A Nazi Labor Camp With A German (And His German GPS)

What do you get when you mix a weekend in France with two unwitting Americans, a Nazi Labor Camp, and a German friend with a very German GPS? You get a perfectly awkward—if not memorable—encounter that I could not have scripted better myself.

It’s actually a true story…beginning with Jason’s German friend, Volker Haas (first name pronounced like a mix of ‘Valka’ and ‘Falka’). Back in the 90s, Volker had been an exchange student at the University of Washington (Seattle) where, for a year, he and Jason were roommates in the same house.

Fast forward to September of 2012, with me in Strasbourg, France, obtaining my ESOL Teaching Certificate (CELTA) (right before Jason and I moved to Italy), and…wait for it…THIS is 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 lives back in Germany these days, in a small town near Frankfurt, only a few hours drive from the French border) decided to join us in Strasbourg for the weekend. But poor, unwitting Volker had no idea that I would undoubtedly drag him into his home country’s hideous and unforgettable past.

Allow me to first mention…I have an odd and enduring fascination with the Holocaust.

It all stems from this time when 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, D.C.; 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.

Umpteen years later, when I learned about the Nazi concentration camp just outside Strasbourg (in the Alsace region, which was actually occupied territory during WWII), I was beside myself. And then when I was told that this camp could actually be toured? There was no stopping me. I had to go.

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

The conversation went something like this…

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

When Volker arrived, he was driving a navy blue Volvo. In my imaginative mind, of course I had expected he’d own a BMW or a Volkswagen, at least — but I guess not all Germans drive German cars. “I’ve got two kids,” he explained. “It’s a really safe car.”

On Friday night, the three of us wandered the historic streets of Strasbourg, then ate dinner at an Alsatian restaurant — where I tried my first horse meat. (No joke. Read about it if your stomach doesn’t flip-flop at the thought of eating horse).

The next morning was when I mustered the courage to ask Volker — “Mind if we all go to this Labor Camp?” Jason knew I had my mind set on it, so he didn’t protest, and Volker literally shrugged and said, “Sure. I’m up for anything.”

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 German. What do you say we spend Saturday dredging up cultural guilt about your country’s dark past!’).

I’ll be the first person to point out what a great sport Volker was.

During the drive in Volker’s Volvo, his GPS was featured prominently on the dash. And, naturally, it was set to the German language. The GPS lady kept giving what were likely airy directions, but which sounded ominous to me — my Holocaust-obsessed mind only able to hear the stifling shouts of Mr. Adolf, himself.

And as we pulled in to the labor camp, GPS Lady announced, “Sie haben Ihr Ziel erreicht” (“You have arrived at your destination”).

The irony was not lost on me.

I think Jason and I both exchanged looks. Looks that turned to laughter. Though I’m not sure Volker shared in our amusement. He hears German every day, after all — it’s not so out-of-this-world for him. But to pull into a Nazi Labor Camp with the GPS shouting instructions in German (a language I admittedly cannot understand)? To my anglophone ears, it was mythic.

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

Yet as the three of us approached the camp’s main gate, we were in a cocoon of stunned silence. 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 autumn color (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 whether Volker really minded spending his Saturday that way…whether (as I imagine many German’s do) he carries around at least some amount of post-Hitler guilt, feeling the need to expunge that guilt, now and again. I’m sure “Nazi Labor Camp” wasn’t exactly in his cache when he said, “I’m up for anything.

But I never asked him, so I wonder, still.

Yet all was not dreary and dark. After such a heavy experience at the Struthof camp (one of the most murderous in the Nazi system), we decided to do something much more cleansing. We drove to the nearby Mont Sainte-Odile Abbey, walking around a holy place in an utter trance, a place we hoped would remind us of what good was 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 (that’s the Mont Sainte-Odile Abbey in the background). (Alsace, France)

Entering the Abbey, Jason and I had a hearty laugh at the Storm Troopers exiting the scene. Turns out, this is a very common German motorcyle-riding outfit — but to us, these guys had just walked off the set of Star Wars, and 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 purification there is — the imbibing kind.

And I wondered, How do you say in German: “You never forget”?

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