A new memorial to European resistance fighters who were deported to their deaths during World War II opened Thursday on the site of the only Nazi concentration camp on French soil.
Around 22,000 prisoners died at Struthof during World War II
French President Jacques Chirac inaugurated on Thursday the European Center for Deported Resistance Fighters, built just meters (yards) away from the former Struthof death camp. Struthof was located in the town of Natzwiller in the eastern French region of Alsace, which was annexed by Germany during the war.
Some 22,000 men and women perished at the camp between May 1941 and November 1944, when it was liberated by US forces. Most of the victims were members of the resistance and political deportees.
A simple design
Barely visible from the outside, the memorial center is built around a vast underground potato shed, dug out by camp laborers from 1943 to 1945 and only unearthed when construction work began at the site two years ago.
"In line with the wishes of survivors, it was designed as a simple, square building intended to convey information and emotion, not as a flashy structure" said the center's director Valerie Drechsler.
Conveying information and emotion without being ostentatious
Visitors are first taken on an interactive tour of the 14 Nazi concentration camps set up in Europe during the war, including Auschwitz in Poland, Bergen-Belsen in Germany and Mauthausen in Austria.
Further inside, film clips shot under cover inside the Struthof camp are projected alongside Nazi propaganda footage, while a poem written by a deportee echoes in three languages around the dimly-lit underground chamber.
Hundreds of press cuttings, drawings and witness accounts -- original material as well as documents from museums and image banks -- retrace the rise of fascism in the 1920s, as well as the growth of resistance movements in France and elsewhere in Europe.
Struthof prisoners were supposed to disappear without a trace
Emerging from the center back into the light, the visitor finds himself in front of the gates of Struthof.
French architect Pierre-Louis Faloci intended the play on light and shadow to be a reference to Adolf Hitler's 1941 decree "Nacht und Nebel" (night and fog), which led to the disappearance of countless political prisoners. The detainees at Struthof were known as "night-and-fog" prisoners: They were supposed to be swallowed by the dark and vanish without a trace.
The European Center for Deported Resistance Fighters was mainly financed by the French defense ministry, with the remaining one-fifth provided by European Union subsidies.