronomical discussion
you had turned into a so called Muselman doomed to death from
hunger within a very few days left with an empty look in your
eyes and a characteristically slow way of moving. Unfortunately
this remarkable Norwegian book never has been translated into
Since a great many of the prisoners at
Natzweiler were Communists, they had a spirit of solidarity.
According to François Faure, one of the survivors, each
block had a man who was responsible for "solidarity."
The following words were written by Faure and included in a book
sold at the Memorial site:
Everyday, the man responsible for
the "solidarity" saved the small pieces of bread, even
the really tiny ones that we took from our scanty rations, and
then he distributed them among the weakest of us. I myself benefited
from it and it was maybe thanks to these few crumbs of bread
that I survived, and that many of us had to courage to "hold
on" until the end.