An update from Erika, a Master’s student in Liberal Studies, with an emphasis on Human Rights:
“Oh my gosh, you’re going to have SUCH A BLAST! France is so fantastic.”
That’s what I repeatedly heard when I would tell friends and family that I was going to France on a study abroad trip about the Holocaust. I didn’t mean to, but I would get quite frustrated when they would say these things. I know that France is amazing, I know it’s fantastic, but I was going to study one of the darkest moments in history. In a way, I was telling everyone I know that I was going to do this trip just to see if anyone would react with an understanding of the depth of our trip.
Then, it happened. I’ve been to France before, and for this trip I arrived a few days early to visit the woman, whom I refer to as my “French mom,” who hosted me during my previous trip to France. She asked me about details on my trip: “Where are you going? What will you be seeing?”, and I answered, “I’m studying the Holocaust in France.”
She stared at me blankly for a second and then gasped, “Why would you do such a thing? You’re too young to be worrying about these events,” I know that the woman I call my “French mom” has my best interests at heart, but 25-year-olds are allowed to worry about genocide (and preventing future genocides), too.
But the one thing that really made my head spin was that every native French person I spoke with (cab drivers, waiters, friends of friends) had no clue that France had a Nazi concentration camp. They seemed baffled by the concept that not only was I an American choosing to study the Holocaust, but also that a concentration camp existed in France.
I’m still coming to grips with what I saw in France. Oradour-sur-Glane was terrifying, however, Natzweiler-Struthof was just appalling. The juxtaposition of your postcard-worthy view and the barracks where people were starved and experimented upon is mentally exhausting and fills you with an unforgettable guilt. Because the camp is built into the mountains, the terrain is quite difficult. To walk the steep, icy slopes to the top of the camp would have been impossible during the winter. After reading in their documentation center, I learned that the incoming prisoners would have to pick up one leg with their hands, and plant their feet down. This was repeated for miles, until they ultimately reached the camp. I left the camp feeling somewhat ashamed, knowing that I could not survive in those conditions, yet here I am complaining about being tired after work, or being a little dehydrated.
The memorial that sits atop the steep hill above the camp Natzweiler-Struthof.
But what truly struck me was outside of the camp. On the way up to the camp, to your left is a restaurant and another white building across the street. This restaurant and hotel was built in the 19th century and was in operation during the Holocaust, and the building across the street is a gas chamber. While people were eating meals in a restaurant, people were casually murdered across the street. I’m still having trouble with the concept that life operated as normally as possible while minorities were systematically murdered a few dozen feet away.
We didn’t get to go inside the gas chamber, but when I put my phone up to the keyhole, this is what I could see.
What I’m still processing is something that I won’t fully process for a long time. I get angry at the thought of Drancy, where Paris’ mass deportations of Jewish people took place. People still live in those apartments as if it never happened. I’m saddened by the thought that children died because ultimately, their parents couldn’t protect them anymore. And I’m inspired by the French people I met who have dedicated their lives to reminding people that the Holocaust was alive in France and can’t be forgotten.
“Thou shall not be a perpetrator, thou shall not be a victim, and thou shall never, but never, be a bystander.” – Yehuda Bauer