natzweiler -gas chamber

Natzweiler -Gas Chamber (USHMM)

The Natzweiler Concentration Camp is the only concentration camp built by the Nazis on French territory. It was established in Alsace, whose two departments had been annexed to the Reich in July 1940. The Germans considered Alsace and Moselle to be German lands destined for radical Germanisation. Alsace was joined with the province (Gau) of Baden, whose Gauleiter was Robert Wagner and Moselle was joined with that of the Palatinate, which was under the leadership of Gauleiter Josef Burckel. A civilian administration was installed in Strasbourg, and an internment camp was established as early as July 2, 1940, just two weeks after the entry of German troops into Strasbourg. Doctor Scheel, the first commandant of the SS and SD in Alsace, organised the construction of a small camp able to handle the internment of 150 people. The construction order gave a list of people to be held in the camp, i.e. Germans who had fought in the International Brigades and Alsatian in-subordinates and opponents of the German Army.

The first camp was built next to a small town in the Vosges, Schirmeck about 31 miles from Strasbourg  and received the name of Schirmeck- Vorbruck. Some sixty Alsatians who had led anti-German activities before the war, or who had deserted the German Army during the First World War were immediately interned. The camp functioned throughout the entire war but never became a concentration camp. It was more of a local work camp, labeled 'education camp' or detention camp. During the entire annexation period the Schirmeck camp was used for the internment of Alsatians who had attempted to cross the new border with France. Jehovah's Witnesses, those accused of black market activity, and family members who opposed the Germans. The camp was guarded by German members of the Order Police. The SS tried to gain control of the camp, but never managed to do so. In the course of time some of Schirmeck's inmates were transferred to Natzweiler.

Some months after the creation of the Schirmeck camp, the SS established a second camp, not far from the first. The official date for the opening of a second camp was May 1, 1941. The chosen site was Natzweiler, in the Bruche valley, because of the existence of a granite quarry there. The construction order for the camp came from Heinrich Himmler himself. The SS - Deutsche Erd und Steinwerke GmbH (German Earth and Stone Works, DESt) enterprise expropriated the site and organised the exploitation of the quarry. They founded an office in Rothau, a village in the valley, where the train station nearest to the camp was located.

The mayor of Schirmeck was SS-Standartenfuhrer Blumberg. Before the war Struthof was known throughout Alsace. A small ski and winter sports resort had been installed there. There was a hotel where the SS guards stayed, as well as a farm. Work on the construction of the camp began in April 1941. Some prisoners from the Schirmeck camp were used to build the first barracks.The first convoy of prisoners, approximately 150 men, arrived on May 21, 1941, at the Rothau station. They came from the Sachsenhausen Concentration Camp and were initially lodged in the farm's pigsty. The second convoy arrived three days later. On June 28, 1941, the first French prisoners arrived in the third convoy. These men worked to complete the construction of the camp. The first four buildings were not finished until November 1941. The inmates also worked in the quarry as well.

Until the spring of 1942, the Natzweiler Concentration Camp remained small, only holding approximately 200 prisoners. They also built the structures for the administrative functions of the camp. The numbers of inmates started to increase dramatically, and at the end of 1942, 2,000 inmates had already been registered. The construction of the camp was not completed until the beginning of 1943. There were seventeen blocks within its confines and twelve other buildings outside it.

On March 12, 1942, a large transport of German Communists arrived in Rothau. A transport of 71 Norwegians arrived in Natzweiler on June 15, 1943. They were resisters who had been imprisoned in the Grini camp or in the Akershus fortress. They had been sent by boat as far as Aarhus in Denmark and from there sent by train to Strasbourg, via Hamburg. Nine transports of Norwegians totaling 504 men arrived in Natzweiler up to the last day in August 1944. All of these transports were classified under the prisoner category 'Nacht und Nebel' - Night and Fog decree.

