Child discovers the Alsacian inferno
The Holocaust anniversaries recently recognized in Europe have a particular meaning to this writer and photographer. The following story took place in Alsace, France, not far from the Rhine River, in the Vosges Mountains, in the Haguenau Forest, where a place called Natzweiler exists – Struthof, being the Alsacian name for the village.Within an easy day’s walk from the village of Struthof, my father, Antone, was born to Eugene and Emily Bleesz in the village of Reichfeld. There were four sons born to my grandparents Eugene and Emily.The Bleesz name can be traced back to the 1600s in the village of Reichfeld, a petite village along the route du vin, and to this day, there are a good number of Bleeszs in the village. Life evolves around wine making, Alsacian whites: reislings, sylvaner, muscat d’Alsace, gewurztraminer, pinot blanc, pinot gris or tokay, and cremant. Down in the Plain of Alsace, the breadbasket of France, the cathedral of Strasbourg can be seen from the village in the far distance. The foundation of the cathedral dates back to 496, the times of the Franks and Romans.
The French department of Alsace has been an industrial, agricultural and defensive geographic center of attention since Roman times. In modern times, Bismarck had a profound influence upon the area. In and around Strasbourg, the origins of Humanism commenced as well as the social science of cartography of the New World. Dangerous lifeWhen times were bad after World War I, Grandfather Bleesz, in the mid-1920s, sent my father Antone, a young boy at that time, to America along with a family guardian to start a new life in the New World. After accompanying his son and the family guardian to New York City and making sure of their safety and establishing their well being in the New World, Grandfather Bleesz returned to France to tend to family and village matters. The remaining three sons worked the family vineyards as there was not enough family land to disperse to the fourth son, my father. Eugene Bleesz was the village blacksmith and “marie,” or mayor.
The Rhineland was not a docile territory at that time and immediately became involved in another world war.In 1944 and 1945, towards the end of World War II, Alsace was part of the defensive line which separated the German lines from the advancing allies – an area known as the Siegfried Line.One of my uncles had died of natural causes by that time and my uncles Martin and Albert were in the French Resistance in southern France. My grandfather was not only dealing with the German occupational troops at that time as the mayor of the village, he was also responsible for the family and for the family land. And he also hid allied aviators and soldiers who happen to be in the area seeking protection from the occupying German forces. At that time, he was leading a very dangerous life, working both sides of the fences, shall I say. Mesmerizing returnFrom the village church belfry in Reichfeld, one could look towards a distant rock outcropping on a mountainside where a medieval monastery, St. Dei, overlooked the Plain of Alsace and the cathedral in the distance.
By the war years, the monastery had become a sanitarium, and below the rock outcropping the village of Struthof existed as did the Konzentrationslager or concentration camp. It is locally known as the Alsacian Inferno, and most Americans are not aware of it. The German occupying forces built the camp in the forest. It was not a very large camp, but it was deadly, a place for internment and execution.In 1955 and 1958, I became aware of it. My father, who had married a French woman whom he had met at the Alsacian Club in New York City in 1942, took his elderly guardian, his wife and two sons back to the old country to see his family, uncles, cousins and my grandparents. I was 9 years old at the time of the first visit. It was the first time the family had reunited since my father had emigrated to the States in the 1920s.Upon arrival on French soil in 1955, even at age 9, I was mesmerized by what I saw. My encounter with a foreign culture had a profound impact upon me and, as we traveled to my father’s village of Reichfeld, I became even more mesmerized.
I can remember pill boxes lined the routes and bombed out buildings were still visible. Arriving and meeting my grandparents for the very first time was a joyous event for me, and I immediately identified with my Uncle Martin. Martin took me into the fields, the vineyards, and showed me the family terra. He showed me the piles of ordnance left over from the war, stacked neatly. He took me into the forest and pointed out fox holes and bunkers, where I collected bits of military hardware. He took me down into the family cave, the wine cellar under the house, where more ordnance was stacked for disposal. Here, the oxen, rabbits and chickens were fed and housed, and he spoke of the hay loft above the house where my grandfather hid allied soldiers during the last days of the war. And in the village cemetery, there was a cross on it with a German helmet atop. Xaviar’s graveAnd one day he took me to Struthof, the Konzentrationslager. This was in 1958, my second trip to see the grandparents.
At that time, I had a little bit of schooling under me, so I was a little more aware of the horror I was seeing again. The whole picture of World War II was a little more comprehensible to me. The day Martin took me to Struthof, now a French national monument, I followed him up and down rows of white crosses. He eventually found the cross he was looking for – Xaviar Bleesz, a family member who was a Resistance member interned at the Konzentrationslager and executed.I have been doing a long-term photo project on France, my father’s village of Reichfeld and have returned to Struthof, the camp, numerous times. I share the photos with the general readership as they are mostly self explanatory and, perhaps, reminds us of a part our history not to be repeated. Raymond A. Bleesz is photographer and histographer who lives in Singletree.Vail, Colorado