Natzwiller (dpa) – Birch trees are now growing in the smithy of the former Natzweiler-Struthof concentration camp, mostly only the foundations of the walls remain, the ground is almost everywhere covered with grass.

And yet, here and throughout the rest of the old camp, there are traces of the daily terror to which prisoners were once exposed.

At least that’s what archaeologists hope this summer, in the middle of the Alsatian Vosges, by digging.

Open questions

Juliette Brangé, Master in Archeology, is only 22 years old and is in charge of this operation. The architecture of some earlier buildings has already been understood, but many questions remain open: what exactly happened in the nearby quarry where the prisoners had to work hard? What were the tunnels they had to dig in the mountain for? And what work did they have to do at the forge?

The Natzweiler-Struthof concentration camp existed between 1941 and 1944. According to information from today’s memorial, around 52,000 prisoners arrived here – from all over Europe. Most of them were political deportees, but also Jews, Sinti and Roma and male homosexuals. The majority of them worked in the associated quarry, and many died from the inhumane work and poor living conditions in the camp.

Between the warehouse and the forge

Brangé and 18 volunteers are currently digging a strip between an old warehouse and the forge. Here they have already found the remains of a tar roof and a road made by prisoners. In the forge, they discovered the name of Ivan, which someone had carved into a stone base. And in the offices under the smithy, you can even guess where the desks and shelves once were, as the mural was painted on the outside.

But why dig when there is still an archive with documents from the Nazi era and contemporary witness reports? And anyway: isn’t it too close in time to be interesting for archeology? Claudia Theune, professor of archeology at the University of Vienna specializing in Nazi forced camps, disagrees. “Archeology is very good when it comes to everyday life, even under extreme conditions,” she says. “The findings tell us about survival strategies. In general, written documents make little mention of it. And contemporary witnesses often report other things than the daily routine, the daily terror. “

The first excavations in the former Nazi forced camps took place in Germany in the 1990s. Archaeologists are now studying this subject in almost all of Europe, as Theune puts it. They are interested, for example, in the structure of buildings, the surrounding infrastructure, the places where forced laborers have been deployed – but of course also the personal effects of detainees.

Objects that show the detainees’ will to survive are particularly important to her as a researcher, says Theune. “Among other things, we found homemade shoes. These were nailed together from several layers of tire scraps to protect the feet at least a bit. The inmates also made their own spoons so that they could eat soup. And – probably so as not to lose their identity altogether – they would have given cups or bowls their initials or their names. In the Sachsenhausen concentration camp, she found a small wooden heart – “a memory that triggers a pleasant sensation for a few seconds?” All of this is important for survival, ”explains Theune.