Hidden high in the forests of the Vosges Mountains, Struthof used to be a winter resort, complete with a cozy Gasthof (inn) and a society hall for dances. But the Nazis decided to quarry granite nearby, and they required labor to do so. They turned the Gasthof into temporary quarters for the commander and his staff during the camp’s construction, and later, they converted part of the society hall into a gas chamber.
Since I had already visited much larger, more notorious concentration camps, including Auschwitz and Birkenau, I didn’t expect Natzweiler-Struthof to be quite so overwhelming. But the Nazis were no less cruel here. In all, around 22,000 people were killed.
At the striking visitor center, a short film gives a helpful introduction to the site’s past. In the basement, the displays trace the history of the war and various camps. Most of the commentary there is in French. The camp and its outbuildings have English descriptions.
Between the now sinister-looking villa of the camp’s Kommandantur and the entrance gate, we discovered a little lantern on the hillside. It stands on the site of the former SS kitchen gardens, which were fertilized with the ashes of the corpses of prisoners burned in the crematorium. Just beyond the wooden entrance gate, surrounded by a once-electrified barbed-wire fence, were two restored barracks. The exhibits within illuminated what life at the camp was like for prisoners, and a model showed what the camp looked like when it was in operation (many of the buildings no longer exist). A gallows stands between the barracks in the “roll-call square.”
We walked down the hill to two of the remaining buildings near the base of the camp. First, we visited the prison barracks, where it was possible to enter some of the cells where people who committed infractions — real or imagined — were held and tortured. Those facing the death penalty had cells so small that they could neither stand nor lie down. Walking into a cell was anxiety provoking, but I felt an unexpected rush of horror as I peered through the peephole of a closed cell door, realizing that I was enacting the behavior of a prison guard.
The Nazis were no less cruel here. In all, around 22,000 people were killed.
Visiting the neighboring building was yet more harrowing. One side contained the crematorium, its well-preserved condition enhancing its power to shock. In the other half of the building, the Nazis carried out medical experiments on prisoners. A plinth-like table still stands in one room, its tiles grooved in order to channel blood down a drain.
Rattled by what I had seen, I emerged into the sunlight and stood for a time in the fresh air, watching a group of French soldiers on a guided tour of the site. When they filed back up the hill, I had a look at the sign that described the significance of the cross near where they had clustered. It marked the ash pit, where most of the remains of the camp’s victims had been dumped.
Visiting a place like Natzweiler-Struthof is emotionally difficult, even devastating. It’s perhaps not on the average traveler’s must-see list for Alsace. Yet I strongly recommend a visit. World War II is often romanticized in film and other media. But Natzweiler-Struthof stands as a visceral reminder that the war was a time of terrible suffering, inflicted by political fanatics, convinced that those who were different — and even those who simply disagreed — were less than human.