Gas Chamber at Natzweiler-Struthof
The Natzweiler-Struthof concentration camp was located on top of a 2,500 foot-high mountain in the Vosges range, which was a ski area before the camp was built, and still is today. Natzweiler-Struthof was not a death camp, specifically built for the mass extermination of the Jews; it was a camp for the imprisonment of convicted German criminals and Anti-Fascist resistance fighters. However, one of the reasons that it is so well known in America today is because a small number of Jews were killed there in a gas chamber, according to the Simon Wiesenthal Center and the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.
The gas chamber building, shown in the photo above, has been preserved, but it was not open during the time that I visited. However, it is not necessary to examine the gas chamber because we have the confession of Josef Kramer, in which he said that he personally gassed 80 Jews. Kramer made his confession after he was arrested at Bergen-Belsen when that camp was voluntarily turned over to the British on April 15, 1945.
Le Struthof, as the camp is known to the French, was located 31 miles from Strasbourg where Dr. August Hirt, a Professor at the University of Strasbourg, was conducting research on racial characteristics. When he requested Jewish skeletons that were undamaged by bullet holes or body blows, Heinrich Himmler ordered that Jews should be brought from Auschwitz to Natzweiler so that they could be killed in a gas chamber there.
In August 1943, a special gas chamber was constructed by adapting an existing building, formerly owned by the Struthof hotel, which was located about a mile from the concentration camp on a side road. This room had previously been used as a refrigerator room by the hotel.
Killing the Jews in one of the gas chambers at Auschwitz and shipping the skeletons to Strasbourg wouldn't do - the skeletons had to be prepared with great care by Dr. Hirt himself.
According to a Tübingen Professor, Dr. Hans-Joachim Lang, two anthropologists, who were both members of the SS, Dr. Hans Fleischhacker and Bruno Beger, were sent in June 1943 to Auschwitz to select Jews to be gassed so that their skeletons could be added to the rassistische/rassenideologische collection of Dr. August Hirt. There were 57 men and 29 women in the group that was selected.
In the documents submitted to the Nuremberg International Military Tribunal, it is mentioned that the Jewish victims were put into quarantine for a time at Auschwitz because there was a typhus epidemic in the camp; then they were brought to Natzweiler-Struthof. The Nuremberg IMT documents show that 86 corpses were brought to the Anatomie Institute of the Reichsuniversitat Strassburg and that an assistant of Prof. August Hirt saw the tattoos on the arms and secretly wrote down the 86 numbers on a piece of paper.
Dr. August Hirt in his SS uniform
In a Military Tribunal conducted by the British after the war, Magnus Wochner, an SS staff member who was among the accused, testified as follows, according to a book entitled "The Natzweiler Trial," written by Anthony M. Webb:
I recall particularly one mass execution when about 90 prisoners (60 men and 30 women), all Jews, were killed by gassing. This took place, as far as I can remember, in spring 1944. In this case the corpses were sent to Professor Hirt of the department of Anatomy in Strasbourg.
Contrary to the statement above, the gassing actually took place in August 1943, according to the confession of Natzweiler Commandant Josef Kramer, who was not among the accused at the trial where Wochner testified.
Dr. August Hirt doing an autopsy
Photo Credit: USHMM
According to Dr. Lang, the files of the Natzweiler-Struthof camp show that there were 4 Jewish inmates in the camp on August 1, 1943 and one week later there were 90 Jews, indicating that a group of 86 Jews had arrived. The 29 women were gassed soon after arrival and the following week, there were 60 Jews in the camp. A week later, after the men had been gassed, there were only 3 Jews left in the camp since one of the male Jewish inmates had died during the week that the women were gassed.
When the Bergen-Belsen camp was turned over to the British on April 15, 1945, Commandant Josef Kramer volunteered to stay behind to help the British soldiers take over the camp, which was experiencing a horrendous typhus epidemic. Obviously, Kramer had no remorse for his crimes and did not expect to be arrested, or he would have escaped along with the other guards who left the camp before the British arrived. Instead, he met the British troops at the gate and offered his help in overcoming the typhus epidemic.
The photo below shows Josef Kramer, the Commandant of Bergen-Belsen and the former Commandant of Natzweiler, after he was arrested by the British on the first day after they took over the camp.
Josef Kramer, former Commandant of Natzweiler, under arrest at Bergen-Belsen
In the museum at Natzweiler-Struthof, Kramer's confession is on display; he described how he personally mixed "salts" with water to produce a lethal gas. The gas was dumped through a hole which had been chiseled through the tiled wall of a room previously used for the refrigeration of perishable food. Then Kramer watched through a peephole as the Jews died from the fumes of the poison gas.
Josef Kramer was convicted by a British Military Tribunal held in 1945, and hanged for the crimes he had committed at Auschwitz II and Bergen-Belsen. The charges against Kramer at the proceedings of the British Military Tribunal did not include the crime of gassing Jews at Natzweiler-Struthof. Rather, he was charged with crimes committed at Bergen-Belsen and with gassing Jews at Auschwitz, where he was the Commandant of the Auschwitz II camp before being transferred to Bergen-Belsen in December 1944.
