Life in the Natzweiler-Struthof camp

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:


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:


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 gate...

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 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 time.

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 English."

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.

Medical Experiments

Evacuation of the Camp