For one week, from Monday 7 September to Friday 11 September 2020, some of our members walked a stretch of the 650 km “Sentiero della Pace” (Path of Peace), which runs along the Italian or”Alpine front”of the First World War. It was here that the Italian and Austro-Hungarian armies faced each other between 1915 and 1918. The chosen route is located in the Pre-Alps of Vicenza, near the town of Rovereto and Lake Garda.
The aim was to discover, in places of the “Great War”, as the Italians call the First World War, the very harsh reality of a mountain war – little known in Europe – although it claimed about one million victims in the military corps of both countries.
On Saturday 29 February 2020, our association “For peace and against war” invited Mr. Gabriel Becker, from Lorraine, to present the Nazi camp of Ban St-Jean in Moselle (F) on the occasion of the 20th “Salon du Livre et des cultures” in Luxembourg. This camp is in fact a mass grave containing the re-mains of 20,000 Soviet prisoners of the Second World War.
Before giving the floor to the guest, the President of the Association, Mr. Claude Pantaleoni, introduced Mr. Becker and his research work within the AFU (French-Ukrainian Association), which is responsible for the rehabilitation of the camp.
The mass grave of Ban
St-Jean is located in Moselle, near Boulay, about one hour from Luxembourg.
Gabriel Becker, a retired German teacher, has been researching testimonies,
archive documents and memorabilia for twenty years to save the history of this
Soviet prison camp from oblivion. He is vice president and co-founder of the
Franco-Ukrainian Association (AFU), which works to pre-serve the camp.
Becker has published
four books in which he explains the drama of the last world war and the ups and
downs of the camp’s rehabilitation.
Nazi transit camp
The speaker began by
explaining that the local population did not want to deal with this camp after
the war and did everything they could to forget the place, partly because the
people were worried about their survival and were busy with the difficult
organisation of their daily lives.
Before the war,
between 1934 and 1936, the St-Jean camp was set up as a security camp as part
of the fortifications of the Maginot Line, i.e. it was a camp intended to
receive the wounded and dead of the Maginot Line a few kilometres away. As it
had to provide new men, it took on a strategic role, even though the Nazi army bypassed
the Maginot Line and passed through Belgium to attack France.
The camp covers an
area of 100 hectares and is located in the countryside near a forest. It was
crated from expropriated private land in the municipality of Denting.
Using historical photographs,
Mr. Becker reconstructed the origin and development of the camp, which was
first occupied by the 146th RIF of the French army. After the French surrender
in June 1939 German Nazi soldiers took over the camp. The first prisoners were
French, including François Mitterrand, who spent a few days there.
In June 1940 Hitler
launched the Barbarossa attack against the Soviet Union and the first Soviet
prisoners arrived in Lorraine and on the Ban St. Jean. Almost every day, Soviet
prisoners in a state of extreme physical decay reached Bolchen station. The
luckiest among them were able to work for the farmers in the region. They were
“lucky” because they were fed a normal diet, which did not ap-ply to
the camp inmates. For the biggest problem in the camp was the enormous lack of
food. This regularly led to epidemics (cholera, typhus, etc.) among the weak
and often sick prisoners. Accordingly, the mortality rate was very high. From
1941 to 1944, about 300,000 Soviet prisoners lived in Ban St. Jean. As soon as
their physical condition allowed it, they were distributed to the iron and coal
mines of the region.
At the end of the
war, about 204 mass graves with 80 to 100 victims per grave were discovered,
which means more than 20,000 bodies in total. According to Gabriel Becker, this
makes Ban St. Jean the largest Nazi mass grave in France, even though it was
not an extermination camp but a transit camp.
Ukrainian commemoration ceremonies
After the war, the
Ukrainian community took on the task of establishing a cemetery on Ban St.
Jean. The Ukrainians laid out a cemetery with a gravestone around the mass
graves and organized an annual memorial service in honour of their dead
But Moscow – in the
time of the USSR – did not like these ceremonies. It did not allow to member
state of the Soviet Union to participate in such ceremonies outside the
official ways. It did not allow Ukrainians in the diaspora to show their
nationalism. Therefore, Moscow put pressure on the French government to stop
the public celebrations. The French Government gave in by setting up a Soviet
cemetery in Noyers-St-Martin to lay to rest the Soviet dead scattered
throughout France. In 1979 and 1980, the French government organised the
exhumations in three phases. The exhumed bodies were transferred to the new
necropolis in Noyers-St-Martin, in the Oise region near Beauvais. The proximity
to Paris made it easier for official representatives to travel there.
But since then, Mr
Becker still has a problem: ” only 2,879 victims have been exhumed… and
the announced figure of 20,000 or 22,000 victims is a suspicious undercutting.
