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August 4, 2011

The “so-called lethal gas chamber” at Natzweiler

I previously blogged here about the Nazi gas chambers which are still in existence.  I neglected to mention the “so-called lethal gas chamber” at the Natzweiler-Struthof concentration camp, which was located on top of a mountain in the Vosges range in Alsace which is now in France. When the camp was built, Alsace was in the Greater German Reich. The camp was set up near a quarry as a labor camp for convicted German criminals and captured Anti-Fascist resistance fighters who had been fighting as illegal combatants.  Natzweiler was the main camp for French Resistance fighters.

The photo below shows a building, which is located about a mile from the camp.  Josef Kramer, the former Commandant of Natzweiler confessed to the British, after he was arrested at Bergen-Belsen, that he had personally gassed Jews in this building near the Natzweiler camp, but this is NOT the “so-called lethal gas chamber” in the title of my blog post.

Gas chamber building at Natzweiler-Struthof

The Natzweiler camp was abandoned by the Nazis in September 1944 and all the prisoners were transferred by train to Dachau. The Natzweiler camp was discovered by both French and American troops, but only after it had been abandoned.

On December 9, 1944, Col. Paul Kirk and Lt. Col. Edward J. Gully of the US 6th Army made an inspection of the Natzweiler camp. According to Robert H. Abzug, the author of Inside the Vicious Heart, the two men “qualified just about every observation that had to do with instruments of death and torture” in their report.  They did not mention the building shown in the photo at the top of my post; apparently they never found this building which is set back from the road up to the camp and not at all conspicuous.

The following is a quote from Inside the Vicious Heart:

[Kirk and Gully] found, among other things, “what appeared to be a disinfestation unit” and “a large pile of hair appearing and reputed to be human female.” They were shown a building with a space “allegedly used as a lethal gas chamber. ” In this building was “a cellar room with a special type elevator,” and “an incinerator room with equipment obviously intended for the burning of human bodies…a cell room and an autopsy room.” Kirk and Gully then described in detail the “so-called lethal gas chamber,” noting every pipe and outlet and its two steel doors. In the cellar they found four coffins and a sheet metal elevator “of a size which would take a human body” with “stains which appeared to be caused by blood.”

Outside wall of the “so-called lethal gas chamber”

When I visited the former Natzweiler camp in 2004, I peeked thought the small barred window, shown in the photo above.  The room looked to me like an ordinary shower room.  Part of the cremation oven can be seen in the lower right hand corner of the photo.

The report about the “so-called lethal gas chamber” at Natzweiler, written by Kirk and Gully, was sent to the US War Crimes Division. Based on their report, there were no charges pertaining to a gas chamber at Natzweiler brought against the Nazis on trial before the International Military Tribunal at the Nuremberg.

Josef Kramer was put on trial by the British in 1945, but he was not charged with gassing prisoners at Natzweiler, even though he had confessed to this crime.

Building where the “so-called lethal gas chamber” was located at Natzweiler

The building described in the quote from Abzug’s book is shown in the photo above. This building is the crematorium which has an elevator, an incinerator room, a cell room, an autopsy room and what looks like a shower room, but was described as the “so-called lethal gas chamber” in the inspection Report written by Kirk and Gully.

The photo above shows the crematory oven described by the American Army officers who investigated the Natzweiler camp in an attempt to find evidence of war crimes. The “so-called lethal gas chamber” is behind the oven and to the right. The Natzweiler camp had only one crematory oven since it was not intended to be a death factory for mass murder.

Apparently Kirk and Gully were not told by their French tour guides that the actual gas chamber was located on a side road, about one mile distant from the camp. Since they never saw the real gas chamber, shown in the photo at the top of my blog post, they didn’t include it in their report, and consequently no charges were brought at the Nuremberg IMT with regard to the gassing of Jews at Natzweiler-Struthof.

I visited the Natzweiler camp in 2004, but I was not able to see inside the gas chamber building shown in the first photo above because it was locked and could only be seen by special permission.

In the small museum at Natzweiler-Struthof, I read Kramer’s confession which was on display. In his confession to the British, Kramer described how he personally mixed “salts” with water to produce a lethal gas. The gas was dumped through a hole which had been chiseled through the tiled wall of a room previously used for the refrigeration of perishable food; the building had previously been a restaurant. Then Kramer watched through a peephole as the Jews died from the fumes of the poison gas.

In a British Military Tribunal held in 1945, Josef Kramer was convicted and hanged for the crimes which he had allegedly committed at Auschwitz II and Bergen-Belsen. The charges against Kramer at the proceedings of the British Military Tribunal did not include the crime of gassing Jews at Natzweiler-Struthof. He was only charged with crimes committed at Bergen-Belsen and with gassing Jews at Auschwitz, where he was the Commandant of the Auschwitz II camp before being transferred to Bergen-Belsen in December 1944.

The fact that Kramer was not tried by the British for the crime of gassing prisoners at Natzweiler does not mean that the gassing did not take place. It could be that the British did not have jurisdiction for crimes committed at Natzweiler because the camp was located in the French zone of occupation.

In 1989, a plaque was placed at Natzweiler-Struthof, in memory of the “87 Jews who were gassed” there. This was accomplished through the joint efforts of the Simon Wiesenthal Center and a New Jersey lawyer, Stephen Draisin. The number 87 includes the 86 Jews who were brought from Auschwitz to be gassed and one Jewish inmate at Natzweiler who died during the same time period.

According to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, “the gas chamber was also used in pseudoscientific medical experiments involving poison gas. The victims of these experiments were primarily Roma (Gypsies) who had been transferred from Auschwitz. Prisoners were also subjected to experiments involving treatment for typhus and yellow fever.”

A book which I purchased from the Natzweiler Memorial Site has this quote about the gas chamber:

4. The affair of the Israelite corpses

(August) Hirt, professor of anatomy in Strasbourg, received corpses from the camp of Russian war prisoners at Mutzig, but as he thought they were too lean, he asked for people in a good physical condition for studies on heredity.

87 Israelites (30 of whom were women) were sent from the camp at Auschwitz. They were shut up in block 13 at the Struthof where they were measured, and they had to undergo experiments on sterilization. On August 11, 13, 17, 19, 1943, under the direction of doctors from Strasburg, the S.S. gassed the 87 Israelites in the gas chamber at Struthof with cyanide. Death occurred after 30 to 60 seconds. The corpses were transported to the Institut d’Anatomie in Strasburg. 17 entire corpses (3 of which being women’s) were found at the liberation as well as many dissected pieces.

According to Dr. Hans-Joachim Lang, there were 16 of the 86 bodies (3 women and 13 men) that were found intact in November 1944, not 17, and an autopsy was performed on the bodies.

“The liberation” referred to in the above quote probably means the liberation of France in August 1944. The Natzweiler-Struthof camp was abandoned in September 1944 so it was not actually “liberated.”

Dr. Hans-Joachim Lang was able to identify the 86 Jews who were gassed at Natzweiler after locating their tattoo numbers in the Auschwitz archives. The 29 women and 57 men who were gassed had been deported to Auschwitz from Norway, Poland, Greece, France, Germany, Belgium and the Netherlands.

The bodies of the 86 victims were buried in the Jewish cemetery of Strasbourg and a grave stone with the 86 names was placed there in December 2005.

Dr. Lang has published a book with the names of the 86 Jews who were gassed at Natzweiler. You can read the 86 names here.

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