Witness 11 Buchenwald

Buchenwald concentration camp

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Gate with the words Jedem das Seine (literally, "to each his own", but figuratively "everyone gets what he deserves").

Forced laborers in Buchenwald; (Elie Wiesel is 2nd row, 7th from left). April 16, 1945

Buchenwald concentration camp (German: Konzentrationslager or 'KZ' Buchenwald) was a Nazi concentration camp established on the Ettersberg (Etter Mountain) near Weimar, Thuringia, Germany (at the time, Nazi Germany), in July 1937, and one of the largest and first camps on German soil.

Camp prisoners worked primarily as forced labour in local armament factories. Inmates were Jews, Poles, political prisoners, Roma and Sinti, Jehovah's Witnesses, religious prisoners, criminals, homosexuals, and prisoners of war (POWs).[1] Up to 1942 the majority of the political prisoners consisted of communists; later the proportion of other political prisoners increased considerably. Among the prisoners were also writers, doctors, artists, former nobility, and princesses. They came from countries as varied as Russia, Poland, France, Germany, Austria, Czechoslovakia, the Netherlands, Belgium, Norway, Denmark, Latvia, Italy, Romania and Spain (some Second Spanish Republic exiles). Most of the political prisoners from the occupied countries were members of the resistance.

From 1945 to 1950, the camp was used by the Soviet occupation authorities.


Buchenwald(German for beech forest) was chosen as the name for the camp because of the close ties of the location to Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, who was being idealized as “the embodiment of the German Spirit” (Verkörperung des deutschen Geistes). The Goethe Eiche (Goethe's Oak) stood inside the camp's perimeter,[2][3] and the stump of the tree is preserved as part of the memorial at KZ Buchenwald. Similarly, the camp could not be named for another town nearby (Hottelstedt) because of administrative considerations (it would have resulted in a lower pay grade for the camp’s Schutzstaffel (SS) guards).[citation needed]

Between July 1938 and April 1945, some 250,000 people were incarcerated in Buchenwald by the Nazi regime, including 168 Western Allied POWs. One estimate places the number of deaths in Buchenwald at 56,000 (discussed further below).

During an American bombing raid on August 24, 1944 that was directed at a nearby armament factory, several bombs, including incendiaries, also fell on the camp, resulting in heavy casualties amongst the inmates.

Death toll at Buchenwald

Causes of death

Bodies of the Buchenwald prisoners, April 1945.

Although Buchenwald technically was not an extermination camp, it was a site of an extraordinary number of deaths.

A primary cause of the deaths was illness due to harsh camp conditions, and hunger was also prevalent. Malnourished and suffering from disease, many were literally "worked to death", as inmates had only the choice between slave labour or inevitable execution. Many inmates died as a result of human experimentations or fell victim to arbitrary acts perpetrated by the SS guards, and yet other prisoners were simply murdered—the two primary methods of execution were shooting and hanging. At one point, the ashes of dead prisoners would be returned to their families in a sheet metal box—postage due, to be paid by the family. This practice was eventually stopped as more and more prisoners died.[citation needed]

Summary executions of Soviet POWs were also carried out at Buchenwald. At least 1,000 Soviet POWs were selected in 1941–2 by a task force of three Dresden Gestapo officers and sent to the camp for immediate liquidation by a gunshot to the back of the neck, the infamous Genickschuss, using a purpose-built facility.

The camp was also a site of large-scale trials for vaccines against epidemic typhus in 1942 and 1943. In all 729 inmates were used as test subjects, with 280 of them dying as a result. Because of their long association in cramped quarters in Block 46, the typhus killed more people and infections lasted longer than would have been the case had healthy adults been infected with the disease.

Number of deaths

Main article: Number of deaths in Buchenwald

US Senator Alben W. Barkley looks on after Buchenwald's liberation. Barkley later became Vice President of the United States under Harry S. Truman.

