The United States Congress established Sunday, April 15, 2007 as a national day of remembrance to honor the memory of the millions who perished in Germany during the Holocaust. I recently ran across a piece I wrote 14 years ago, as I thought about what the opening of the U.S. Holocaust Museum in 1993 meant to me. I’m reprinting the original essay I wrote in April, 1993, in anticipation of Sunday’s day of remembrance.
Today marks the opening of the Holocaust museum in Washington, DC. Elie Weisel, Lech Walesa and other dignitaries were on hand to help President Clinton commemorate this somber occasion.
The phrase at the entrance of the building is the key to the museum, in my opinion. “For the dead and the living, we must bear witness.” It is nearly impossible to comprehend the deaths of over 6,000,000 people without having some focal point. It is my sincere hope that this museum helps people confront and accept this tragic event.
Seven years ago, at the tender age of 15, I traveled to France to stay with a French family in the Alsace region. About a week into the visit, the mother of the family suggested that we go to Struthof, a village just west of Strasbourg. The name didn’t mean much to me, but she and the girl I was staying with explained that the village was the site of the only German death camp in France. It seemed very important to Mme. Mosser that I go, so I agreed.
The first thing that you remark about Strutof is how removed it is. The village sits at the base of the mountain in a small valley about 35 km west of Strasbourg. To get to the Strutof camp you must drive through a dense forest on steep, narrow roads. Once at the top, the village is barely visible. Not surprisingly, the camp is not at all visible from the town. If you didn’t want to know it was there, you wouldn’t.
The camp has remained in tact since it was liberated in late 1944, save for the museum that was burned to the ground in 1978 by a right-wing extremist group claiming it was a sham. Many of the artifacts in the museum were destroyed, but they rebuilt it 18 months later and displayed more of the remnants of the death camp.
You enter through a 15-foot tall barbed wire fence, and the guard tower stands ominously above you, daring you to leave. The dirt path takes you right by a monument that stands five stories tall. It is made out of white concrete taken from two of the housing units where the Jews were kept. An emaciated figure is carved into the sculpture with its hands outstretched inviting you to share his pain, perhaps, or possibly to hear his cries for help. The expression on the face, even from a distance, exudes fatigue, helplessness and hope at the same time.
A sea of graves sits in front of the sculpture, most of them nameless. The dirt path continues, drops about 10 feet, and turns 180 degrees and goes right past one of the inmates’ dormitories. About a football-field of work area comes next, and at the bottom of the camp is the execution building. The building is non-descript and gives no hint of its sinister past. The incinerator is perhaps the most striking, especially after the guide explains the systematization of the killing. Hair was shaven and shipped to Berlin, where it would be used as insulation in soldiers’ coats. Gold fillings were taken and shipped elsewhere, to be melted and reused. Finally the individual would be strapped to the iron stretcher and slowly inserted into the chamber. The heat from the incinerator was piped into the officers’ living quarters to keep them warm during the long Alsacian winters.
There is also a gas chamber (innocently designed to look like a group shower) and a medical examining room. The floor of this room is slightly concave with a drain in the center.
After exiting the building, you proceed half-way back up the hill and into one of the dormitories. The units, no larger than 10X10, were expected to house up to 10 people. Because the detainees were so weak, security was not a problem, so most of the units are made of wood.
Messages from decades past decorate the wood and dry-wall; you search in vain for “authentic” messages from prisoners during the days of the war. Instead, you find many comments from visitors who have been coming to the camp, like you, to see for themselves the tragedy.
Before leaving the camp, you must walk through the museum. A sign greets the visitor, in French only. [the translation is mine]
“Whoever you are,
French or Foreigner,
You who have come to meditate
at this solemn place
where so many men suffered
in their flesh,
and their heart,
where so many men gave
their lives for Liberty
humanity should never
have to see this again.”
Each corner you turn brings with it more pictures of naked, teenage boys who weigh half of what they should, corpses piled on top of each other, guards pointing guns at peoples’ heads, experiments being performed on the less fortunate, and the overwhelming despair of the six years that this quiet village in France helped perpetuate one of our race’s greatest crimes.
A “Witness book” sits on a pedastal near the exit, where any visitors can leaf through it and write down their own personal messages. Some relatives of those who died in the camp have written notes in German, Polish, French and other languages, other messages are heart-felt reactions from thousands of visitors to the horrors that were witnessed while visiting the camp.
I revisited Strutof a year ago when I was in France again, this time with the benefit of five more years of history and maturity. The impact it had on me as a 15 year-old was tremendous, and yet the second time was just as powerful, if not more so. A week or so later, French TV carried images of the rivers of blood in downtown Sarajevo after several groups of Muslims had been murdered by Serbs. Does it ever stop?
“FOR THE DEAD AND THE LIVING, WE MUST BEAR WITNESS.”
Peace be with you all, and may we all bear witness so that in time it is only the museums that force us to remember the horrors humanity can inflict upon itself.
April 22, 1993