Before WWII, Le Struthof was a popular ski resort in the Alsace Mountains. That was until a German geologist named Blumberg discovered a vein of red granite near the top of Mount Louise and suggested that it should be mined.
In May 1941 the Czech and German prisoners were transferred to a camp near the resort hotel to work on the construction of the new concentration camp. Most of the people sent to Le Struthof were political prisoners or resistance fighters but soon Jews and Gypsies were brought there to be used in scientific experiments. By April 1943 a small gas chamber has been built in the annex of the hotel and in August 86 Jews are gassed for experimental purposes.
Not long after, a crematorium is built at the foot of the camp and in July 1944 four female Resistance members of the British SOE are executed and burned in the crematorium. Two months later a further 142 Resistance members are executed prior to the Nazis evacuating the camp. Altogether, it is estimated that there were 52,000 prisoners of the camp from 31 different nations and approximately 22,000 died.
The site of the concentration camp now serves as a museum and memorial centre, a reminder of the horrors of war.
I begin my visit by walking down the 1km path to the site of the gas chamber. On the way, I pass a beautiful villa with an outdoor swimming pool. This was commandeered from a local family and used by the Camp Commandant as his private residence. How awful that the last thing those Jewish prisoners would have seen, walking to their deaths, was a crystal blue pool of fresh water. The exterior of the building which houses the gas chamber looks perfectly normal. It was previously a storehouse for the hotel. However, just inside the door is a white tiled room with a drain in the floor and a small channel through which the poisonous cocktail was poured. You can understand how the prisoners thought they might be taking a shower. Outside are two memorial stones with the names of those who died in the gas chamber inscribed on them.
Back up at the main camp I enter through the large double gate, much like the prisoners did 75 years ago. Only four of the buildings remain but the terraced areas where the other 13 barracks would have been are still there. The first building is now a museum which provides detailed information about life in the camps, illustrated with faded black and white photographs, and modern works of art. I’m surprised to learn about the four female SOE resistance fighters who lost their lives here. Their deaths were only discovered through the tenacity of their female commanding officer who traced the records to discover their last movements. At the bottom of the site, beside the incinerator in the crematorium where their bodies were disposed of, they are remembered with a simple plaque and a wreath of red poppies.
The crematorium building also features a tiled mortuary table, a stark reminder of the scientific experiments which were conducted by three doctors who were stationed at Le Struthof. Prisoners were used as human guinea pigs to advance the medical knowledge of the Nazis. Bizarrely, two of the doctors continued to practice medicine after only a few years in prison for their crimes. The other committed suicide.
Following a war crimes tribunal in 1945, the commandant of the camp, Joseph Kramer, was sentenced to death by hanging.
The red granite quarried by the prisoners of Le Struthof was used for several buildings in Nuremberg which was the unofficial capital of the Nazis and a favourite city of Adolf Hitler.