The SS left behind accounts of the number of prisoners and people coming to and leaving the camp, categorizing those leaving them by release, transfer, or death. These accounts are one of the sources of estimates for the number of deaths in Buchenwald. According to SS documents, 33,462 died in Buchenwald. These documents were not, however, necessarily accurate: Among those executed before 1944 many were listed as "transferred to the Gestapo". Furthermore, from 1941 forward Soviet POWs were executed in mass killings. Arriving prisoners selected for execution were not entered into the camp register and therefore were not among the 33,462 dead listed in SS documents.[4]

One former Buchenwald prisoner, Armin Walter, calculated the number of executions by shooting in the back of the head. His job at Buchenwald was to set up and care for a radio installation at the facility where people were executed and counted the numbers, which arrived by telex, and hid the information. He says that 8,483 Soviet prisoners of war were shot in this manner.[5]

According to the same source, the total number of deaths at Buchenwald is estimated at 56,545.[6] This number is the sum of:

This total (56,545) corresponds to a death rate of 24 percent assuming that the number of persons passing through the camp according to documents left by the SS, 238,380 prisoners, is accurate.[9]


An emaciated Buchenwald survivor drinking from a bowl following liberation.

On April 4, 1945, the U.S. 89th Infantry Division overran Ohrdruf, a subcamp of the Buchenwald. It was the first Nazi camp liberated by U.S. troops.[10]

Buchenwald was partially evacuated by the Germans on April 8, 1945. In the days before the arrival of the American army, thousands of the prisoners were forced to join the evacuation marches.[citation needed]

Thanks to efforts of Polish engineer Gwidon Damazyn (inmate from March 1941) a secret radio transmitter and small generator had been built. On April 9 at 1pm Damazyn sent the radio message prepared by leaders of prisoner's underground (Walter Bartel and Harry Kuhn):

To Allies. To General Patton's Army. This is concentration camp Buchenwald. SOS. We need help. They're trying to evacuate us. The SS try to exterminate us.[citation needed]

The text was repeated four times, each time in English, German and Russian.[citation needed] After 15 minutes the headquarters of the US Third Army answered and promised help as quickly as they could send it.

After this news had been received, Communist inmates stormed the watchtowers and killed the remaining guards using arms they had been collecting since 1942 (one machine gun and 91 rifles).[11]

A detachment of troops belonging to the US 9th Armored Infantry Battalion, U.S. 6th Armored Division, US Third Army arrived at Buchenwald on April 11, 1945 under the leadership of Captain Frederic Keffer. All of the soldiers were given a hero's welcome, with the emaciated survivors finding the strength to toss some liberators into the air in celebration.[12]

Later on in day elements of the U.S. 83rd Infantry Division overran Langenstein, one of a number of smaller camps comprising the Buchenwald complex. There the division liberated over 21,000 prisoners,[12] ordered the mayor of Langenstein to send food and water to the camp, and sped medical supplies forward from the 20th Field Hospital.[13]

Third Army Headquarters sent elements of the U.S. 80th Infantry Division to take control of the camp on the morning of Thursday, April 12, 1945. Several journalists arrived on the same day, perhaps with the 80th, including Edward R Murrow, whose radio report of his arrival and reception was broadcast on CBS and became one of his most famous:

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.

They called the doctor. We inspected his records. There were only names in the little black book, nothing more. Nothing about who these men were, what they had done, or hoped. Behind the names of those who had died, there was a cross. I counted them. They totalled 242. 242 out of 1,200, in one month.

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.

—Extract from Edward R Murrow's Buchenwald report. April 15, 1945.

James Hoyt, one of the liberators, died at age 83 on August 10, 2008. He had been suffering from Posttraumatic stress disorder related to his experience at the camp.[12]

Soviet Special Camp 2

Picture taken in winter of area where prisoner barracks once were; most of the camp was demolished in 1950.

