Labor Camps With Germans

It was a strange set of circumstances: a weekend in France, a bonafide German, and a Nazi labor camp. Add in two unwitting Americans and it made for a perfectly awkward—if not memorable—encounter.

The story begins with Jason’s German friend, Volker Haas (first name pronounced like a mix of ‘Valka’ and ‘Falka’), had been an exchange student at the University of Washington (Seattle), back in the 90s. For a year, Volker and Jason were roommates in the same house.

Fast forward to 2012, where I spent a month in Strasbourg, France, obtaining my ESOL Teaching Certificate (CELTA), and right before Jason and I came to Italy. And that’s where the Nazi labor camp comes in.

Strasbourg, from inside a restaurant in 'La Petite France' (Alsace, France)
Strasbourg, from inside a restaurant in ‘La Petite France’ (Alsace, France)

At the end of my teaching course, we had one weekend to do something “touristy” in the area. Volker (from above) — he now lives back in Germany these days, in a small town near Frankfurt, only a few hours drive from Strasbourg. Being so close by, Volker drove to Strasbourg to join us for the weekend.

But he had no idea what I was about to put him through. No idea I’d drag him into his own country’s hideous and unforgettable past.

Which is where the story really gets interesting.

But, first, let me tell you: I have an odd fascination with the Holocaust.

It all stems from this time when I was 9 and my Mom and younger sister saw a Holocaust survivor, Mel Mermelstein, speak about his experience at Auschwitz. They talked about it for weeks, even bringing his book home. Then at age 12, I visited the Holocaust Museum in Washington DC, and wandered Auschwitz-Birkenau in Poland at 15. Saw Schindler’s list sometime in the 90s, visited Anne Frank’s house in Amsterdam at 19.

So on and so on.

When I learned that there was a Nazi concentration camp, called Struthof, outside Strasbourg (Alsace was occupied territory during WWII), and one that could actually be toured—I had to go.

Auschwitz I entrance snow, CC0 1.0
Auschwitz I entrance snow, licensed under CC0 1.0.

I think the conversation went something like this…

Jason: “So…Volker’s coming this weekend.”
Me: “Cool. Think he’ll mind if we go see the Nazi Labor Camp?”
Jason: Awkward pause… “Well…. He’s usually up for anything.”

I expected Volker to arrive in a BMW or a Volkswagen—but I guess not all Germans drive German cars. He pulled up in a navy blue Volvo. He’s got two kids, he explained. “It’s a really safe car.”

On Friday night, the three of us wandered around Strasbourg, then ate dinner at an Alsatian restaurant (where I tried my first horse meat. No joke.). The next morning, I finally mustered the courage to turn to Volker and ask—”Mind if we all go to this Labor Camp?” Jason knew I had my mind set on it, so he didn’t fight it. Volker, though, literally shrugged and said, “Sure. I’m up for anything.”

So off we went.

Volker driving us to the Nazi Labor Camp, his GPS on the dash, Jason's on the right (Alsace, France)
Volker driving us to the Nazi Labor Camp, his GPS on the dash, Jason’s on the right (Alsace, France)

During the drive there was when it really hit me what I had asked of this poor guy to do (Hey—you’re Germany. What do you say we spend Saturday dredging up cultural guilt about your country’s dark, regrettable past!’). I’ll be the first to point out what a great sport the guy was.

Volker had a GPS on his dash, which was naturally set to German. During the entire drive, the lady kept giving us what were likely airy-sounding instructions, but which to me sounded ominous. When we finally pulled in to the labor camp, the GPS lady announced, “Sie haben Ihr Ziel erreicht” (“You have arrived at your destination”).

The irony was not lost on me. And I couldn’t have scripted it better, myself.

Volker parking his non-German Volvo. (Struthof Concentration Camp - Alsace, France)
Volker parking his non-German Volvo. (Struthof Concentration Camp – Alsace, France)

Wandering the camp, this is what we saw:

The camp's exterior fencing and guard stations (Alsace, France)
The camp’s exterior fencing and guard stations (Alsace, France)
Jason and Volker looking out over the camp. The plaque reads: 'To the memory of all the deported foreigners who died here for liberty." (Alsace Region, France)
Jason and Volker looking out over the camp. The plaque reads: ‘To the memory of all the deported foreigners who died here for liberty.” (Alsace Region, France)
The unfortunate place where death happened. This camp was one of the most murderous among the Nazi system. Roughly 22,000 died here. (Alsace, France)
The unfortunate place where death happened. This camp was one of the most murderous among the Nazi system. Roughly 22,000 died here. (Alsace, France)
This stairway was once flanked by barracks where the prisoners/workers lived. They were razed by the Allies. (Alsace, France)
This stairway was once flanked by barracks where the prisoners/workers lived. The barracks were razed by the Allies. (Alsace, France)
Headed downhill to see the area where human experiments were performed. (Alsace, France)
Headed downhill to see the area used for human experimentation. Bitterly surrounded by colorful autumn leaves (Alsace, France)
Makes your stomach turn to see this 'human experimentation' table. (Alsace, France)
Makes your stomach turn to see this ‘human experimentation’ table. (Alsace, France)
Human oven with flowers inside (Alsace, France)
And this… (Alsace, France)
Nouse/hanging station near a camp building.
A very affecting scene (Alsace, France)
Jason, reflecting on the grave reality of these events. (Alsace, France)
Jason, reflecting on the grave reality of these events. (Alsace, France)

I still wonder if Volker really minded spending his visit with an old friend that way, and whether he’d only agreed to go because many German’s carry at least some amount of post-Hitler guilt about what their country once did to the world’s Jews (which, naturally, they might feel the need to expunge, now and again).

But I never asked Volker. So I wonder, still.

It was a heavy experience for us all. Which is why, afterwards, we drove to the nearby Mont Sainte-Odile Abbey, walking around a holy place to remind us of what good is left in the world.

Entering the Abbey, we had a good laugh at the 'storm troopers' on their way out. This is actually a common German motorcycle-riding outfit. (Alsace, France)
‘Storm Troopers’ on their way out of the Abbey. (Alsace, France)

Entering the Abbey, Jason and I had a good laugh at the Storm Troopers exiting the scene. Turns out, this is a very common German motorcyle-riding outfit. But to Jason, these guys had just walked off the set of Star Wars. It added some much needed comic relief.

Jason and Volker, post-Nazi labor camp / holy place cleansing. (Alsace, France)
Jason and Volker, post-Nazi labor camp / holy place cleansing. (Alsace, France)
Old man at the Abbey. (Alsace, France)
Old man at the Abbey. (Alsace, France)
Alasatian wine country. (France)
Alasatian wine country. (France)

After that, we stopped at a winery, sipped Alsatian Pinot Blanc, dry Rieslings, and Gewürztraminers. We tried to let the fall landscape wash over us and distract us from the horrors of the past. We tried to forget what we’d just put ourselves through, with the best type of cleansing—the imbibing kind.

But, really—you never forget.

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