WWII : An Alsatian Odyssey, by General Jacques Paul Klein

by Major General Jacques Paul Klein, USAF (Ret.), Officier, Member of L’Union Alsacienne of New York.

 With France’s defeat in June 1940, Alsace and part of Lorraine, for the second time in 100 years, came under German rule. That June 15, the Germans crossed the Rhine at Neuf-Brisach. France was partitioned into an occupied zone and an unoccupied zone under Vichy control, and Alsace and part of Lorraine were annexed to the Reich. By July, over 45,000 persons identified as political undesirables were expelled to unoccupied France; this included Jews, French nationals and Alsatians identified as overly pro-French and deemed politically unreliable. Additionally, thousands of other Alsatians who had volunteered to serve in the French Army in WWI were rounded up and transported to Schirmeck-Vorbruck for punishment, political indoctrination and for security reasons.

The process of mandatory Germanization of names, Namens Anderung, began. Towns, villages and individuals received new names overnight and our native village, St. Hippolyte, became St. Pilt. Given names were also quickly changed, e.g., Jean became Hans and Jacques, Jacob. The use of the French language and all French words that had been assimilated into the Alsatian dialect were forbidden. All street, store, and restaurant names were also quickly Germanized.

On September 9, 1940, all monuments dedicated to Alsatian generals were removed, and all French books in the public libraries were publicly burned. In December 1941, it was decreed that wearing the beret was forbidden and punishable with a six-week jail sentence.

Participation in the German Labor Service, Reichsarbeitsdienst (R.A.D.), was made obligatory on May 8, 1941, for all young men between 17 and 25. That day, a young Alsatian, Marcel Weinun, who attempted to blow up the automobile of Gauleiter Wagner, the head of the Nazi civil administration in Alsace, was condemned to death and executed. On May 20, all Alsatian Jews who had not yet been expelled to unoccupied France were directed to wear a yellow Star of David. On August 25, 1942, Gauleiter Wagner declared obligatory military service for all Alsatian males between 17 and 38. Conscription was enforced with the utmost brutality: numerous deserters and persons who disobeyed were shot and their families held hostage, dispossessed and deported to Germany. Special camps were built for them in Ulm and Breslau. For these actions, Wagner earned the sobriquet “Schlachter von Elsass—Butcher of Alsace.”

On February 10, 1943, 183 young Alsatian conscripts were able to escape together across the Swiss frontier at Pfetterhouse. On February 11, another 80 from the region of l’Oltingue, also managed to reach Switzerland. Another group of young men from Ballersdorf who attempted to evade forced conscription were ambushed by the Nazis and three were killed. The others were transported to Struthof concentration camp and were eventually executed.

Repeated Nazi attempts to encourage voluntary enlistments with inducements and generous rewards fell largely on deaf ears. Obergruppenfuhrer Gottlob Bergen, Chief of Staff of the Military SS and head of the SS Main Leadership Office, vented his frustration in a telegram to Heinrich Himmler on June 21, 1944: “Alsatians are, with all due respect, a bunch of bastards. They already believe the French and English will return and, in the last few days, have increasingly shown a particularly hostile and hateful attitude.”

In my family, my Uncle Joseph was arrested by the Nazis for having left Alsace and for volunteering to serve in the French Army during WWI. My Uncle Eugene was conscripted in early 1943 and sent to the Russian front. Later that year, he was reported missing in action and presumed dead. We never learned his fate. My cousin Charles was conscripted and posted to Italy, and when able, he deserted and joined an Italian partisan unit. They were betrayed and he was court-marshaled for desertion, sentenced to death, and sent to Mauthausen Concentration Camp in Austria. Fortunately, the war ended before his sentence was carried out.

My cousin and godfather, Emile, was conscripted in August 1942, and sent to the Russian front. Excerpts of his letter of March 3, 1987, describes his odyssey:

[…] The great misery and adventure began on October 6, 1942, with forced conscription into the German Labor Service (Reichsarbeitsdienst) in Karlsruhe […] where I worked at the airfield until 30 December 1942. On January 13, I was forcibly conscripted into the Wehrmacht. […]Later, I was designated to leave for the Russian front. Soon we climbed aboard a train heading for the Polish border. Bombed several times, we arrived at a large military camp between Breslau and Poland. There, we formed a battalion with other companies from military camps in Germany. I was in the first company of the Marsch-Bt2 111/50/8. The commander announced that we were going to reinforce the 50th Division then fighting in Crimea. […] In the meantime, the Russians had occupied the strip of land connecting Crimea to the mainland. Our 50th Division was surrounded, backed against the Crimea. There was no more frontline.


We were forced to retreat toward the Dnieper River where we formed a bridgehead in Kherson. I was selected to form a patrol composed of a strong platoon that included several tanks to test the Russian front. We were under fire for over two days and half the platoon was decimated.


During the morning of the third day, I succeeded in going over to the Russians. It was November 24, 1943. I met an officer who spoke fluent French and who knew the Alsace and Lorraine regions well. I presented my French papers and a Russian non-commissioned officer led me to his division headquarters. I was interrogated for several days, during which I ate well and was well treated. I revealed the location of all German positions, as well as the areas occupied by regiments of Cossacks, or of White Russians wearing the German uniform. For several days, I remained at the headquarters before being assigned to a small camp in Melitopol. There, my head was shaven, and two large letters (V and P) were painted on my back.