After liberation, between 1945 and 10 February 1950, the camp was administered by the Soviet Union and served as a Special Camp No. 2 of the NKVD.[14] Initially used for housing German war-criminals, with time it was converted into a standard detention site for political prisoners and opponents of Soviet rule.[citation needed]

It came to form part of the Soviet Gulag[1] system, whose network of camps was extended to occupied Germany, for example Soviet Special Camp No. 7 was situated in Sachsenhausen concentration camp where later the remains of 12,500 victims were uncovered, mainly children, adolescents and elderly people.[2] The German government estimate of total deaths in these camps on German soil (including deaths during transport) is 65,000. (See also Forced labor of Germans in the Soviet Union for camps for civilian Germans in the Soviet Union).

Between 1945 and 1950, 28,455 prisoners, including 1,000 women, were held by the Soviet Union at Buchenwald.[citation needed] A total of 7,113 people died in Special Camp Number 2, according to the Soviet records.[citation needed] They were buried in mass graves in the woods surrounding the camp. Their relatives did not receive any notification of their deaths. Prisoners comprised political prisoners, Nazi perpetrators, and former members of the Hitler Youth, as well as large numbers of people imprisoned due to identity confusion and arbitrary arrests[citation needed]. The Soviets would not allow mail or visits to prisoners and did not attempt to determine the guilt of any individual prisoner[citation needed].

On 16 January 1950, the camp was passed to the civilian authorities of the German Democratic Republic (GDR) with its 2,415 prisoners.[citation needed] In October 1950, it was decreed that the camp would be demolished. The main gate, the crematorium, the hospital block, and two guard towers escaped demolition. All prisoner barracks and other buildings were razed. Foundations of some still exist and many others have been rebuilt. According to the Buchenwald Memorial website, "the combination of obliteration and preservation was dictated by a specific concept for interpreting the history of Buchenwald Concentration Camp."

The first monument to victims was erected days after the initial liberation. Intended to be completely temporary, it was built by prisoners and was made of wood. A second monument to commemorate the dead was erected in 1958 by the GDR near the mass graves. Inside the camp, there is a living monument in the place of the first monument that is kept at skin temperature year round.[15]


First commandant

Buchenwald’s first commandant was Karl Otto Koch, who ran the camp from 1937 to 1941. His second wife, Ilse Koch, became notorious as Die Hexe von Buchenwald ("the witch of Buchenwald") for her cruelty and brutality. Koch had a zoo built by the prisoners in the camp for the amusement of his children, with a bear pit (Bärenzwinger) facing the Appellplatz, the dreaded assembly square where prisoners were forced to stand motionless and silent for many hours (three times each day) while the meticulous "roll-calls" were conducted.

Koch was eventually himself imprisoned at Buchenwald by the Nazi authorities for corruption, embezzlement, black market dealings, and his exploitation of camp workers for personal gain. He was tried and executed by the Nazis at Buchenwald in April 1945, while Ilse was sentenced to four years after the war. Her sentence was reduced to two years and she was set free. Later, she was arrested again and sentenced to life imprisonment by the post-war German authorities; she committed suicide in a Bavarian prison cell in September 1967.

Female prisoners and overseers

Dead German female guard from the Ohrdruf Concentration Camp. She was either killed by the US troops or by the prisoners.

The number of women held in Buchenwald was somewhere between 500 and 1,000. The first female inmates were twenty political prisoners who were accompanied by a female SS guard (Aufseherin); these women were brought to Buchenwald from Ravensbrück to serve in the camp’s brothel in 1941. Later the SS fired the SS woman on duty in the brothel for corruption, and her position was taken over by “brothel mothers” as ordered by SS chief Heinrich Himmler.

The majority of women prisoners, however, arrived in 1944 and 1945 from other camps, mainly Auschwitz, Ravensbrück, and Bergen Belsen. Most of these women were Jewish[citation needed], and only one barrack was set aside for them; this was overseen by the female Blockführerin, Franziska Hoengesberg, who came from Essen when it was evacuated. All the women prisoners were later shipped out to one of Buchenwald's many female satellite camps in Sömmerda, Buttelstedt, Mühlhausen, Gotha, Gelsenkirchen, Essen, Lippstadt, Weimar, Magdeburg, and Penig, to name a few. No female guards were permanently stationed at Buchenwald[citation needed].

