With sleepy eyes and bellies full of chocolate croissants, our entourage boarded the trusty coach bus at 7:45am to venture to Fort Hackenberg. Never wasting a moment, en route to the fort, we had an open discussion about the movie “I Am Not Your Negro”. The film took the format of a contemporary documentary tied into a narrative. Our discussion touched on many things, notably calling attention to perspectives that often go unrealized by privileged eyes: institutionalized idealism and misrepresentation, the concept of human error, and the divergences and convergences of MLK and Malcolm X’s messages. Concise, yet thorough, the discussion ended leaving everyone with their thoughts until we arrived at Fort Hackenberg.
After a quick photo-op outside, we braced ourselves for the cold as we delved into the inside of the damp, cold fort, where we were met by a pleasant tour guide who immediately began to enshrine us with knowledge of the fort’s long history dating back to 1929. At 10km in length, Fort Hackenberg stands as one of the most extensive forts along the Maginot Line and has always been considered a pivotal military strategic point…No wonder it was so sought after by the Germans! The fort goes so deep into the earth and covers so much ground that it even has an electric train that runs along through parts of the fort; historically, this was a means to deliver supplies, including ammunition, food, and soldiers. The fort was particularly known for its abundant weaponry stash made up of sizable tanks, huge engines, a few large ammunition chambers, and a couple of turrets. Moreover, the military architects designed the fort in a U-shape because this configuration would lessen the blast of an explosion should one ever occur. Despite the ample armory, the French lost the fort to the Germans in 1940. However, the American military reclaimed the fort under allied control in 1944.
Hackenberg was built to manage quite a large number of people. In fact, up to 1,000 people could stay in the fort’s 25 blocks! With a population that size, about 400 liters of beer a day were consumed inside the walls of Fort Hackenberg. Conversely, all those people necessitated large amounts of energy and power. About 10.3 thousand volts of electricity were needed to run the place, which meant that four different submarine engines working on diesel had to be utilized. All those people and all that machinery also meant that the air had to be filtered throughout the fort, so engineers designed and executed such a filtration device to keep the air relatively fresh. The tour was concluded with a look at the fort’s exterior, a showing of the turret in action, and a WWII exhibit. A few more group photos and then we were on our way to our next destination!
The next stop on the group’s tour was much more somber.
The post-lunch lethargy was met with the silence that comes along with the journey to a former concentration camp; the bus climbed into the mountains and turned through valleys and small towns, up into the hidden alcove where Struthof resides. One can’t help but think of the thousands of people who made the very same, but oh so different, journey not even a hundred years ago. We arrived quietly, many of us breaking into small groups of two or three as we made our way first to watch a short historical film and then to the museum. The museum was mostly about the context of World War II and background information that set the stage for what we were about to experience outside.
Nestled in the Alsace region of France, the site of Struthof has a harrowing beauty to it. Personally, I found myself awestruck that such a beautiful place could harness such a dark history. It’s unsettling, but it is also necessary and respectful to remember. To commemorate remembrance, the camp has multiple memorials- the biggest being a large, stone monument bearing a torch-like shape with the French and EU flags alongside it. However, before you can really even take in the memorial site, you must pass through the Struthof gate: an act that runs a chill down your spine and brings tears to your eyes. Beneath the memorial, you see guard towers lining the perimeter of the camp, barracks, “vegetable gardens”, and crematoriums. The barracks housed a mini-museum of their own, detailing how approximately 52,000 people were forced through this camp, where upwards of 20,000 people were killed in the three years of its functioning (1941-1944). In solitude, I walked down the steep incline, flanked by barbed wire, guard towers, and a noose. I approached the crematorium and the cells with sadness and awe, having trouble believing where I was. It’s shocking to stand in such an infamous place that you’ve heard about all your life. Textbooks and documentaries can’t prepare you for the sensations that you feel as you stand in the fields of a former concentration camp.