DMH Spotlight - Floris Bakels- a Dutch Proeminentem at Natzweiler-Struthof Back

Natzweiler/ KLNa to the Nazis, one of the least discussed of the concentration camps, with its population of almost entirely non-Jewish inmates, and Jewish resistors not identified as Jewish, makes an important case study of revolt. The memoirs of Natzweiler-Struthof provide primary material for a serious exploration of the history of repression and resistance in the second World War.

All the writers known to have written about Natzweiler belonged to a category which deserves to be studied far more extensively than it has been in the U.S.: they were resistors condemned under the NN -- "Nacht und Nebel" decree.From 1942 on, the KLNa was mostly dedicated to the incarceration and death of resistors. By 1943, Himmler decided to group all those arrested under this decree at Natzweiler.

The phenomenon of opposition to the Nazis under many forms and guises is represented in about two dozen memoirs of Jews and non-Jews who actively participated in the destruction of the Third Reich, for the enduring honor of mankind. Future generations, no matter how widely they create, fantasize, interpret, analyze, will always have these primary sources, this bedrock of memory to mine.

These accounts demonstrate that the persistence of memory of these atrocities is not an act claimed only by the Jews: only two of the known memoirs were written by Jews. The most recently published memoirs are by a Norwegian, a Dutchman and a Slovene: non-Jews. This should set aside the challenge so often put to a Jewish person interested in this period of history: "Why can't you put the Holocaust behind you?" Every one of the authors so far known to have written about Natzweiler, and included in this survey, was sent there as punishment for acts of resistance and sabotage of the German war effort. The NN and other political prisoners of the Nazis were destined to slave labor and extinction.

Floris Bakels' diaries form the basis of Nacht un Nebel, (Night and Fog) Published in 1993 by Lutterworth Press, it is possibly the earliest to be written: it is based on his concentration camp diaries which were hidden in the rafters of Natzweiler before the camp's "evacuation" on September 2, 1944, to Dachau. Bakels' diaries, while providing contemporary accounts of the same events as those the other inmates recorded from memory and the camp archives, play counterpoint to all the other memoirs: as a "proeminenten" by his Dutch nationality, which was respected as Aryan by the Nazis, Bakels held a desk job, lost about ten kilos less than the others, possessed and smoked cigarettes by the pack, received packages from home , cooked, and even kept his faith in God.

Bakels now steers away from organized Christianity: "I do not belong to any religious community and rarely go to church, unless it is to lecture. I fear the catastrophes which threaten to come our way; many are already on the way."

Floris Bakels, 27 when he reached Natzweiler, was the son of a Mennonite minister and his memoirs are the most religous of the group. Not surprisingly, his heart was turned towards God and Jesus during many of his most difficult moments in the camp, as for example, on 11/8/43:
"I'm wasting away It's all too much. Have just been bandaged, on the way to the loo I slipped with my crutch, all damaged again, I'm moaning, being scolded. Insult, Harshness, injustice. God, how long will you allow yourself to be mocked? Christ, let me suffer martyrdom for You, for You, for You. Give it to me, I'll take it, I'll join the thousands of martyrs who suffer for You. Let me have it for it is blissful."

Instead of martyrdom, he received four foot surgeries, with anesthesia. "Debated with Leo (the SS doctor, not an inmate doctor) about the New Testament on the operating table." He receives a visit from the SS; " `You've been run down. How do you feel now?' Compassion from them!" Bakels is the only prisoner to mention the "forced and uninterrupted communal life" as being "a real plague."You could not even think alone. All your thoughts, fantasies, notions were influenced, infected." (127) This comment is followed by a grotesquely amusing description of the cacaphony of sounds of men evacuating together sitting on a pole. His author's choice of focus in far different from Pahor's excruciating description of a prisoner being beaten for not being able to control his diarrhea. These two authors direct their readers' interest to very different effect, one to revulsion and one to compassion for the sufferers.