In June 1943, a total of 4,430 prisoners had been registered at Natzweiler Concentration Camp, and during 1944, their numbers fluctuated between 6,000 and 7,000. In total 52,000 prisoners were registered in the main camp or in the exterior sub-camps. The mortality rate at Natzweiler was quite high, and it is estimated that some 20,000 prisoners died there from exhaustion, hunger, illness and maltreatment. The inmates came from many different countries. There were many Alsatians and Mosellans imprisoned for insubordinate conduct, acts of resistance and those that had resisted forced enlistment in the German Wehrmacht. There were numerous French, Dutch, Germans, Eastern Europeans and men from Luxembourg. There were also Sinti and Roma Gypsies. Not one inmate was recorded as Jewish in the main camp. Jews who were sent to Natzweiler went directly to the sub-camps. There were no women prisoners in Natzweiler. In the interior of the camp itself, there was a 'Nacht und Nebel' section, as well as the political department of the Gestapo.

The camp had several commandants: the first was Hans Huttig, who was replaced by Egon Zill, who in turn was succeeded by Heinrich Schwarz, who had also served in Auschwitz from 1941 until 1945. In November 1940, Josef Kramer, was transferred from Auschwitz to Natzweiler to the post of Camp Manger, and in October 1941, he was appointed to the post of commandant at Natzweiler. He held this post until May 1944, when he was posted back to Auschwitz, to perform the role of commandant at Auschwitz-Birkenau. He was replaced by Friedrich 'Fritz' Hartjenstein, who had also performed the role of commandant of Auschwitz-Birkenau. It was under Kramer's tenure that Natzweiler became a much larger concentration camp. The camp garrison consisted of 200 SS, of which 150 served as guards, and 50 handled administrative tasks. The commandants lived in a requisitioned villa, which was located in the mountains above the camp.

The Natzweiler camp had at least 42 sub-camps, located in Alsace, Moselle and south-west Germany. Some sub-camps were not created until the autumn of 1944, in Germany, when in fact the main camp had been evacuated.In Natzweiler, the majority of the inmates worked in the quarry. They were also employed on building a road between Rothau and the camp. In the autumn of 1943, the quarry was enlarged towards the east, and a wide esplanade was cleared. It was on this plot that two buildings and thirteen barracks were built to serve as workshops for the Junker airplane manufacturing firm from Dessau, which had previously taken over workshops in Alsace. In the Natzweiler camp workshops inmates worked to strip down and repair airplane motors. There were also civilian employees in these workshops.

Corpses of the inmates were burned first in a mobile crematorium until a more permanent structure was built outside the camp, in October 1943, next to the hotel. All of the deaths, except those of the 'Nacht und Nebel' category of prisoners, were recorded at the city hall in the village. There were medical experiments performed at the Natzweiler Concentration Camp, studying the effects of mustard gas, typhus, and hereditary diseases. A gas chamber was built for this purpose, outside the camp, in an outbuilding of the hotel where the camp administration was based. It was used from the summer of 1943. The experiments took place at the research centre of the University of Strassbourg.  The Director of this centre was August Hirt, professor of anatomy at the Reichsuniversitat Strassburg. Another scientist, Professor Eugen Hagen, head physician of the Luftwaffe and professor of hygiene at the University of Strasbourg, was responsible for research for a vaccine against typhus. Dr. Bickenback led studies on utrotropine, used as an antidote for phosgene gas, and Dr. Eusele practiced vivisection. Gypsies were sent from Auschwitz  to Natzweiler to serve as guinea pigs in these experiments. However, the only murders in the gas chambers that can be regarded as certain are described in testimony at one of the trials of Nazi doctors at Nuremburg: 86 Jews, including 30 women, arrived from Auschwitz during August 1943; they were gassed on August 11, 13, 17, and 19, with potassium cyanide. It took them 30 to 60 seconds to die. Their bodies were sent to the anatomy institute at the Medical University of Strasbourg, where they were reduced to a skeletal state. At the liberation of Strasbourg in November 1944, 17 bodies, 3 of which were women, were discovered. The dissection work had barely been commenced.

