Would you like to visit somewhere called ‘Beech Forest’? It sounds idyllic, doesn’t it? But our impressions change immediately we find out the German for ‘Beech Forest’ – Buchenwald. Today marks the anniversary of the liberation of that infamous place.
The concentration camp at Buchenwald was built just 5 miles north of Weimar, on the slopes of Ettersberg mountain, and was the largest complex of its kind in Germany with a main camp as well as 139 subsidiary camps and extension units. Established before the Second Wold War began, most of the original inmates of the camp were criminals or political prisoners who arrived in July 1937. The number of prisoners rapidly increased during 1938 when ‘undesirables’ who opposed the Nazi ideal or were considered to be antisocial elements were incarcerated in Buchenwald. After the outbreak of war in 1939 the numbers of inmates increased dramatically when many Polish prisoners were interred. It is believed that around 239,000 prisoners from 30 countries passed through the hell of the Buchenwald camps during the eight years from 1937 to 1945. No-one knows exactly how many people died there as some of the records were incomplete, but estimates range from 43,000 to 56,000. The conditions in the camp were horrendous, many of the inmates died of disease or because of medical experimentation, and over 8,000 Soviet prisoners of war were shot in an area of the camp designed for that specific purpose. These estimates of the numbers who died don’t include the inmates who did not survive the death march from Buchenwald in April 1945, or the camps which they were moved to.
The prisoners held in Buchenwald were an amalgam of the kinds of people whom Hitler believed had no place in his Reich – Jews, the mentally and physically disabled, Roma gypsies, Freemasons, Jehovah’s witnesses, political prisoners, prisoners of war, homosexuals, criminals – but rather than simply killing them as happened in many of the other camps, these people were used as forced labour in local factories which were a part of the German war effort (mainly armament factories), or in the Buchenwald quarry. Like Auschwitz there was a slogan above the gates at Buchenwald; in Auschwitz the sign read Arbeit macht free which translates as ‘work sets you free’, in Buchenwald the message was Jedem das Seine, the literal translation of this phrase is ‘to each his own’ but the understood meaning in German is much more sinister – ‘everyone gets what they deserve’.
As World War Two was finally drawing to a close in the spring of 1945 the prisoners in Buchenwald began to hope that they might actually survive their ordeal. On 4th April the US 89th Infantry Division liberated the subcamp at Ohrdruf as they moved eastwards towards the Russian armies which were advancing from the opposite direction. By this time the Germans knew that they could not win the war and, with the Allies getting ever closer, the 6th April saw the start of the evacuation of over 28,000 prisoners from Buchenwald and the satellite camps in an effort to hide what had been happening there. Almost 8,000 of these prisoners died during the march to other camps further east. Some of the prisoners who remained in Buchenwald had built a secret short-wave transmitter and were able to send a Morse code message on 8th April saying ‘To the Allies. To the army of General Patton. This is the Buchenwald concentration camp. SOS. We request help. They want to evacuate us. The SS wants to destroy us.’ Only three minutes later they received a reply – ‘KZ Bu. Hold out. Rushing to your aid. Staff of Third Army.’ Most of the SS had already fled and, on receiving this message, the jubilant prisoners took control of the camp, effectively freeing around 21,000 of their fellow inmates.
At 3.15pm on 11th April 1945 four soldiers from the 6th Armoured Division of the US Army were the first Allies to reach Buchenwald where they were greeted as hero’s by the survivors, some of whom even found the strength to throw their liberators in the air in celebration. (The clock at the entrance gate of Buchenwald is now stopped at 3.15 as a memorial).
Although the prisoners were delighted at their liberation and able to celebrate for a short time, most of them were so ill that the Americans wondered if they would survive to enjoy their freedom. As Edward Murrow reported for CBS – ‘I asked to see one of the barracks. It happened to be occupied by Czechoslovaks. When I entered, men crowded around, tried to lift me to their shoulders. They were too weak. Many of them could not get out of bed. I was told that this building had once stabled 80 horses. There were 1,200 men in it, five to a bunk. The stink was beyond all description…As we walked out into the courtyard, a man fell dead. Two others, they must have been over 60, were crawling toward the latrine. I saw it, but will not describe it.’
The American soldiers were hardened men who had fought hard all the way from the beaches of Normandy but Buchenwald was almost beyond their comprehension, when Eisenhower entered the camp he said that “Nothing has ever shocked me as much as that sight.” The American liberators described finding lampshades made out of human skin and being shown where the land had been fertilised with the ashes of the dead. These horrific sights influenced their attitude when they arrived in Weimar the next day. The civilians in the town, just five miles from the camp, said that they hadn’t known what was happening there even though they had seen thousands of trains arriving laden with prisoner and none leaving. Elie Wiesel, arguably the most famous survivor of Buchenwald, later said that some of the inmates took jeeps and drove into Weimar where the American GI’s stood by and watched as the newly liberated men looted homes, killed German civilians, and even raped some of the German women. After what they had seen the soldiers felt little inclination to intervene and stop the former prisoners from taking their revenge.
Sadly, the liberation on 11th April 1945 was not the end of Buchenwald as a concentration camp. Between then and 10th February 1950 it was a ‘special camp’ run by the Russian NKVD. Finally, in October 1950, the Russian authorities decided to demolish the camp although parts were retained as a reminder of the atrocities committed by the Nazis during the Second World War. Today those remains contain a memorial and museum to the memory of the thousands who died in one of the most notorious of all concentration camps.
During the Second World War Buchenwald was the destination for many spies and resistance fighters who were captured in occupied France. In my novel Heronfield Tony was a member of the SOE and, as such, would have been sent to Buchenwald. I found writing that particular section of the book harrowing although the words I wrote in no way reflect the true horrors that the prisoners endured. In my own simple way I hope that my work can be seen as a tribute to all those who were sent to Buchenwald and other concentration camps simply because of their race, politics, religious beliefs or disabilities.
Official Memorial Site, Buchenwald and Mittelbau-Dora Memorials Foundation.
Film footage from 1945 inside Buchenwald Concentration Camp, British Pathé.
Guide to the Concentration Camps Collection, Leo Baeck Institute, New York City 2013. Includes extensive reports on Buchenwald collected by the Allied forces shortly after liberating the camp in April 1945.