Those forgotten of Ban-Saint-Jean
Since 2001 a memorial plaque pays tribute to thousands of Ukrainian war prisoners, who perished from 1942-1944 in the Nazi Ban-Saint-Jean camp in Lorraine (France). After nearly 60 years of oblivion, the truth about the tragic destiny of those doomed by history, is reappearing today. A look back on a page in history from the Second World War - a page turned much too soon.
«Here rest 3,600 Ukrainians - Victims of the 1939-1945 war». Flooded by autumnal mist, a black marble memorial plaque pays tribute to these anonymous soldiers. Slavic requiem, puffs of incense, lends a little more melancholy to the picture, before the Ukrainian National Anthem tears the air of the neighbouring peaceful village and the overall dim quietude. The scene resembles the traditional commemorations of martyrs in Ukraine, yet, this time it is held in France, in a little cemetery in Lorraine.
With the exception of the memorial plaque, just inaugurated and consecrated with holy water on this 25th of November 2001 in Boulay (near Metz), the memorial disclose no more about the tragic deaths. It sheds but a scarce light on the mystery of the crimes that took place in the former Nazi camp of the Ban-Saint-Jean, in the neighboring village. From 1942, carriages packed full of Soviet prisoners arrived at the Ban-Saint-Jean railway station, as a result of the operation “Barba Rossa” launched by Hitler in the Eastern front in 1941. Directly brought over to the former military camp of the Maginot line (1), these “spoils of war” consisted mostly of Ukrainians who were enrolled, often unintentionally, in the Red Army.
During the Nazi occupation, the barracks turned into a camp for French war prisoners, became thereafter flooded with Slavic accents. Despite their daily work for neighbouring farmers, detainees did not avoid the inhuman conditions of forced labor in coal and iron mines of the region. The vicious circle would come to an end, when exhausted they would return to the camp of Ban-St-Jean to slowly starve to death. Mrs Steinmetz, now in her 70’s from the neighboring town of Saint-Avold, was 18, when she encountered the prisoners tearing at the barbed wires of the Maginot line. “Brot, brot (“bread” in German), they begged” when she was passing by on her bicycle, powerless before the Nazi cruelty. In total over 20 000 prisoners would die, although the exact number is difficult to determine (2).
A colossal figure, that would make the Ban-St-Jean one of the largest common grave of nazim victims during the war in France, even though, concentration and internment camps appeared under the Vichy regime. "Struthof", "Schirmeck-Natzweiller" (3), "Drancy" and many other camps have been documented and researched, but Ban-St-Jean has been almost completely ignored for 60 years. A page from the History, paradoxically still unknown, although it should have deserved special attention, beyond winning a sinister competition of mere quantity. Only L’Humanité, newspaper of the French Communist party, openly condemns the massacre on the 1st of November 1945, claiming it was a “Communist sacrifice”.
Quickly forgotten, this tragedy does not escape the attention of the Ukrainian community of Eastern France, who well aware of the martyrs’ origin have, since 1947, held true their duty to remember. On their initiative, two bilingual steles decorated with a “tryzub” (trident - Ukrainian National symbol) have been erected in the Ukrainian prisoners’ burial place. Set up at the Jewish cemetery of Boulay, the first one commemorates the “3,600 Ukrainians” brought over to be buried in the common graves after their last breath at the neighboring camp. The second memorial stone stands on the very burial place of Ban-St-Jean commemorating the “22,000 Ukrainians” believed to rest there.
But, beyond those uncertain figures, the two stele symbolize, above all, the tragedy that Ukrainian deportees have suffered. After the French government (in 1951) granted to the Ukrainian community the piece of land at the Jewish cemetery of Boulay which holds so many Ukrainian remains, there was a first celebration in 1979, with the participation of regional officials. This affirmation of the Ukrainian National identity abroad, was viewed negatively by Moscow, at a time when the Brezhnev regime was putting the finishing touches to the long-pursued policy of russification and Soviet uniformization.
The counter-response by the Soviets did not take long. A year after the celebration, the Embassy of the USSR in France, in a dramatic move, forgot its discretion. It decided to exhume all the remains, no matter what origin and to rebury them in the Soviet cemetery of Noyers-Saint-Martin in the Parisian region. No matter how controversial and also political the move was, “2,714” human remains were officially transferred from Ban-St-Jean. But the municipality of Boulay objected to the removal of the “3,600 Ukrainian residents” of their cemetery.
Despite this lucidity, the two memorial plaques mysteriously disappeared in 1980, and were replaced with four triangles of white stone decorated with a red star. This open secret was a hard blow to Ukrainians openly wronged once again by Soviet interests, under France’s very nose. Although “Soviet” is often synonymous with “Russian” in the minds of the French, the authorities did not bother themselves with national distinctions and seemed to be solely intent on retaining their political relationship with Moscow.
Ban St-Jean camp : a hidden history ?
