Welcome to the website of the
Association of Former Natzweiler Concentration Camp Complex Memorial Sites
We are an association of 15 memorial sites and memorial initiatives in Baden-Württemberg, Rhineland-Palatinate and Hesse, which have come together to form the VGKN with the support of the Landeszentrale für politische Bildung Baden-Württemberg
Speech by the founding member and first chairwoman (retired) Dorothee Ross
Ladies and gentlemen, dear interested parties,
15 memorial sites from former Natzweiler satellite camps have joined forces, 13 of them from Baden-Württemberg, two in Hesse and one in Rhineland-Palatinate. Together with our French partners from another 3 memorial sites on French soil, including the very large memorial site of the former main Natzweiler camp, we applied (12 memorial sites at the time) for the European Heritage Label, and it was officially awarded in 2017.
All memorial sites in the area of the former Natzweiler concentration camp have done European reconciliation and Peace work from the moment they were founded. And when we consider what kind of work it is and was, then we can say: yes, we have overcome many borders, built bridges over deep trenches. The concept of the bridge presupposes the abyss, the depth. And anyone who wants to build a bridge has to know the abyss.
The story we care about is the story of people from over 30 European countries who were dragged as prisoners to our respective places. Europe was here – in 1944/45, here in the oil shale factories, here in the camps of the “Wüste” (Wüste means desert) concentration camp complex and also in all the other Natzweiler camps.
These people experienced terrible things in the camps – and those who survived usually never wanted to set foot in Germany again in the years immediately after the war. Terror, fear, hatred – all these very legitimate feelings blocked the way. Take France and Germany as an example.
After three fierce and increasingly horrific wars, relations between these two countries were completely shattered in 1945. And yet, great statesmen such as the head of the French resistance movement against the Nazi occupation, General Charles de Gaulle, and the German Chancellor Konrad Adenauer had an early idea that this hatred, which seemed to have frozen into a solid block, was not an absolute limit in Europe . The border could and can be overcome or melted if many people help, if there are many bridge-builders – and if some who can already see further open up a perspective, a vision. This perspective was and is called Europe – a peaceful, democratic Europe.
In this process of understanding and reconciliation, town twinning, youth encounters and school exchanges have played an important role over the past 60 years. They were important, necessary and indispensable. But – often these encounters were aimed at letting the past rest and making a ne beginning.
It was different with the memorials. Her contribution to reconciliation and peace did not omit the darkest, the most painful moments. On the contrary: the memorials looked where it hurts. The memorials made contact with survivors or with the families of the dead – in almost every country in Europe and beyond, because sometimes the families lived in the USA, Israel or Australia. They were told what had happened – on their own doorstep, in their own city, in their own district. It was often a very painful process. But lo and behold: these narratives, the writing of the stories, the publication of books and films did not deepen the hatred, on the contrary. Memory has a healing effect when it occurs in the spirit of building bridges and overcoming boundaries. That is still true today – we can all tell many stories about it.
The work of the memorials was not welcomed from the start. It is not uncommon for mayors or local councils to be dissatisfied when the darker chapters of local history were opened. But they too jumped over the shadows at some point, let themselves be infected by building bridges and overcoming the boundaries, which are mainly in the mind. We all have shared the experience that something positive can ultimately grow out of a negative story, something that is fun because people come together that history has separated. However, I want to be very clear that these positive developments do not make sense in retrospect to our terrible history.
In recent years this process, which started about 30 years ago, has reached a new level. The memorials of the former Natzweiler satellite camps have merged and networked more and more, and there were more and more intensive contacts with their French colleagues. This cooperation brings different cultures of remembrance together, it is therefore “cross-border” in several respects.
We have now managed to successfully complete the first cross-border application for the European Heritage Label. But the Label is only an outward sign of an inner process. We have managed to take a common look at a common history – it’s a European view that is of course open to other countries and can and should include them. The geographical distribution of the Natzweiler satellite camps initially suggests a connection between France and Germany. Together we can further develop the culture of remembrance and make it fruitful for the present and, above all, the future.
After all, it makes no sense to merely persist in the past. Even though we’ve meticulously researched this past and are still discovering new facts, we don’t do this for the past’s sake. We want to and we must raise awareness of how valuable peace is in Europe – and how precious and also how fragile democratic structures are.
We are currently seeing a lot of examples of a resurgence of nationalism in Europe. There are many who would like borders, walls and fences to grow again, there are many who consider basic democratic pillars such as the separation of powers, freedom of the press or respect for human rights to be superfluous and think above all in terms of national size and power. The memorials have to face this European responsibility. They have to show where a policy of national strength can lead.
Because the experience of war and dictatorship is slowly disappearing from the collective memory. The memorials in Europe cancel history – in a double sense. They keep it, but at the same time transcend it, point beyond it. Because memorials are not museums, they also have a political mandate, in a broad sense: in the sense of reflection and sensitization.
I would like to close with the words of a concentration camp survivor, Albert Geiregat from Nancy. He was the youngest political prisoner in the Neckarelz camp and with this awareness he wrote a letter to German youth. This letter expresses very well what I have tried to paraphrase. Albert Geiregat first tells of the suffering he has suffered, but then the tone of his letter changes. I quote:
“All of that is so far back today … But the Neckar is still there; it flows quietly between its banks.
For a long time he has taken the image of those completely emaciated, pale creatures that populated its shores, down into the depths of its waters and carried it into the sea.
You young people today belong to a new generation. Only in my thoughts can I establish a connection between me, seventeen year olds back then in Neckarelz, and you seventeen year olds today.
My grandson, who lives in Strasbourg, is also seventeen years old. He lives on the left, the French bank of the Rhine. This border, which used to separate us, is now disappearing through the great Europe Bridge.
Your task, that of the younger generation, will be to maintain this bridge. You still have to make them bigger, in a spirit of brotherhood and peace found again.
But be vigilant so that the monster from yesteryear does not rise again and the unity of the peoples of Europe breaks up again.
I will end my little speech by telling you our motto. Please make a note of it and always keep it in mind:
NO HATE – DON’T FORGET! “