In January 1944, I and other prisoners from Alsace-Lorraine were gathered in a special camp about 480 km from Moscow. We left there for the Tambov camp, and I met many buddies from home and some Alsatians. By June, we formed a battalion of 1,500 men divided into seven companies, and began military training. Around June 15, a Russian commission arrived at the camp. All were officers and spoke perfect French. Then, a commission of Free France officers arrived to find us. On July 4, we received Russian uniforms and military packs. General Petit, representing Free France in Moscow, announced that we were leaving for North Africa to join Free France. There was a tremendous hurrah shouted by all 1,500 prisoners.

On July 7, we left the camp, and began the long trip. On July 15, we crossed the Russian border from the Caucasus to Armenia before reaching the terminal of the rail line in Azerbaijan. From there, we travelled in Russian Army trucks from Tabriz in Iran toward Teheran. There on July 18, Russian authorities turned us over to the Free France authorities, with Major Morin our new chief. […] On July 21, Major Morin presented our battalion to the authorities of Teheran, and to the Ambassadors of France, Great Britain, and the United States. On July 25, we left Teheran toward Bagdad, then to Damascus, Palestine, and Transit Camp 209, near Haifa.


From there on August 17, we boarded a Dutch ship to join a large convoy. Passing Port Said, Alexandria, and Tripoli, we were part of a huge convoy of at least 30 ships and warships, all heading for the front in Italy. We disembarked in the port of Taranto before leaving on a French ship, Ville d’Oran. We followed the coasts of Sicily, then headed straight to Tunisia, before following the Algerian coast.


Upon our arrival at Algiers on August 30, the French authorities were there to welcome us, along with a delegation of Alsace-Lorraine natives. On October 10, our period of rest and recreation ended, and we were able to choose our unit of assignment. I volunteered for the French commandos for the war’s duration and was assigned to the “3rd Commandos of France.”


Then, we departed for Oran before boarding in Mers-el-Kebir. We were Reinforcement Unit 98 for the shock battalion of the First French Army. […] From Marseille we made our way to the front near Belfort. […] I was assigned to the command company of the First Shock Battalion, in the assault engineer platoon. I laid minefields along the Swiss border near Basel for fear that the Germans planned to surround us if they won the Battle of the Bulge.


In the meantime, the American Seventh Army had evacuated the Alsace plain for the Vosges Mountains. The French First Army, under the command of General de Lattre de Tassigny, were to attack immediately and occupy the Alsace plain. The First Battalion, to which I belonged, dashed through the Vosges area and emerged in the Bruche River Valley in the middle of the night. Americans who were departing were on one side of the road, with civilians fleeing the German Army, while the French First Army units were on the other side, heading for the Rhine. Companies of the First Shock Battalion confronted the Germans between Benfeld, Erstein, and Selestat.


Later that afternoon, I left for Still to see members of the family. They could not believe their eyes to see me in the flesh, having assumed that I had vanished forever in Russia. […] I eventually reached the headquarters of General Leclerc, commander of the French Second Armored Division. Then, we headed for the frontline. All of the villages between the Ill and the Rhine rivers were liberated one after another. We continued toward Selestat. Then, we went to Marckolsheim before surrounding Colmar with the tanks of the Fifth Armored Division. The American Seventh Army had returned, and it advanced with us. At sunrise, we liberated Colmar. Then, we continued toward Rouffach to connect with French and American troops coming from Mulhouse. […] From Rouffach, we left for Strasbourg and Wissenbourg. After a few days of rest in Betschdorf, it was now time for the big push! We raced to the German lines in the Palatinate, to Landau, then to the Rhine crossing at Speyer, the bridgehead of the First Army. That evening, we were already in Karlsruhe. We then bypassed the Black Forest and surrounded Stuttgart. Once that city had fallen, we headed to the Swiss border and the Danube, Sigmaringen, then Ulm, Ravensburg, Tübingen, Lindau, then crossed the Austrian border in Bregenz, and overtook the Arlberg Tunnel. On May 8, we were in Dalaas, near Innsbruck. During the last days of combat in Austria, we were with the Foreign Legion. A bugler climbed on top of a tank and played the call to cease fire. We all fired a final burst of gunfire into the sky to express our joy. It was time for the occupation, first of Austria, then of Germany in Lindau, then Ravensburg. Demobilized on November 10, 1945, I returned home to Thionville and was decorated with the French Croix de Guerre with one bronze star, and a regimental citation.


The largest French military cemetery outside of France is in Tambov, Russia, some 480 kilometers south of Moscow. Over 10,000 young Alsaciens-Lorrains are interred there. After the introduction of mandatory military service in 1942, some 175,000 young men were called up for mobilization. Ten thousand died in Tambov and another 10,000 died on their way to other POW camps or died in those camps and were never heard from again. Of those who returned home, more than 30,000 were wounded, some gravely and permanently disabled. Alsace suffered brutally under the Nazis’ yoke.

In New York, the l’Union Alsacienne society was founded by Alsatians who were made homeless and immigrated to the US after the German annexation of Alsace in 1871. For more than 140 years this organization has fostered Franco-American amity. They have stayed true to their ideals and, in spite of the vicissitudes of two world wars, have kept the memory of Alsace alive in America.

Ambassador Klein received the Legion of Honor in May 2000. He lives in McLean, VA.

Published ©2012 in the news bulletin of The American Society of the French Legion of Honor, Inc.


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