In 1980, the French government declared Ban St. Jean a “clean” place,
so from that time on, no more commemorations were held there “.
On an autumn day in
2000, when the mayor of Denting declared that an incinerator was to be built on
the site of the former concentration camp to dispose of the sludge from the
sewage treatment plants of the entire Moselle department, the population again
remembered the dead.
Stele for the 22,000 Ukrainian victims
At that time Mr.
Becker was a member of an environmental protection association, which immediately
opposed the construction. The mayor of Boulay also opposed the construction of
the incinerator. Knowing Mr Jean-Pierre Masseret, the representative of the
Ministry of Veterinary Affairs, he visited him in Paris. There, he was able to
convince the minister that it was not appropriate to have this plant built, as
the site had been used as a transit camp for political prisoners during the
Second World War and thousands of bodies were still buried in the ground. The
minister took the side of the factory opponents. He appealed to Mrs Malgorne,
prefect of Moselle, to stop the project. He literally called on her to
“stop the project out of respect for the memory of all the victims of the
camp. And although many bodies have been exhumed, my services cannot guarantee
that there will be no more bodies. Mr. Becker and his team took the initiative
and had a stele erected to make Ban St. Jean a place of remembrance again. The
stela bears the inscription “To the 22,000 Ukrainian victims of Ban St.
On the basis of numerous
documents, Becker explained what is important so that the descendants of Soviet
prisoners can visit the burial place of one of their ancestors. Some
descendants could be found in Russia or Ukraine and then came to visit Ban St.
John. The camp itself was completely razed to the ground after the Second World
War, leaving only the houses of officers and non-commissioned officers.
Today, descendants of
the third generation still visit the Ban St. John, because thanks to the
Internet they can locate the camp and obtain information. But before them, a
whole generation was not able to honour their deceased for various reasons
(Iron Curtain, no financial means, no information).
At the end of the
war, many prisoners knew that if they returned to the USSR, they would be
treated very badly by Stalin, who considered every survivor a traitor or
coward. That is why most of them did not return to the USSR and tried to find
out where they could stay in Europe. Especially France, Germany or Great
Britain came into question as new homes. Many emigrated to Canada, the United
States or Australia. Only a few returned to the USSR.
“Lost Memory” (A documentary)
During the second
part of the conference, Mr. Becker showed a documentary film by filmmaker
Dominique Hennequin from Metz (F), who had visited Ban St. Jean several times
during six months. His documentary film is called “Trou de mémoire (Lost
Memory) – Ban St. Jean” and describes the everyday life of the
“Eastern workers”, the labour prisoners from the East. It can be
viewed on YouTube (www.filmsdocumentaires.com/films/4020-trou-de-memoire).
The film captures a
forgotten page of history, captures a collective “hole of memory”.
Who remembers that in 1942 every seventh inhabitant of Moselle (F) was a man or
woman of Russian, Polish or Ukrainian origin? Prisoners of war or families
rounded up by the Nazi occupiers during Operation Barbarossa were to use their labour
to support the German war effort in the occupied territory of Moselle.
The Eastern workers
worked like slaves, provided they had survived the long journey in cattle wagons,
without water or food, to the Ban-Saint-Jean near Bolchen (Boulay). In the transit
camp, which took 300,000 prisoners over the years, hunger, cold and typhus
killed the weakest quite quickly.
The conference ended
with a current problem. Mr. Becker explained that the AFU (Association
Fran-co-Ukrainienne) had difficulties in organising the annual official
commemoration ceremonies because of the war between Russia and Ukraine. In
fact, Russians and Ukrainians do not understand each other anymore, even though
they stay together in front of the mass graves of their dead ancestors. It has
become difficult today to remember together the Soviet dead (especially
Ukrainians and Russians) who lie in the mass graves. Today, official
representatives of Russia and Ukraine are no longer invited to the commemoration
ceremonies on Ban St. John.
Gabriel Becker, a retired professor of German, has been collecting testimonials, archive documents and memorabilia for the past twenty years to bring back to life the history of this prison camp. He is the author of four books on the subject:
Le camp du BAN SAINT-JEAN (1941-1944), Lumière sur une honte enf(o)uie
Le drame ukrainien en France (Moselle) (1941-1944), Mementote…
Camp du Ban Saint-Jean, Moselle, La Revie
Camp du Ban Saint-Jean Moselle, Nadejda : Espoir
He is vice-president and co-founder of the Association Franco-Ukrainienne (AFU) for the rehabilitation of the Ban Saint-Jean mass grave near Boulay, Moselle.
During his lecture, he will present the twists and turns of the dark history of this transit camp (300,000 prisoners) and death camp (22,000 dead).