The unrelieved promiscuity so obnoxious to him was aggravated by the fact that Bakels usually had cigarettes on him, "and when you were walking and smoking you could not be alone for even one minute: scroungers would find you soon enough. (`can I have a puff too, Floor?'). Thus you were irritated by the physical, but especially psychic, presence of others."A comparison of this annoyance with the agony of guilt Pahor experienced through the years at the memory of trading a cigarette for a piece of bread, which he insists was the cause of the prisoner's death by starvation, demonstrates that no one memoir can tell the story of the camps:
"I confess my sin. It happened only once, because I never had access to cigarettes again....I knew exactly when I was crossing the line into the realm of base instinct. Yes, condemn me for that piece of bread. Because when the smoker's body succumbed, it succumbed in part because of the the piece of bread I ate. If I had given him the cigarettes, and not taken that one piece of bread, I would not have contributed to his death.

So, fortunate Floris, fortunate all the Dutchmen in his transport, greeted their first night by "a man with hair on his head, impeccably dressed in an ordinary blue striped suit...:
"I am Wim Roessingh, one of three Dutchment in Natzweiler until now.... [Bakels uses first and last names.] "`I work in the Revier [sick ward], I have contacts. As yet it isn't known how they'll treat the Dutch. Let's hope it'll be like the Norwegians, not like the French.'...My relationship with Wim continued after the war with an extraordinary and delightful result...He and I --both survivors-- now share two granddaughters and a grandson. How is it possible!"

Bakels had been in the resistance, publishing an underground newsletter in the Hague and in Rotterdam.
For this, Bakels was sent to Natzweiler.
"In Spring 1941 I appealed to all my learned colleagues in Rotterdam by circular letter not to sign the so-called Aryan declaration which was intended to reveal Jewish origins. I believe no solicitor signed it...I could not accept the events as an official war between two countries...I viewed them as a criminal case...The presence in Holland of a Reichscommissar with all the farrago of German government offices and regulatory measures I judged to be a farce, a sinister comedy. We were really dealing with gangsters and nothing else."

His skills and Aryan national background qualified Bakels for a job in the weberei and then in the registrar's office (Schreibstube ). "For weeks, indeed months, I sat in a clean wooden room writing for some ten hours a day, with a view of part of a forest, a watchtower with SS and machine gun, and a part of the crematorium." Bakels also worked in the Effektenkammer (warehouse for prisoner's private property) with the prominenten (top dog prisoners) "Unlike anyone else we had plenty of opportunities to "organize'. You could steal and make yourself rich, because all these goods could be exchanged for food. You could `organize' sweaters, socks, shoes. you could smoke..."

The Dutch were among the favored "aryan" nationalities at the camps. At Natzweiler, parcels arrived for each Dutchman from the Mennonite Society of Amsterdam ("opened, pillaged, as usual." But in the order of the camps there were always more fortunate prisoners : Bakels vividly describes being caught up in a throng of prisoners surging timidly toward the barracks of Luxemburgers whose care packages had just arrived. and who were grilling meat. But there is a comparative lack of descriptions of hunger in Bakels, compared with the other memoirs. No one can read Pahor, for example, without a powerful sensation of the deplorable ravages of hunger on body and mind: "You feel that the emptiness inside you is about to swallow your last shred of reason." Bakels speaks of love and saucepans of macaroni. (Among the accounts written by all the other prisoners, both are unique.) : "...friends could still love each other. One evening, when I was lying on my bed deeply depressed, Con Broers brought me a saucepan of macaroni. When he noticed my deep distress he climbed onto the bed next to mine....He turned on his side, my way, and started stroking my stubbly head. That really helped, and forty-nine years later I can still feel it....The list of friends who pulled, dragged and hauled me through an endless series of mortal dangers is a long one, a very long one."