There were escapes from the camp, with the intention of reaching the border that separated Alsace from the rest of occupied France, which was not far away. In March 1942, some Czech and Polish inmates organised a resistance network, led by Communists. They succeeded in establishing a liaison with Communist militants in the River Bruche valley. The three leaders of the group were Joseph Cichusz, a Pole, who had fought in the Spanish Civil War; Edwald Motzkat, a German Communist from Wiesbaden, and Mautner, who hailed from Czechslovakia.

Only one escape succeeded, organised by Alsatian inmate Martin Wintenberg. He had arrived in Natzweiler on November 12, 1941, from the Schirmeck camp. He was put to work in the SS guards garage, then in a detention commando, and then in the SS laundry. With a German inmate, Alfons Christmann, he set about preparing his escape. With the help of another inmate Karl Haas, who worked in the SS garage, who reserved some petrol for an escape by car. Since they worked in the laundry, Wintenberg and Christmann obtained two uniforms that had been left for washing.

On July 4, 1942, they were both able to leave the camp, in a car, dressed in the uniforms. There were three other inmates hidden in the vehicle, the five men succeeded in reaching France, then the unoccupied zone. They left Christmann, quite weakened after his incarceration in the camp, at the home of some of his family members, who lived in the south of France. The Gestapo found him there in October, arrested him again, and sent him back to Natzweiler Concentration Camp, where he was hanged in front of the other inmates. The other four escapees managed to reach Spain.

Another resistance group, French Communists led by the FTP - Franc-Tireur-Partisan, organised ties with the outside world. A large-scale escape was planned, but the German guards found the plan in a satchel, where one inmate had hidden it. The members of this network were executed. Some were hanged, whilst others were shot. A similar escape attempt by Russian prisoners was harshly suppressed during June 1943, fifteen men were killed after prolonged torture, in front of the other prisoners.

The Natzweiler Concentration Camp was evacuated on August 31, 1944, before the advance of the Allied forces overran it. There were still 7,000 men at Natzweiler at that time. Some trucks took the weakest inmates to the Rothau train station, but the majority of prisoners made the same journey on foot. At the station, freight trains took the prisoners into the interior of the Reich. The evacuation operation was completed on September 4, 1944. Only a few SS men reamined at Natzweiler. Transports of inmates from Natzweiler arrived at Dachau Concentration Camp near Munich, where they were distributed to different Kommando's in south-west Germany, some attached to Natzweiler and some independent. On September 7, 1944, the 1127 patients from the Natzweiler camp infirmary arrived in Dachau. The camp administration    was transferred to Guttenbach, on the River Neckar, in Germany.

The administrative staff from Natzweiler continued managing the prisoners who were spread out in many sub-camps, several of which had just been created, and even continued to register new prisoners. In April 1945, all the prisoners were transferred to the control of the Dachau Concentration Camp administration.

Those principally responsible for the crimes committed in the Natzweiler Concentration Camp were judged by a British Military Tribunal at Wuppertal from May 29, to June 1, 1946. The main charges were the execution of four women, three of whom were identified as members of the SOE - the British Special Operations Executive; Denise Borrell, who was French, Diana Rowden, and Vera Leigh, and a fourth woman whose identity was never discovered. They were killed in the camp on July 6, 1944.

Among the nine accused were Magnus Wochner, head of the Political Department, and the camp commandant Friedrich 'Fritz' Hartjenstein, Hartjenstein was found guilty of war crimes and sentenced to life imprisonment. Werner Rohde, the camp physician, who like Hartjenstein, had also served at the Auschwitz Concentration Camp, who had administered at least one of the fatal injections, was sentenced to death. He was executed on October 10, 1946. Eugen Buttner, who directed the quarry commando, was sentenced to death by a French Military Tribunal, and to forced labour for life by a Soviet Tribunal, which ended up as the sentence he received. He was pardoned during 1956.


Encyclopaedia of Camps and Ghettos 1933- 1945, USHMM, Indiana University Press Bloomington and Indianapolis 2012

French L. Maclean, The Camp Men, Schiffer Publishing Ltd 1991

Chris Webb, The Auschwitz Concentration Camp, Ibidem-Verlag, Stuttgart 2018

Photograph - USHMM

Holocaust Historical Society, April 4,  2019