I read a lot when I'm in France, as I don't have much opportunity to read when I'm at home.
In addition, as a member of my local Book Club, I'm reading books chosen principally by others. So, to be able to choose all of my reading material for myself is a guilty pleasure that I relish greatly. Until I was searching through my journals the other day, I hadn't quite realised to what extent my reading had driven my choices of locations when in France…
Camped at Saverne. Large site and busy but have found a great spot by the perimeter overlooking an equestrian school. I have a view of beautiful horses and the Vosges Mountains in the distance…
…To Natzwiller today and the struthof and before I left this morning I knew it would be a difficult place to visit. Last year I read Sarah Helm's 'A Life in Secrets' (The Story of Vera Atkins and the lost Agents of SOE). It was a difficult and harrowing read at times, but fascinating and a testament to one individual's choice to never give-up.
Vera Atkins (1908 - 2000) was an intelligence officer in the French section (F Section) of the SOE from 1941 to the end of the war. During her time in SOE she recruited and prepared agents to work in occupied France alongside the Maquis and whilst they were active she was a key contact point back home. Following the liberation of France and the allied victory she began working for MI6 in 1946 and was stationed in Germany. She began the second phase of her life's work - tracing the 118 missing and presumed dead F Section agents. She found 117.
SOE Agents Andrée Borrel, Vera Leigh, Sonia Olschanezky, and Diana Rowden were brought here to Natzwiller from Karlsruhe and imprisoned in the crematorium barracks. On June 6th, 1944, on the pretext of vaccinating the women against typhus to enable them to be healthy to work in the sturthof, they were injected with a poison and, although one of them was still barely alive, they were placed in the crematorium oven.
The original work camp and crematorium is now a museum and monument to all those, SOE or not, who gave their lives for freedom. There is a special room dedicated to the 4
women from Section F who died here. It is unbelievably shocking to understand the privations and the treatment the prisoners endured. As I make my way back to the visitor's
centre I encounter a coach-load of foreign teenagers, papers in their hands
racing around trying to find answers to the questions their teachers have set
them. Their conduct is such that I have
to wonder if they realsie they are actually visiting a
graveyard and a place of remembrance.
|From Top left A Borrel, V Leigh, |
S Olschanesky, D Rowden
In the visitor's centre I'm greeted by a museum official who picks me out as English and decides to let me know what there is to see. In amongst all of this he announces that there is an original working gas oven on site. The way he conveys this fact stops me short: as though he is announcing the first prize in a raffle. I'm appalled and it clearly shows in my face as he suddenly pauses and changes tack. I thank him and walk away…