Bakels makes a distinction between the "manly" type of friendship (described in Rosencher's African odyssey) and the feminization of feeling, the tenderness of friendship in the camps, which Bakels notes but which is more apparent in Pahor.
Bakels is actually the only one of the authors to analyze friendship; nevertheless, it is obvious that among the survivors there is a bond of solidarity which the years do not diminish.
"Without friendship you could not survive a Kraut camp, not for more than a few weeks anyway. Friendship in the KZ was not restricted to encouraging words, help with food and clothes and getting a better job...In ordinary life friendship between men has a genial quality, crude, perhaps sometimes superficial, but in the camps this could turn into something else. There you could not leave it at `Come on boy, chin up.'
During the daily fight to stay alive friendship could acquire a tenderness, which had feminine qualities, somehow protective. ...Some books proclaim that men who are locked up for a long time without seeing any women can become temporarily homosexual. Nothing of that sort occurred in our KZ, all sexual curiosity of any kind had disappeared as a result of fear and starvation. Yet friends could still love each other."

Occasionally, one memoir will provide a clue or anecdotal evidence for topics mentioned in the other accounts. Bakels provides unique details of this sort: his memory of the human jaw that one day turned up in the soup, and his belief that the SS dogs were fed on human hams. This may account for the smoke room next to the crematorium oven at Natzweiler; the purpose of this room, in other survivor memoirs, is termed a mystery.

He also remembers seeing "tens, perhaps hundreds, of dark-eyed women with brightly-coloured head-scarves" behind a fence thrown up around the barrack next to the Revier. "A few days later, those barracks were deserted....All our female friends, our gypsy women, had been killed. ..One of them had given birth just before she and the new-born baby were gassed."

Somewhat condescendingly, in addition to "our gypsy women'" Bakels speaks of "our Jew." (Contrary to his assertion, there were in fact others.) "Amongst us there was one Jew. How did he get mixed in with our company? What German whim, what German sense of humour had caused one Jew to be in the NN-Lager Natzweiler? It was obvious that something would be done about it. "Something is going to be done about it. The gallows have been erected, a black coffin placed next to it. With much glee the Jew, our Jew, is invited to lie down in the coffin. He does just that. Now he gets three hours to get used to his surroundings, that is what they tell him. After that the lid is closed. Three hours later, with the entire camp assembled for roll-call, they hang him. This time it goes smoothly. Our Jew breaks his neck immediately." (147)

Perhaps his "best" vignette is of a little Polish boy cracking out his dying father's gold-filled teeth. "The next morning, the father turns out to have died. The son seems rather cheerful. Later that day some prominent men come to visit him, fat Kapos with bread, soup, cigarettes, The following day too he receives visitors, and food. He recovers." Bakels weighed 49 kilos when he left the camp- some weighed only 49 pounds. Although he claims not to "suffer much from the so-called post-KZ syndrome...this book was written during a period when I could not do any normal work, and was indeed declared medically unfit. Writing helped me return to normality."He reports that his visits back to Natzweiler are a deliberate "attempt to relive the KZ in all its extraterrestrial, divine and infernal aspects.

"And I succeed in reliving that phenomenon in the same way that lightening strikes- a discharge of high tension, which curiously enough you survive. I am back in the KZ, but never longer than a few seconds. Away from the earth. Away from the present. Out of myself, I return. This psychic experience cannot be described. It is like taking an unbelievable medicine, beneficial and mortal at the same time. You are outside yourself. "It is neither good nor bad, it is a mystery. This is accompanied by physical symptoms. I shiver from top to bottom, three or four times. I stand there shivering. I am sweating profusely. My pulse rate increases rapidly; I feel my eyes dilating. I am completely taken up by it. I am completely in the power of some force... It is the tidal wave into a river bed long ago dried up- a previous existence, a future existence. However much I try, it cannot be explained. But it is very real."

It is not without guilt that Bakels writes these memoirs, and looks back on how he and his family could have done more from the beginning of Hitler's rise to power. " This shrieking upstart with the strange runic sign on his sleeve suddenly turned on the Jews. We dismissed this as quite ridiculous and carried on with life. This was unforgiveable."


All images Diana Mara Henry. All rights reserved. Terms of Use