Dissolved in the Soviet anonymity, the Ukrainian soldiers of Ban-St-Jean fell into oblivion, until a concurrence of circumstances revived the public conscience in 1998. The inhabitants of the region denounced as blasphemous, a project to build an incinerator in the burial place of the Ban-St-Jean remains. The past re-emerged. Mr. Gabriel Becker, a local professor of German, decided to work towards greater knowledge of the occurred tragedy. He contacted the Ukrainians of the region, who, since the independence of Ukraine in 1991, strive to reassert the historical truth and the identity of Ban-St-Jean martyrs. The Franco-Ukrainian dialogue resulted in a fruitful cooperation, thanks to which a reproduction of the first memorial plaque was erected at the cemetery of Boulay on the 25th of November 2001. Mr. Becker published his book about this unknown tragedy a week earlier. (4)
On the day of the official ceremony one could see satisfaction in the faces of the Ukrainians from the region, thanks to this common effort of revive memory. For, in more general terms, it is the historical truth about a people kept in the dark for a long time, that begins to dawn in France. The “Sous-préfet” of Boulay does not get it wrong in his speech specifying that “We can hardly imagine what it could have been like for Ukrainians to be starving to death, remembering the heavy tribute paid by them for the forced massive collectivization of agriculture, which gave rise to horrible famine and caused the death of 5 million Ukrainians from starvation between 1932-33”.
For many, the step taken on this 25th of November must be a start for new ambitions and to begin with : “the erection of a new memorial stone in the common burial place in Ban-St-Jean, followed by the construction of a Ukrainian chapel, which should become a place of pilgrimage” lets know M. Silbernagel , head of the Ukrainian Orthodox parish in Eastern France. Moreover, “it is not an end, but just the first signs of more thorough research into that tragedy”, so hopes M. Becker while dedicating his book with a telling title The Ban-St-Jean camp. Light shed on a hidden shame. For, to the many obscure Soviet undertakings, are added many shadowy areas about the camp itself and its nature.
Although the exact number of victims remains unclear, an essential question comes up : Was Ban-St-Jean a death camp inspired by “Buchenwald”, “Auschwitz” and so many others ? The fierce savagery does not appear target in this instance a civilian population, but rather war prisoners. Men of Slavic origin nonetheless, considered for that to be one of the “inferior races” despised by the Nazis. Some witnesses have mentioned the existence of a crematory furnace to corroborate the extermination project, one piece of evidence, though, will suffice, that of a massive crime against Ukrainians, and probably also Russians, sentenced beforehand to a slow death, methodically carried out. Though, the Soviet Union was not a signatory to the Geneva Convention, guaranteeing proper treatment of war prisoners, the evidence indicates that Ban-St-Jean was not an "ordinary" war prisoners’ camp.
How such a tragedy, which occurred on French soil could have fallen into oblivion ? Did “Ban-St-Jean” figured amongst the Nazi crimes judged at the Nuremberg process ? Furthermore, the fate of Soviet war prisoners, considered by Stalin to be traitors to their fatherland, probably did not merit the attention of ideological Soviet mass media. On the other hand the French themselves suffered a heavy human and material loss at the war. Moreover, 4000 “Malgré-nous” (of the Despite us), those prisoners from Alsace-Lorraine forcefully enrolled in the “Wehrmacht”, never returned from the Soviet camp of Tambow. The resultant traumatisms could have silenced the French and thus eclipsed a tragedy which did not concern them directly - that of the Ukrainian soldiers who died in captivity in a foreign land.
In a word, it is but a blank page despite the attention paid to the subject by Dr. Serge Cipko, chief editor of the Journal of Ukrainian Studies in Harvard; who since 1994 casts light on the mystery of the camp in a article about the liberation of Alsace and Lorraine. (5) Today, as never before, he calls the history to disperse the fog surrounding Ban-St-Jean camp. “What happened to the survivors ? Why wasn’t the announcement about the discovery of the camp made before October 1945 ? How to explain the fact that the article in the French newspaper "L’Humanité" went unnoticed ?” he asks himself before confessing that, unfortunately, there exist more questions than answers for the time being, even though hypotheses begin to appear.
So many questions without any real significance for most of the inhabitants of the region gathered at the table after the ceremony on this 25th of November. Far from realizing the enigmatic aspect of Ban-St-Jean, the elderly remember those soldiers they had hidden, for whom they secretly provided food and treatment. “I was scared to death as my uncle and I hid the two of them, who hadn’t had fear to show up in the daytime. I kept saying they were Polish, thinking it would help to save them, but they would correct me straight away : Ukrainians !…” tells Mme Steinmetz, and continues with maternal strings in her voice: “The name of mine was Paul. He was very strong. He worked wood so craftily and made toys from it. The children adored them”. Although uncommon, these strong memories betray a lot of emotion, mixed with tenderness. A tenderness from times born of adversity. Mrs Steimetz is right : «There were hard times».
© 2002 Cyril Horiszny
1. A network of fortifications built on the French North-Eastern border since 1930 to defend the French territory from the threat of the First World War. On may 10th 1940, the Germans bypassed it and attacked at lightning speed from Belgium.
2. This estimation is based on the evidence of a memorial stone, found right after the war, with the written in Cyrillic by the survivors “In memory of our 23,000 friends”. Research, done after consulting the German archives, with all the “entrances” and “exits” meticulously recorded, shows that up to 22,000 Ukrainians must have transited by the camp to be sent away to forced labor in the mines of the region, according to the Le Républicain Lorrain of 16/03/1987. Testimony given by people suggests the figure of the “35,000” disappeared, though, the minimal figure of the “2,879” victims is officially recognized in 1980.
3. From 10,000 to 15,000 prisoners of different origins (French patriots, Jews, war prisoners from Eastern Europe) are believed to have perished at Struthof.
4. M.G.Becker, The Ban-Saint-Jean camp (1941-1944), Light shed on a hidden shame. Fensch Valée, 2001 (ISBN 2-908196-63-8) Collection of evidence given by people and of articles from local newspapers.