I recently returned from a vacation in Europe, a river cruise down the Rhine from Basel in Switzerland to Amsterdam in Holland. This was a fascinating and enjoyable trip down a great European river. The ship stopped at many historical interesting towns and cities including Strasbourg in the Alsace region of France. This is the seat of the European Council and Commission for Human Rights. We boarded a bus at our mooring, and crossed the small bridge which took us into France and the city. Our guide was Lisette, an outgoing attractive woman probably in her mid-40s, with a son finishing high school. As we crossed the midpoint of the bridge, she announced with great fanfare that we were now in France. “You can immediately see the difference and smell the difference. This is historic France, and you have left Germany behind.”
As we drove into the city she not only pointed out areas of interest and different architectures, but told us about some of the recent history of this old city. In the Franco-Prussian war of 1870, the city was occupied by the Germans, and the region was declared part of Germany. With the end of that war the city and the region of Alsace once again returned to France. The great war of 1914/18 lead to a repeat of the process, and the German influence could be seen in the architecture, place names, and business signs. After the armistice in 1918, the city and the region once again returned to France, until the outbreak of the Second World War in 1939. Shortly after the beginning of that war, the Germans once again marched into Strasbourg and quickly took control of the whole region. However, according to Lisette, the Nazi occupation was brutal and unrelenting. Most of the Jewish population of the city, which at that time accounted for over 60,000 people, fled, were killed, or shipped off to concentration camps. The Nazis insisted that all French names be removed from the city, whether they be businesses, schools, streets or civic buildings. It even became a crime punishable by arrest and deportation to wear the traditional French beret. Lisette was quite emotional, as she told us that the Nazis deported or forcibly enlisted 140,000 young men from Strasbourg who were sent to fight in the East, or became slave labor working in German industry. She told us that her grandfather had been arrested and shipped to Germany as slave labor. He survived but when he returned to Strasbourg he was a physical wreck of a man who never recovered from his traumatic experiences and died at an early age.
Strasbourg was one of the richest medieval cities in Europe. The well preserved old town is enclosed on all sides by a River Lil making the center an island which can be explored easily on foot. The city has a majestic cathedral which towers above the surrounding medieval houses of the former merchants of the city now turned into boutiques and restaurants. The food is excellent, definitely French, but with Dutch and German influences. We enjoyed our Strasbourg visit immensely but I was intrigued as to why Lisette was clearly so anti-German. She responded that the humiliation and suffering of the people of Strasbourg had left deep wounds and even though her mother had not been born until a year after the end of the war, her family could not forget. “These wounds run deep.” she said.
Ellis M. Goodman, author of Bear Any Burden: www.bearanyburden.com