When the Buchenwald camp was evacuated, the SS sent the male prisoners to other camps, and the five-hundred remaining women (including one of the secret annexe members who lived with Anne Frank, "Mrs. van Daan", real name Auguste van Pels) were taken by train and on foot to the Theresienstadt concentration camp and ghetto in Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia. Many, including van Pels, died sometime between April 1945 and May 1945. Because the female prisoner population at Buchenwald was comparatively small, the SS only trained female overseers at the camp and "assigned" them to one of the female subcamps. Twenty-two known female guards have personnel files at the camp, but it is unlikely that any of them stayed at Buchenwald for longer than a few days.

Ilse Koch served as head supervisor (Oberaufseherin) of 22 other female guards and hundreds of women prisoners in the main camp. Eventually, more than 530 women served as guards in the vast Buchenwald system of subcamps and external commands across Germany. Only 22 women served/trained in Buchenwald, compared to over 15,500 men.

Allied airmen

Although it was highly unusual for German authorities to send Western Allied prisoners of war (POWs) to concentration camps, Buchenwald held a group of 168 aviators for about six months.[16] These POWs were from the United States, United Kingdom, Canada, Australia and New Zealand. They all arrived at Buchenwald on April 20, 1944[17] (according to one source, on August 20, 1944[18]).

All these airmen were in planes which had crashed in occupied France. Two explanations are given for them being sent to a concentration camp: first, that they had managed to make contact with the French Resistance, some were disguised as civilians, and they were carrying false papers when caught; they were therefore categorized by the Germans as spies, which meant their rights under the Geneva Convention were not respected. The second explanation is that they had been categorised as Terrorflieger ("terror aviators"). The aviators were initially held in Gestapo prisons and headquarters in France. In April or August 1944, they and other Gestapo prisoners were packed into boxcars and sent to Buchenwald. The journey took five days, during which they received very little food or water. One aviator recalled their arrival at Buchenwald:

As we got close to the camp and saw what was inside... a terrible, terrible fear and horror entered our hearts. We thought, what is this? Where are we going? Why are we here? And as you got closer to the camp and started to enter the camp and saw these human skeletons walking around—old men, young men, boys, just skin and bone, we thought, what are we getting into?

—A Canadian airman's recollection of his arrival at Buchenwald.[19]

They were subjected to the same treatment and abuse as other Buchenwald prisoners until October 1944, when a change in policy saw the aviators dispatched to Stalag Luft III, a regular prisoner-of-war camp (POW) camp; nevertheless, two airmen died at Buchenwald.[20] Those classed as terrorflieger had been scheduled for execution after October 24; their rescue was effected by Luftwaffe officers who visited Buchenwald and, on their return to Berlin, demanded the airmen's release.[21]

====Norwegian studcamp was also the main imprisonment for a number of Norwegian university students from 1943 until the end of the war. The students, being Norwegian, got better treatment than most, but had to resist Nazi schooling for months. They became remembered for resisting forced labor in a minefield, as the Nazis wished to use them as cannon fodder. An incident connected to this is remembered as the Strike at Burkheim. The Norwegian students in Buchenwald lived in a warmer, stone-construction house and had their own clothes.[22]

Specific people associated with Buchenwald

Well-known Nazi personnel

Karl Otto Koch from 1937 to 1941
Hans Aumeier
Medical doctors
Gerhard Rose
Waldemar Hoven
Hans Conrad Julius Reiter
Nazi head of personnel
Hermann Hackmann

Well-known inmates

Buchenwald inmates. She was either killed by the US troops or by the prisoners.

Buchenwald memorial.

