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silence and memory


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Just and old fashioned bell-pull?


Where to find Struthof also
known as Natzwillet

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Northern France
Have you heard of Struthof? At the end of a narrow winding road high in the wooded hills of the Vosges, there is a newly-painted sign. It requests visitors to be silent. Today there is plenty of silence among these woods, once known as the 'forest of songs' because of the screams of its unwilling inhabitants. Many people wish the place wasn't here at all; some even tried to burn it down, and nearly succeeded. In the towns and villages below, its neighbours ignore it as best they can. Anywhere else, what lies behind the double barbed wire fence would be signposted from all directions. But even in the absence of road signs people come in coach-loads to wander around this blighted (but now uncomfortably tidy) spot under a vast Alsace sky. The corpses in the cesspit, now grassed over, are hard to imagine.

By mid morning, the grassed-and-gravelled compound is transformed by the multicoloured garments of the tourists, and takes on a slightly festive air. Couples, families, parties of schoolchildren, all make their way to the low barrack-like building at the bottom of the hill. Its chimney was said to glow red at night. What will it feel like to stand in front of an oven that consumed so many thousands labelled 'undesirables', communists, gay people, and conscientious objectors amongst them? Not everyone tries to crowd into the small space to hear a tour guide explain what the levers and pulleys were for and how the dissected corpses were raised from below and moved into the oven. Those who do enter listen in silence.

The oven doors stand open with plastic flowers at its mouth. Somehow these inoffensive little bunches interfere with the meaning of this place, distorting and softening what speaks - shouts - a shocking fact into the silence.

Back at the top of the hill, one of the huts that survived the neo-Nazi arson attack houses a simple exhibition. Here are grim photographs of corpses floating in formaldehyde, once kept here awaiting dissection elsewhere. Here are dreadful images from other places - heaps of skeletal bodies at Belsen; Auschwitz; Dachau; Mauthausen.... Struthof's visitors stand scrutinising them in slow silence.

Not far outside the camp perimeter, a rusty sign points to 'chambre à gaz'. Only a few visitors go there. Originally an outhouse of the once-popular ski resort for Strasbourg's citizens, it was put to more sinister use and has since been 'preserved'. The added zinc chimney, the rusty trap-door halfway up the wall, the window, and what looks like an old fashioned bell-pull, are the only signs of its terrible history. Perhaps this is why it's left off the tour itinerary - there's simply not enough to see to make the small detour 'worthwhile'.

But this place - unadorned with flowers, without explanatory notices or grainy black-and-white photographs - is the perfect spot on which to reflect on the nature of evil and individual responsibility. Here is the source for a hundred school-trip lessons. The harmless rusty handle that opened the trap-door that released the acid that... It's a forceful reminder not only of human cruelty but of our individual and collective responsibility. The workmen who fixed this homely contraption did not pull the handle but they could not help knowing what the function of their simple mechanism would be.

Down the hill from Struthof lies prosperous Schirmeck and its surrounding district. Not much crime, not many immigrants. Here Jean-Marie Le Pen, who once referred to the gas chambers as 'a detail in history', polled 25.73%, well ahead of Jacques Chirac and Lionel Jospin, in the first round of France's recent presidential elections. Some said this was a protest vote against Chirac. Here in Schirmeck, local journalist Claude Kaflain said Le Pen's voters weren't just making a protest. 'They did it because they believe in what he stands for.'

'You who visit here, remember', urges the final notice at Struthof's exit. But what exactly are we to remember, and what is the purpose of remembering? There is no reply; only silence.


NEXT northern england 


German pupils learning about their country's dark past




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