The Struthof gas chamber, a place of experimentation

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The Struthof gas chamber, a place of experimentation

Natzwiller (Bas-Rhin)

From our correspondent

We needed bodies in good condition, not injured, sick or disfigured. To constitute his collection of Jewish skeletons, aiming to demonstrate their supposed difference with those of non-Jews, the director of the Institute of Anatomy of the Reichsuniversität of Strasbourg (the Reich University, in the service of Nazi ideology) , August Hirt, needed to kill them without damaging his ” material “ scientist. In August 1943, 86 Jewish men and women, aged 16 to 65, selected from Auschwitz, were gassed at the Natzweiler-Struthof concentration camp. Their bodies were kept in formaldehyde in Strasbourg awaiting treatment. The collection of skeletons ultimately never existed.

The Natzweiler-Struthof gas chamber is not a sordid place. It was fitted out in the annex of a former inn, known to walkers in this very touristic mountain before the war. An ideal house to hide from view, two hundred meters below the camp. It had also housed the first deportees.

Presented occasionally to visitors until 2005, then more systematically between 2005 and 2014, the place had never been the subject of real museographic work. After major work (including safeguarding) coordinated by the Ministry of the Armed Forces, the building now offers a new visit route.

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Four rooms of great sobriety, where the materials and colors of the time have been preserved, and a few rare objects have been placed. At the end, the gas chamber of 9 square meters, with walls covered with white earthenware. For this context, the European Center for Deported Resistance Members has been able to benefit from recent advances in scientific research and significant work in collecting life stories: in May 2022, the University of Strasbourg published a remarkable report on its troubled past in connection with that of the Reichsuniversität (1).“The Natzweiler-Struthof camp had had a gas chamber since April 1943, when it was not an extermination camp but a labor camp, specifies Guillaume d’Andlau, director of the European Center of the deported resistant. Unlike gas chambers designed for mass killing, this one was originally built for testing purposes, this time led by Professor Otto Bickenbach, with the aim of designing phosgene antidotes. (a highly toxic gas, Editor’s note) for the German army, in the event of chemical warfare. »

In 1943 and 1944, 40 men, almost all Germans, Jews, Gypsies, homosexuals or political opponents, received injections of urotropine or placebo, before entering the gas chamber and being exposed to phosgene there. . Those who emerged were subjected to analysis. Eight people lost their lives there. The explanatory panels reveal chilling documents, such as lists of doses of phosgene received or death certificates indicating “heart failure following acute pulmonary oedema”, but also moving portraits and testimonies of victims who survived the experiments. For Guillaume d’Andlau, “the difficulty was to translate a complex story for the general public without betraying the historical truth, and to keep a place for emotion”.

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