Last week marked three quarters of a century since the first Nazi extermination camp was liberated and the world first caught a glimpse of the Holocaust – but few today know the camp’s name.
Natzweiler-Struthof, a relatively small death camp in the mountains of Alsace, is now home to a striking Holocaust memorial in the grounds of a cemetery, but was once the site of industrial murder.
Among those to survive was Boris Pahor.
Pahor, 106, is the oldest known survivor of a Nazi concentration camp and, having told his story in the form of a book called Necropolis, he was the subject of an emotional BBC documentary with Alan Yentob last week, entitled The Man Who Saw Too Much.
Arrested in Italy for anti-fascist writings, Pahor was locked up in Natzweiler, a camp built soon after the Nazis occupied France in 1940. It was the first camp to be liberated by the Western Allies in 1944.
A British intelligence officer at the time recorded that “the majority of deaths were caused by shooting” and outlined Nazi medical experiments as well as torture. He said freezing winter temperatures led many to die from swollen limbs.
In the one-hour BBC documentary, Yentob retraced Pahor’s steps.
A loyal Slovenian born in Trieste, Pahor recalls the joy of hot water on his freezing body, even though he knew the camp’s furnace was powered by burning bodies.
Pahor was first sent to Dachau, where he was beaten with a strap until he looked “like a zebra”, then transferred to Natzweiler, a camp for political prisoners and resistance fighters, who were given a number and labelled with a red triangle.
There were also a small number of Jews, gypsies and Jehovah’s Witnesses there.
Of the 52,000 people who entered the camp, 22,000 never left, and 86 Jews were murdered there in order to provide skeletons for what one historian interviewed called a ‘zoological museum of an extinct species’.
Pahor survived because a chance encounter with the camp’s Norwegian doctor meant the doctor retained his services as a translator, with Pahor staying in the barracks.
“They made me a diarrhoea nurse, right there in the worst condition,” Pahor told Yentob from his home in Trieste. “Whoever had a job that enabled them to stay in the barracks had a hope of survival.”
The camp, whose end came about 75 years ago this week, was built next to a fashionable 1930s ski resort, where the local hotel was commandeered for SS officers and where the village hall was turned into a gas chamber.
Camp commandant Josef Kramer, who lived in a large house with a pool, personally gassed the 80 Jews for the “skeleton collection”.
Kramer was later transferred to Auschwitz and then to Bergen-Belsen, where he was nicknamed “the Beast of Belsen” by prisoners.
Yentob’s visit to Natzweiler for the documentary comes 55 years after Pahor himself returned to the camp, recalling his time there.
“You came in at the top and the gallows welcomed you,” he recalls.
“You were told there was an oven down there and that there was no way out but through the chimney. In Natzweiler, you were always afraid.”
The Man Who Saw Too Much is available to view on BBC iPlayer