Watchtower at the Memorial estate Buchenwald, 1983

Photo gallery

See also


  1. ^ The History of Buchenwald Memorial
  2. ^ Farmer, Sarah (Winter, 1995), "Symbols that Face Two Ways: Commemorating the Victims of Nazism and Stalinism at Buchenwald and Sachsenhausen", Representations (49): 100–1, http://links.jstor.org/sici?sici=0734-6018%28199524%290%3A49%3C97%3ASTFTWC%3E2.0.CO%3B2-I
  3. ^ As Vladimir Nabokov in Pnin (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2004) puts it, "in the beautifully wooded Grosser Ettersburg, as the region is resoundingly called. It is an hour's stroll from Weimar, where walked Goethe, Herder, Friedrich Schiller, Christoph Martin Wieland, the inimitable Kotzebue and others. 'Aber warum – but why –' Dr. Hagen, the gentlest of souls alive, would wail, 'why had one to put that horrid camp so near!' for indeed, it was near – only five miles from the cultural heart of Germany – 'that nation of universities' [...]" (p. 100).
  4. ^ Bartel, Walter: Buchenwald—Mahnung und Verpflichtung: Dokumente und Berichte (Buchenwald: Warnings and our obligation [to future generations]—Documents and reports), Kongress-Verlag, 1960. p. 64, lines 12–23. (German).
  5. ^ Bartel, Walter: Buchenwald—Mahnung und Verpflichtung: Dokumente und Berichte (Buchenwald: Warnings and our obligation [to future generation—Documents and reports), Kongress-Verlag, 1960. p. 203, lines 18–38. (German)
  6. ^ Podcast with one of 2000 Danish policemen in Buchenwald. Episode 6 is about statistics for the number of deaths at Buchenwald.
  7. ^ Includes male deaths in satellite camps.
  8. ^ Bartel (p. 87, line 17–18) reports that somewhere between 12,000 and 15,000 prisoners died on evacuation transports in March and April 1945.
  9. ^ Bartel, Walter: Buchenwald—Mahnung und Verpflichtung: Dokumente und Berichte (Buchenwald: Warnings and our obligation [to future generations]—Documents and reports), Kongress-Verlag, 1960. p. 87, line 8. (German)
  10. ^ The 89th Infantry Division, United States Holocaust Memorial Museum
  11. ^ Several eyewitness reports of Dutch and German inmates of Buchenwald at the Dutch Institute of War Documentation NIOD in Amsterdam.
  12. ^ a b c Buchenwald liberator, American hero dies at 83
  13. ^ U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum article on the US 83rd Infantry Division
  14. ^ "WWII: Behind Closed Doors", Episode 6 of 6. BBC. Broadcast on BBC 2, on Monday 15 December 2008
  15. ^ Young, James E.: At Memory's Edge: After-Images of the Holocaust in Contemporary Art and Architecture, New Haven: Yale University Press, 2000, p. 105
  16. ^ Veterans Affairs Canada, 2006: "Prisoners of War in the Second World War" Accessed 16 May 2007
  17. ^ National Museum of the USAF: "Allied Victims of the Holocaust" Accessed 16 May 2007.
  18. ^ Eyewitness accounts of Art Kinnis, president of KLB (Konzentrationslager Buchenwald), and 2nd Lt. Joseph Moser, one of the surviving pilots, at http://buchenwaldflyboy.wordpress.com/.
  19. ^ From The Lucky Ones: Allied Airmen and Buchenwald (1994 film, directed by Michael Allder), cited by Veterans Affairs Canada, 2006: "Prisoners of War in the Second World War" Accessed 16 May 2007
  20. ^ National Museum of the USAF, Ibid.
  21. ^ Eyewitness accounts of Art Kinnis, president of KLB (Konzentrationslager Buchenwald), and 2nd Lt. Joseph Moser, one of the surviving pilots, at http://buchenwaldflyboy.wordpress.com/.
  22. ^ Redlich, Carl Aage: 19. September, 1945. p. 55


External links

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