Our non-profit organisation “Pour la Paix et contre la Guerre” financed and sent in 2019 all the musical instruments to a group of young people who want to oppose music to war.
Avdiivka is an industrial town in Ukraine, which borders the town of Donetsk controlled by pro-Russian militias. In the pre-war period, i.e. before 2014, cultural life was mainly concentrated in Donetsk. In Avdiivka there were only factories and dormitory towns. Since the summer of 2014, the inhabitants of Avdiivka have been living close to the front line.
A Ukrainian-patriotic couple, Svetlana and Oleksiy Savkevych, have been working since the beginning of the war to promote leisure activities for the young people of their town. In May 2018, they even managed to organise a festival of Ukrainian culture in Avdiivka.
This festival generated great interest in music among young people. That is why Oleksiy wanted to find and set up a music room for young people. It should be a space where young people could meet each other away from the streets and war, learn from each other and make music together.
In the beginning, the young people met in garages and abandoned houses and formed a rock band. They had poor quality guitars and only one old drum kit, which a local woman had given them as a gift. Broomsticks were used to hold the microphones. Oleksiy asked the city council and political leaders to give him a room where young people could continue to make music.
In December 2018, our association contacted Oleksiy Savkevich and offered to organise a charity concert for the benefit of young musicians in Avdiivka, so that the instruments could be financed. We then invited Oleksiy and his daughter Marika to our home. On March 24, 2019, we organized a big charity concert in Villerupt (France).
The day before, on 23 March, at the end of the mass in the church of Bascharage, Oleksiy spoke about the dangers and difficulties of daily life in Avdiivka, his hometown near the front. On this occasion, people also made donations to the project.
Thanks to the donations from Bascharage and the profits from the charity concert in Villerupt, we were able to buy the following equipment: three electric guitars, two acoustic guitars, a bass guitar, four amplifiers, a keyboard, a mixing table, two microphones, two stands and the necessary cables. The material was sent to Avdiivka at the end of December 2019. In the meantime, a large room in a school in the town has been made available to the young people for their “music room” project. They have renovated this room, and since January 2020 they have been playing music there in peace and freedom.
From the end of July to the beginning of September 2019, a young member of our association, Mr. Anselmo Malvetti, undertook a peace march from Lake Geneva to the shores of the Mediterranean. He thus wanted to draw attention to the Russian-Ukrainian war which, since 2014, has caused more than 14,000 deaths and has driven 1.5 million Ukrainians from their homeland. Most of them have taken refuge in free Ukraine.
In autumn, Anselmo gave us the twelve most beautiful photos he took during his walk to make a beautiful calendar for 2020, thanks to Lisa Battestini’s design.
Since the beginning of December it has been sold for 10€ (8€ for students). 100% of the profit goes to the victims of the wars that we help to rebuild their lives. On our website you can see examples of how we are helping them in a concrete way.
If someone still wants to buy a calendar, they can do so by ordering it by phone (+352 621 280 850) or by sending a text message, leaving their name and phone number.
On the 17th and 18th of December 2019 our association “Ad pacem” organized a cultural and educational trip to Alsace. Together with three teachers, twenty-five pupils from the Lycée de Garçons in Esch-sur-Alzette (Luxembourg) visited the Natzweiler-Struthof concentration camp, the Alsace Moselle Memorial in Schirmeck and the European Parliament in Strasbourg.
Visit of the concentration camp
Twenty-five pupils from the Lycée de Garçons d’Esch-sur-Alzette undertook an educational trip to Alsace on 17 December, accompanied by three teachers, Mr Claude Pantaleoni, Mr Christian Welter and Mrs Dora Almeida.
The first stop was a visit to the former Nazi concentration camp of Natzweiler-Struthof south of Strasbourg, where we arrived by bus at about 10.30 am. The whole site is a “national necropolis” where 22,000 people, mostly political deportees and resistance fighters, were murdered because of their opposition to the Nazi system. Many of approximately 400 Luxembourgers who were interned there also lost their lives.
During the month of November 2019, Ukrainian Caritas in Dnipro, a city of millions in eastern Ukraine, contacted us to ask if we could send clothes, shoes and gifts to be distributed to about 40 refugee children aged 1 to 15 years.
Spontaneously, several members of our association donated clothes, shoes and gifts for this aid action. Two boxes of children’s clothes were given to us by the Red Cross Section of Villerupt (France).
The Greek-Catholic community of Dnipro organizes the help for the families who fled from the pro-Russian occupied territories of Luhansk and Donetsk. All fled for political and/or religious reasons.
On 15 December we sent five large cardboard boxes with a total of 80 kilos to Dnipro, which arrived there on Friday 20 December. Everything was distributed to the children, young people and parents.