Pilgrimage to the past
December 5, 2012
At the time of Napoleon Bonaparte’s reign as emperor of France, one of his greatest achievements was creation of the Napoleonic Code, which administratively amongst others decrees set up the Departments of France, one of which is Alsace. This geographic area in Eastern France is blessed with natural resources, minerals, the timbered forests of the Vosges Mountains, vineyards, with natural boarders such as the Rhine River and well as the Alsacian Plain, which is the bread basket of France. With Strasbourg as its capital city, Alsace has historically been a center of contention as well as being a center of cultural, intellectual activity. Strasbourg’s name illustrates the historic “crossroads” of Europe. It was the center of vital Humanistic thought coming out of the Dark Ages, a center of early cartography where the word “America” originated. Albert Schweitzer, a Humanist of the highest order, was born in Alsace.
Long ago, the territory was under Roman rule, a frontier area stretching to the Rhine River and the Vosges Mountains. In the 30 Years’ War, 1618-1648, which involved all of the principal powers of Europe, France annexed the area, claiming it to be French territory prior to the conflict. Otto von Bismarck and his Prussians claimed the territory in a military victory in 1871. When the smoke cleared at the end of World War I, 1914-1918, the post-war treaties declared Alsace to be part of France, which remained so until the German Wehrmacht invaded and occupied France in 1940. Again, Alsace became part of the greater German empire, the Third Reich.
Coming to America
Under French military law, all able bodied men were automatically inducted into the French army, and with the defeat of the French army and its surrender in 1940, the majority of France settled down during the occupation. In Alsace, not far from Strasbourg, in the foothills of the Vosges Mountains, the petite village of Reichfeld of approximately 200 families existed, along todays Route du Vin. In this village the name Bleesz can be found in church records dating back to the 1600s – the birthplace of my father, Anton, or Tony as he became known.
My grandpere, Eugene, was the village blacksmith, the Le Marie of the village during the war years and a land holding vigneron, and he had four sons – Ernest, Albert, Martin and Anton (Tony). As was customary dating back to feudal times, land was passed on to the oldest son down the family line. Tony was the youngest son. France was in terrible times in the 1920s, and my grandpere took drastic measures for his family to survive. With limited funds available, the grandpere, a family au pair (nanny) from the village and his youngest son, Anton, who was in his early teens, booked passage for America. Anton, with no education, with a family au pair to oversee him, settled into New York. Grandpere Eugene said goodbye to his son, “bonne chance” and returned immediately back to France.
My father, Tony, would not see his parents, his brothers, his village until 1955, when he returned to see his family with a wife and two young sons in tow. He met an Alsacian woman in New York at the French Alsacian Club just as the war years commenced. I was 11 years old when I saw my grandparents for the very first time. In 1958, as the grandparents were on their death beds, another return to Reichfeld occurred. I became a Francophile.
As a youngster, France, Alsace, Reichfeld was all new and strange for this American youth. “La Guerre” was evident in the fields, villages, cities. Destroyed buildings, pill boxes, fox holes, spent cartridges, army ordinance stockpiled in the fields, all a common sight throught Alsace. Around the kitchen table during our summer visits, the grandpere and his four sons would be having animated conversations, fists pounding the table, a bottle of Reisling and glasses was constant, smoke from cigarettes would cloud the room, words spoken in French, German, Alsacian punctuated the room – “Wehrmacht,” “Les Allemandes,” “Les Americans,” “De Gaulle” and occasional the word “Struthof” and a name, Xavier. I remember distinctly going into the village eglise and seeing a German helmet hanging from a cross.
As the German war machine was being pounded into submission by the Allies by 1944, the German army conscripted former French soldiers into their army. These soldiers became known as the “Malgre-nous” (in spite of our will) and 130,000 Alsacians were forceable issued Wehrmacht, Waffen SS uniforms and arms. The majority were sent to the Eastern front – 32,000 were killed, 10,500 missing in action. Some were interned in the Gulag systems and not released until the mid 1950s. The story of the “Malgre-nous” was more complex than stated here, and this “Malgre-nous” issue became a national judicial contentious issue well into the 1950s. My uncles Ernest, Albert and Martin were “Malgre-nous” soldiers, and my father, Tony, who had American citizenship at this time, was physically handicapped and exempt from the American war effort, however, the French government had called him to arms as well.
Ernest was conscripted into the German army in May 1944. He was captured by American forces in October 1944. Albert likewise was conscripted in 1944 and while on leave from the Wehrmacht, fled to Reichfeld. Seeking refuge in his village, he hid in grandpere’s maison – in the hay loft above the house and below among the oxen, chickens and rabbits in the cave or cellar until the American forces liberated the village in November of 1944. Martin fled Alsace and managed to find refuge with a friend in the Savoie until the war’s end. Xavier, a close family relative from the village, refused to dig trenches for the Wehrmacht, refused to be conscripted and in August 1944 was sent to the Konzentrationionslager Struthof for punishment. Struthof was a penal and labor camp existing from 1941 to November 1944, when it was liberated by the Americans.
Koncentrazionslager Struthof became known as the Alsacian Inferno. Created on the highest point in the Vosges Mountains at 800 meters, in deep forested pines, not but a 40 minute drive from Reichfeld or Strasbourg, the penal and labor camp was the only one of its kind in all of France throughout the war. The camp held 52,000 prisoners from all over Europe, mostly from France. It is estimated 22,000 individuals died from starvation, disease, murder by firing squads, hanging, being overworked in the stone quarry, medical experimentations, not to mention the gas chambers and crematorium. Xavier Bleesz was one of those who did not survive the Inferno. The death rate at Struthof was 66.5 percent while at Auschwitz it was 57 percent.
The Struthof camp today is now a national monument, a museum which opened in 2005. In 1958, while visiting grandparents on their deathbeds at the age of 14, I was taken by my Uncle Martin to the Konzentrationslager Struthof. He led me on a tour of the camp, the barracks, the crematorium, the cells, the medical experimentation building and eventually pointed out Xavier’s headstone. Our language barrier was insignificant – it was plain to see and comprehend for this youthful American kid.
I return to my grandfather’s house in Reichfeld now and then and visit cousins as the old ones have passed on. On occasion, I make a pilgrimage to Struthof for contemplation, photographic research and for understanding. A visitation to the Konzentrationslager Struthof in the Vosges Mountains of Alsace just off the Route Du Vin and a short drive from Strasbourg is a memorable experience.
Raymond Bleesz lives in Edwards.