During a trip to Strasbourg last year, my friend drove me into the Vosges Mountains with one specific purpose; to visit the Natzweiler-Struthof concentration camp, the only one established on French territory.
Climbing our way through the mountain, which would often open up to give you a view of the sheer drop on the other side, I realised that I was nervous, not because we drove uncomfortably close to the edge (though that did happen!), but because I wasn’t sure how I’d react to seeing one of these camps for real, or whether I’d react at all. Looking back, how little did I know just how much I was about to be changed.
As we arrived, parked the car, and approached the camp on foot, the wooden gates towered over us menacingly, fortified with wire. I can only imagine how this must have felt to those prisoners, over 45,000 in total over 3 years, who had to call this place home. For almost 17,000 of them, this would be the last place they’d see.
Once inside, it’s hard to describe the atmosphere. Though I’m sure it’s different for everyone, many will first notice just how well preserved it is; everything from the double barbed wire fencing, guard towers, accommodation blocks and, chillingly, the gallows situated in the centre.
But then the silence kicks in…The only sound is the crunching of feet on gravel as you follow the path, no wildlife, no breeze, no heavy breathing and certainly no talking. I am not a religious man, but there is only one word suitable for it all; godless.
Turning left and approaching the accommodation blocks, the mountain scene opens up before you in breath-taking fashion. Was this purposeful? Was it with sick intention that this juxtaposition of beauty was made fully visible to the prisoners? Somehow I doubt even the Nazis were this heinous, but intended or not any appreciation of the landscape would soon drain out.
Inside the blocks, we learned of the three day ritual which took place leading up to an execution. Prisoners would be forced to remain standing for 72 hours, the ghastly methods used to ensure this can be seen online. Inside one room, I place my hand on the walls knowing that these same walls would have felt the touch of dying men, made worse by the fact that for some this punishment was extended to five days. Unfed, abused and unwashed in solitary confinement for the entire period, their life would count down through a final miserable existence, knowing what fate awaited them as the hours ticked by, with a feeling of nothing but powerlessness.
‘Powerlessness’…I will come back to that word later.
Walking out once more, the final scene awaits you at the top, where the Memorial to the Departed looks down in full remembrance to those who died. It’s an imposing site, but advancing towards it, the rows upon rows of gravestones, numbering in their thousands, make their presence felt.
I took a little bit longer with this final walk, making an effort to take in as many names as possible from the graves. The sad fact is though, that some of these graves are nameless, marked simply with the phrase “Mort pour la France”. I bowed my head knowing that due to the atrocious experiments performed upon them, many bodies would be unrecognizable. My shoulders felt heavy as I placed my hand on one gravestone in a moment of helplessness; there was nothing I could’ve done for these people.
As we left the camp in silence, my friend was gracious enough not to say anything to me; she could see the effect it had and had taken visitors to the camp enough times to know that a period of solitude is sometimes required to take it all in.
So why do I mention this now? Since leaving I have tried to figure out what it was weighing my shoulders down as I walked among the dead. Driving back home from work today I finally realised; responsibility.
We today, and subsequent generations, have a responsibility to ensure that this does not happen again. I understand now that although I wasn’t around back then, I can do something now to ensure that their death is not in vain. How? Not just by keeping democracy alive, but by actively taking part in it.
I come back to the word ‘powerlessness’, we are far from it. Whether we realise it or not we are extraordinarily powerful, because we have a vote. With our votes, we can topple establishments, remove Governments and bring about necessary change to this country.
We may not like all of our politicians, but there is a party out there for everyone, and we need to remind the public of their power before it becomes too late, people power after all is the literal meaning of democracy.
As I come to the end of this article, I look at the pebble to my side which I took from one of those nameless gravestones. It serves as a constant reminder to my duty, and I will carry it with me when I vote on May 7th.
Photo by saigneurdeguerre