The corpse of a woman who was allegedly gassed at Natzweiler
Photo Credit: USHMM
At the Nuremberg International Military Tribunal, charges were brought by the American prosecutor against the Nazis for medical experiments performed at Natzweiler, but there were no documents introduced in which it was claimed that a gas chamber had been used there to murder Jews.
The abandoned Natzweiler camp was discovered by both French and American troops, so it was the responsibility of the French and the American prosecutors to introduce the evidence of the gas chamber there.
On December 9, 1944, Colonel Paul Kirk and Lt. Colonel Edward J. Gully of the US 6th Army made an inspection of the Natzweiler camp, three months after it had been abandoned by the Nazis. According to Robert H. Abzug, the author of "Inside the Vicious Heart," they qualified just about every observation that had to do with instruments of death and torture. The following is a quote from Abzug's book:
They found, among other things, "what appeared to be a disinfestation unit" and "a large pile of hair appearing and reputed to be human female." They were shown a building with a space "allegedly used as a lethal gas chamber. " In this building was "a cellar room with a special type elevator," and "an incinerator room with equipment obviously intended for the burning of human bodies...a cell room and an autopsy room." Kirk and Gully then described in detail the "so-called lethal gas chamber," noting every pipe and outlet and its two steel doors. In the cellar they found four coffins and a sheet metal elevator "of a size which would take a human body" with "stains which appeared to be caused by blood."
Kirk and Gully wrote a report that was sent to the War Crimes Division, in which they referred to a "so-called gas chamber" at Natzweiler. Based on their report, there were no charges, pertaining to a gas chamber at Natzweiler, brought against the Nazis on trial before the International Military Tribunal at Nuremberg.
The building described in the quote from Abzug's book is shown in the photo below. This building is the crematorium which has an elevator, an incinerator room, a cell room and an autopsy room.
Crematorium building at Natzweiler-Struthof
The photo below shows water pipes going into what appears to be a shower room which is right next to the crematory oven. You can see a bit of the crematory oven in the lower right hand corner of the photo. It appears that the water for the room might have been heated by the oven, as shown in the second photo below.
Water pipes going into shower room next to the ovens
When I visited the Natzweiler camp in October 2004, the room next to the oven was not open to visitors. I peeked through the window shown in the photo above and saw what looked like a shower room. This is probably the "so-called lethal gas chamber" which the two American officers described in their report, but there was no sign which said that this was a gas chamber. This is not the room that Josef Kramer described in his confession.
Oven for cremating bodies at Natzweiler-Struthof
The photo above shows the crematory oven described by the American Army officers who investigated the Natzweiler camp in an attempt to find evidence of war crimes. The shower room is behind the oven and to the right. To the right in the photograph is a display of the shoes worn by the prisoners in the camp. The Natzweiler camp had only one crematory oven since it was not intended to be a factory for mass murder.
Apparently Kirk and Gully were not told by their French guides that the actual gas chamber was located on a side road, about one mile distant from the camp. Since they never saw the real gas chamber, they didn't include it in their report, and consequently no charges were brought at the Nuremberg IMT with regard to the gassing of Jews at Natzweiler-Struthof.
In 1989, a plaque was placed at Struthof, in memory of the "87 Jews who were gassed" there. This was accomplished through the joint efforts of the Simon Wiesenthal Center and a New Jersey lawyer, Stephen Draisin. The number 87 includes the 86 Jews who were brought from Auschwitz to be gassed and one Jewish inmate who died during the same time period.
According to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, "the gas chamber was also used in pseudoscientific medical experiments involving poison gas. The victims of these experiments were primarily Roma (Gypsies) who had been transferred from Auschwitz. Prisoners were also subjected to experiments involving treatment for typhus and yellow fever."
A book which I purchased from the Memorial Site has this to say about the gas chamber:
4. The affair of the Israelite corpses
Hirt, professor of anatomy in Strasbourg, received corpses from the camp of Russian war prisoners at Mutzig, but as he thought they were too lean, he asked for people in a good physical condition for studies on heredity.
87 Israelites (30 of whom were women) were sent from the camp at Auschwitz. They were shut up in block 13 at the Struthof where they were measured, and they had to undergo experiments on sterilization. On August 11, 13, 17, 19, 1943, under the direction of doctors from Strasburg, the S.S. gassed the 87 Israelites in the gas chamber at Struthof with cyanide. Death occurred after 30 to 60 seconds. The corpses were transported to the Institut d'Anatomie in Strasburg. 17 entire corpses (3 of which being women's) were found at the liberation as well as many dissected pieces.
According to Dr. Lang, there were 16 of the 86 bodies (3 women and 13 men) that were found intact in November 1944, not 17, and an autopsy was performed on the bodies.
"The liberation" referred to in the above quote probably means the liberation of France in August 1944. The Natzweiler-Struthof camp was abandoned in September 1944 so it was not actually "liberated."
Dr. Hans-Joachim Lang was able to identify the 86 Jews who were gassed at Natzweiler after locating their prisoner numbers in the Auschwitz archives. The 29 women and 57 men who were gassed had been deported to Auschwitz from Norway, Poland, Greece, France, Germany, Belgium and the Netherlands.
The bodies of the 86 victims are buried in the Jewish cemetery of Strasbourg and a grave stone with the 86 names was placed there in December 2005.
Dr. Lang has published a book with the names of the 86 Jews who were gassed at Natzweiler. His book can be purchased at this web site: