LOADING

Type to search

International

Oldest survivor of Nazi death camp on how horrific burning of bodies kept prisoners warm – World News

Share

Boris Pahor still remembers the blissful sensation of hot water hitting his body in the shower.

His thin, striped jacket and threadbare trousers were no protection against the -20C chill and, with nothing but fear in his sunken belly, he felt the cold constantly.

So being able to rub his frozen limbs with a hard bar of soap under those steaming jets felt like heaven – in the midst of hell.

Boris was being disinfected against typhus at Natzweiler, a little-known death camp in the Vosges mountains in Alsace, France.

And the water making him feel almost human was heated by a furnace burning the bodies of some of the 22,000 prisoners exterminated there.

Boris, at 106 the oldest known survivor of a Nazi concentration camp, recalls the moment in his extraordinarily poetic memoir, Necropolis.

Sign at main gate in Natzweiler-Struthof camp, near Struthof

He wrote: “The body loves the countless warm tongues that lick it and the memory of the night mountain air vanishes for a while.

“We forget that beneath the shower room is an oven and that night and day a stoker heaves human logs into it.

“Even if the bodies think that soon they might be used to heat the water, the pleasure offered by this wet warmth is not lessened.”

On November 25, 1944, 75 years ago this week, the horrors of the Holocaust were first uncovered when Allied forces arrived at the gates of Natzweiler, just weeks after the Nazis fled with their last skeletal prisoners.

US Army cameras captured images of the punishment block, crematorium, oven and gas chamber and a British intelligence officer, Captain Yurka Galitzine, wrote a report detailing the torture, executions and medical experiments that had taken place there. But it all fell on deaf ears.

Allied Command still had a war to win and it wasn’t until the following year, when Auschwitz and Bergen-Belsen were liberated, that the world learned of the Nazi atrocities. Somehow, Natzweiler was quietly forgotten.

But Boris Pahor could never forget.

A young Boris

Two decades later, he returned to the “City of the Dead” where almost half the 52,000 prisoners perished, to find it returned to the winter holiday resort it had been before the war.

While his account was published in Europe, few in Britain heard the story.

But broadcaster Alan Yentob visited Boris at his home in Trieste, Italy, for his documentary, The Man Who Saw Too Much, on BBC One tomorrow night.

Boris was a loyal Slovenian, but the rise of fascism meant his native tongue was banned when Trieste was annexed to Italy. At the age of seven he remembers feeling as if this was “the end of the world for me”.

In 1940, aged 26, he joined the Slovenian resistance to oppose the Nazi takeover of his homeland and began writing propaganda pamphlets.

In 1944, he was arrested and handed to the SS, who beat him with a leather strap until he looked “like a zebra” and locked him in a cupboard for 24 hours where he feared he would suffocate.

Boris was then sent to Dachau.

He said: “They labelled you with a red triangle for political prisoners. You were given a number that replaced your name. You were thrown trousers, a jacket, a pair of clogs. But despite the clothes you were almost naked. It was very cold, several degrees below zero. Snow was everywhere. We were cold.”

He was forced to move railway lines with a pick and shovel, then, in April, transferred to Natzweiler, a camp for political prisoners, resistance fighters and a small minority of Jews, gypsies and Jehovah’s Witnesses.

Commandant Josef Kramer

It was built high in the mountains beside a fashionable 1930s ski resort.

But now the local hotel was for SS officers, the village dancehall had been turned into a gas chamber and the camp commandant and his young family lived in a large house with a swimming pool.

He was Josef Kramer – who became the “Beast of Belsen”.

Boris said: “They used the ashes from the crematorium to help grow their flowers. In Natzweiler you were always afraid. You came in at the top and the gallows welcomed you. Looking down the steps you could see the barracks. We were told there was an oven there. There was no way out but the chimney.”

The perimeter fence was electrified barbed wire, the sentry boxes’ searchlights were always on and the guard dogs were better fed than the prisoners.

As they were worked to death in a quarry, cutting pink stone for Hitler’s showpiece buildings, bands played uplifting music to keep the officers happy.

Boris puts his survival down to an injured little finger.

A doctor who examined it discovered Boris could speak several languages and employed him as a translator and medical orderly.

Boris said: “Hunger was the main thing on your mind all the time, every day, every hour. Death was an afterthought. I got more soup because of my translation work.”

Sketches drawn by his fellow prisoners accompany Boris’s graphic descriptions of the death camp.

He said: “It was impossible not to think of the crematorium, as you constantly saw it. You couldn’t avoid the smell of burning flesh because you had to keep breathing.”

Crematorium at Natzweiler-Struthof

He got used to seeing bodies dragged to the furnaces by their necks with metal tongs and “kapos”, the favoured prisoners, pushing others out of line so the guards would shoot them.

Killing an attempted escapee would earn both guard and kapo extra food.

Natzweiler was the scene of many barbaric executions. Gypsies died in poison gas trials and four British women in the Special Operations Executive were killed with cyanide.

The camp was the scene of gruesome medical experiments carried out by Professor August Hirt, of the Nazi’s Institute of Anatomy in Strasbourg.

In 1943, Hirt and Kramer began building a Jewish skeleton collection and 86 Jewish men and women were taken from Auschwitz to Natzweiler and fed up, so they would be a normal size.

They were gassed and their bodies taken to the university for casts to be taken before they were rendered into skeletons. Historian Dr Raphael Toledano explains in the documentary how the Nazis planned to wipe out the entire Jewish race, so wanted “a zoological museum of an extinct species”.

As the allies advanced in 1944, Hitler ordered the bodies to be destroyed. It wasn’t done and the corpses were later found in the lab.

Their identities were only revealed in 2003, when a document with the numbers tattooed on their arms was matched to another with their names and numbers.

Two months before the allies arrived at Natzweiler, the Nazis fled, dragging prisoners with them.

Any not fit enough to travel faced execution, so Boris helped as many as he could.

“Frail phantoms whose bare feet made no sound,” he wrote.

“Flapping their arms to keep their balance, like blinded birds whose feathers had been singed off.

“They hung on to the steps and crawled up on all fours, spindly water striders, scorched knock-kneed spiders, as if each excruciating move was the last.”

The Monument to the Departed at Natzweiler-Struthof

He also fell ill on the 250-mile trek to Dachau and on to Bergen-Belsen.

But the allies were not far behind and the camp was liberated by the British Army on April 15, 1945.

Kramer was arrested, tried and executed for war crimes in 1945.

His excuse when asked about the 86 Jews he had personally gassed at Natzweiler was: “I was brought up that way.”

Hirt shot himself in the Black Forest.

Boris went to Paris, where he was admitted to a sanatorium with TB. He remained there for a year and a half and fell in love with his nurse, Arlette.

She helped him rediscover the will to live. He said: “When I fell in love and she loved me back, I began to hope for humanity.”

They later separated and Boris returned to Trieste where he married, had two children and became a writer and schoolteacher.

Read More

Top news stories from Mirror Online

When he returned to Natzweiler in the 1960s the camp was still there, preserved as a memorial, as it is today.

He watched tour guides point out the execution rooms, punishment block and gas chambers to visitors who then stepped outside amid the glorious mountain scenery.

Boris says in the documentary: “They made a death camp in France where even today skiers are still going.

“They’ve even made a car park. A lot of people go to visit the camp first and then they go skiing.”

Because, thank God, they will never know the horrors witnessed by The Man Who Saw Too Much.

  • Alan Yentob’s The Man Who Saw Too Much, BBC One, Wednesday, 10.45pm.



Source link

Tags:

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *