Channel Islanders imprisoned in Natzweiler-Struthof Concentration Camp:
Albert Raymond Durand, Clarence Claude Painter, Peter Edward Painter
By Roderick Miller
At least three Channel Islanders were imprisoned in Natzweiler-Struthof (often referred to as just ‘Natzweiler’ or ‘Struthof’) Concentration Camp (Konzentrationslager Natzweiler-Struthof, Straf- und Arbeitslager Natzweiler-Struthof, Camp de concentration de Natzweiler-Struthof) near the town of Natzwiller in the Bas-Rhin department of northeast France. From 1940 to 1944, this region of France was de facto annexed into the German Reich as part of the German state of Baden, its residents made German citizens by decree, and (from 1942) its young men forcibly drafted into the German armed forces. In 1940, a business run by the SS reported finding a certain type of stone in the region that head Nazi architect Albert Speer wanted for building projects in Berlin. Although the exploitation of forced labour for the stone quarry was never fully realised, it was the initial reason for the founding of the camp. It wasn’t until April 1942 that prisoners were finally forced to labour in the quarry, with most of them in the meantime working constructing roads in the region. By 1943 the main focus of forced labour was on producing aeroplane motors for the companies Junkers AG and the Mathis automobile factory.
The first prisoners arrived on 21 May 1941 from Sachsenhausen Concentration Camp and were primarily classified either as ‘career criminals’ or so-called ‘anti-socials’. An old hotel called ‘Le Struthof’ was near the selected location and served as the residence for the camp’s SS personnel. The prisoners lived initially in a temporary structure surrounded by barbed wire. Between May and December 1941 there was an average of 400 prisoners in the camp, all of them transported from other camps in the German Reich. The first death in the camp occurred on 24 May 1941, and 30 prisoners died in one day in November 1941 after forced to stand at roll-call in their undergarments for 6 hours in temperatures of minus 14 Celsius.
By 1942, the first barracks had been built with a barbed-wire fence, and the camp’s prisoner population began to increase tremendously as it officially became part of the Nazi concentration camp system. This altered the prisoner categories in the camp, as many more political prisoners, Jewish prisoners, and foreign forced labourers were deported to the camp. The death rate in the camp climbed dramatically by 1942, with typically fictitious causes of death listed on death certificates such as ‘weak heart’, ‘general weakness of the body’, or the typical euphemism ‘shot whilst attempting to escape’.
There were over 14,000 prisoners in Natzweiler by 1943, by this time consisting of the entire spectrum of persecuted people from throughout the German Reich and Nazi occupied Europe, including Nacht und Nebel or ‘Night and Fog’ (NN) prisoners. These NN prisoners were part of a secret hostage program devised by the Nazis as a means of controlling potential resistance in occupied territory. On 20 September 1943, the Nazis decreed that all NN prisoners should be incarcerated in Natzweiler and from March to August 1944; this group comprised a quarter of the new arrivals. For reasons unknown, Channel Islander Peter Hassall, also an NN prisoner, was never deported to Natzweiler, possibly due to the timing of his mid-1944 trial in Breslau.
A gas chamber was constructed in 1943 in the restaurant and ballroom across from the former Hotel Struthof, and a crematorium was constructed soon thereafter at the bottom end of the camp. Executions had taken place in the camp since 1942, but by ‘summer 1944, executions took place nearly every day’, according to the post-war testimony of SS camp commandant Fritz Hartjenstein. The first women to arrive in the camp, on 6 July 1944, were members of the British Special Operations Executive: Diana Rowden, Vera Leigh, Andrée Borrel, and Sonya Olschanezky. They were taken to the Natzweiler crematorium on the night of their arrival and murdered by SS doctor Werner Rhode with injections of phenol. A further 107 members of the French resistance group ‘Réseau Alliance’ and 35 other French resistants were executed in the crematorium on the night of 1 and 2 September 1944. Over 250 people were executed by the SS in Natzweiler who were never officially registered as prisoners there.
By its final stages of construction in 1943, Natzweiler had 17 barracks on barely 2.5 acres of land and was surrounded by a double row of tall barbed-wire fences, the innermost of which was electrified with 380 volts. The crematorium and an air-raid bunker were within the fenced limits of the camp. New prisoners arrived at the Rothau train station and were usually force-marched the five miles to the camp. The residents of Rothau were ordered to close their window shutters when prisoners came through the village. One prisoner described his first impression thus:
An extraordinary landscape with hills and valleys in diverse nuances of green and then thousands clad in pyjamas and wooden shoes, marching in masses through the barracks… ill from typhus, like test animals or lepers… —from Michel Ribon, ‘Le passage à niveau’, Paris, 2004
And another prisoner:
Prisoners in Natzweiler-Struthof had to constantly climb up steep stairs in the camp. After awhile the prisoners didn’t have the strength to lift their legs any longer, and had the strangest kind of movement: for every step, they placed their hands under their knee and lifted it up, in order to get their foot onto the next step. Thus it continued until they reached their barracks block. – Kristian Ottosen, ‘Natt og tåke: Historien om Natzweiler-fangene’
‘Night and fog’ prisoners Albert Durand (prisoner no. 17064), Clarence Painter (prisoner no. 6861) and his son Peter Painter (prisoner no. 6862) were incarcerated in Natzweiler for around 3 months each. The Painters arrived in January 1944, and Durand in June 1944 from Dachau Concentration Camp. The new prisoners were showered, disinfected, completely shaved, and given striped camp uniforms with the letters NN (Nacht und Nebel) printed on them in bright colours. At first they were placed in a quarantine barracks to be sure they did not have any contagious diseases, then they were consigned a special barracks for NN prisoners, separated from the main barracks with a barbed wire fence. As the allied forces began approaching in September 1944, the SS made preparations for the evacuation of the camp.
I was here until the end of the camp. A real Hell! Everything was done to make our life as terrible as possible. What food there was didn’t go far… I was there when a small convoy of women were brought to the camp (I saw them myself) and were executed during the night. They were women who had been parachuted into occupied France and were arrested. Some of them were Englishwomen. The last few weeks were terrible: the allied advance made the Germans evacuate the prisons, and they were all brought here till they were transferred to different camps in Germany. We were lucky if we got our bowl of soup once a day. Then we were all transferred to Dachau. —Albert Durand, restitution testimonial, 14 July 1965.
Albert Durand was evacuated on the last transport to leave Natzweiler for Dachau on 4 September 1944. From 2–4 September, three trains with 5517 prisoners were deported to Dachau, and 13 prisoners died during the two-day journey. The last of the SS personnel and French collaborationist paramilitary Milice abandoned the camp on 22 November 1944 after having destroyed most of the camp records. The first US Army troops entered Natzweiler Concentration Camp two days later.
Natzweiler was used from December 1944 until 1949 by the French government for the internment of suspected French Nazi collaborators. In 1950 the camp was declared a memorial. All of the barracks blocks except four were razed by the French administration due to their poor condition. A monument was erected in 1960 and dedicated by General de Gaulle. In 1964, a museum was built in barracks Block I. It was set ablaze by neo-Nazis twice, once in 1976 and again in 1979, but each time re-built. In 2005, French president Jacques Chirac dedicated the European Centre of Deported Resistance Members in a new building adjacent to the site.
It is estimated that 20,000 people died in Natzweiler from poor living conditions, maltreatment or outright execution — nearly 40% of the total inmates. SS doctor Werner Rhode was sentenced to death by a British military tribunal and hanged for his part in the deaths of the four SOE agents. Commandant Josef Kramer was sentenced in the Bergen-Belsen trials and hanged, but he never stood trial for his crimes in Natzweiler. Commandant Fritz Hartjenstein was sentenced to death in a number of trials, but died in French custody before the sentence could be carried out. French authorities sentenced 2107 Nazis and Nazi collaborators for crimes against humanity carried out in Natzweiler and Neue Bremm Camp near Saarbrücken, sentencing104 of them to death, but it is unclear how many of these sentences were actually carried out and how many of the sentences were for crimes committed in Natzweiler. Many death sentences that were issued in absentia in France were never carried out, since as a general rule, neither East nor West Germany extradited French-convicted war criminals to France. In West Germany, investigations were made into 284 suspected war criminals from Natzweiler, but only 4 resulted in convictions.
Clarence Painter and his son Peter died later in other Nazi camps, but Albert Durand survived to experience liberation in Dachau. Durand wrote, in his application for restitution in 1965:
As a result of all this, I am suffering from Asthenia [physical weakness] and above all for the last year, under doctor’s care. My memory is also bad, as I still get trouble even while preaching. It all depends how tired I am.
Carr, Gilly; Sanders, Paul; Willmot Louise: Protest, Defiance and Resistance in the Channel Islands: German Occupation, 1940-1945, Bloomsbury Academic, London & New York, 2014.
Bakels, Floris B.: Night and Fog (Nacht und Nebel), Lutterworth Press, Cambridge, 1993. Contains a detailed account of the author’s firsthand experiences as an NN prisoner in Natzweiler.
Benz, Wolfgang & Distel, Barbara (editors): Der Ort des Terrors. Geschichte der nationalsozialistischen Konzentrationslager, Volume 6: Stutthof, Groß-Rosen, Natzweiler. C. H. Beck, 2007, pp. 22-45 (in German).
International Tracing Service Arolsen, Catalogue of Camps and Prisons in Germany and German-occupied Territories, 1949-1951.
Landeszentral für politische Bildung Baden-Württemberg (publishers): Auf dem Weg zu einer Geschichte des Konzentrationslagers Natzweiler, Stuttgart, September 2000 (in German). Link.
Megargee, Geoffrey P. (editor): Encyclopedia of Camps and Ghettos, 1933–1945, Vol. 1 , Part B. United States Holocaust Memorial Museum , Indiana University Press, Bloomington and Indianapolis, 2009, pp. 1004-1007.
Ottosen, Kristian: ‘Natt og tåke: Historien om Natzweiler-fangene’, 2nd edition, Aschehoug, Oslo, 1995 (in Norwegian, also available in a French edition entitled Nuit et Brouillard).
The National Archives (TNA), Foreign Office (FO)
TNA FO 950/1698 (Durand)
TNA FO 950/1073 (Clarence & Peter Painter)