The SS opened the Buchenwald concentration camp near Weimar (July 16, 1937). They could not have chosen a more incongrous location. Weimar was of course the capital of the Weimar Republic, but it was best known for its many contributions to German cultural life. It was home to Goethe, Schiller, Franz Liszt, and Bach. Goethe was famed for climbing the Ettersberg and writing under a beech tree. Buchenwald meant Beech Wood in German. After opening Dacchau, the NAZIs looked for other locations to expand their concentration camp system. SS General Eicke, Inspector of Concentration Camps, found a suitable site near the Ettersberg in Thuringia. He proposed transfering the Lichtenburg concentration camp to a more permanent location (June 3, 1936). Himmler approved the creation of Buchenwald (May 5, 1937). The SS trucked in the first 300 prisoners who were put to work building the camp (July 16, 1937). The initial name was Konzentrationslager Ettersberg. The name was changed to Konzentrationslager Buchenwald (August 6, 1937). Himmler chose SS officer Karl Otto Koch as the first commondant. He and his wife Ilse were notorious for their murderous regime. Ilse was known as the Witch of Buchenwald, the most despihable of prominent NAZI women. Besides murder, koch also did his best to steal from the prisoners. Himmler transferred him to the even more infamous Majdanek camp. His replacement was SS Colonel Hermann Pister. Koch who had even more opportunities for theft at Majdanek was arrested by the SS for fraud and thief. He was executed in Auschwitz. Buchewald was infamous for its quarry. The SS forced inmates to carry huge stones to the camp to be used in construction. Later prisoners were chained to huge four-wheel carts to pull huge loads to the Camp, The SS forced them to sing and called them the "Singing Horses". The Camp was ready when Hitler began his program of expansion, beginning with the Austrian Anschluss (march 1938). The Camp population expanded rapidly: 1937 (July--1,000) and 1939 (September 1--5,400). The invasion of Poland brought and upsurge of prisoners and the number of inmates reached 8,600 by the end of September. The ensuing War brought a steady stream of inmates to Buchenwald. The SS significantly expanded Buchenwald during the War. At its peak there were 174 sub-camps and external kommandos. The camp population was: 1943 (December--37,319) and 1944 (December--63,100). Buchenwald was also infamous for collecting the skins of tatooed prisoners. Some were still there when the Americans liberated the Camp. There were human medical experiments at the Camp. There were killing actions targeting Soviet POWs. Allied POWs were also held there for aime. Norwegian university students were held under special conditions.
Children were held in Barrack 8. We are not yet sure who the children were. Rabbi Lau had the children replace the patches identifying them as Jews. Unlike the boy here (figure 1), most of the minors fond t Bucensald were teenaers, oprimrilt from Poland. The SS as they emptied camps in Poland and death werecdesigned to eliminate evidence. Survivors reached Biuchenwald and other camps in the Reich as sick and desperate people. The Camp population thus swelled in 1945 just before liberation (March--80,400). As a result of over crowding and the almost complete lack of food, daily death rates soared. There is no precise accounting of the number of people the NAZIs killed at Buchenwald. It is believed that more than 56,000 died there. This does not include the approximately 13,000 internees transferred to Auschwitz and other camps, most of whom went to the extermination camps and were killed there. Buchenwald was liberated by the U.S. Army (April 11, 1945).
The SS opened the Buchenwald concentration camp near Weimar (July 16, 1937). They could not have chosen a more incongrous location. Weimar was of course the capital of the Weimar Republic, but it was best known for its many contributions to German cultural life. It was home to Goethe, Schiller, Franz Liszt, and Bach. Goethe was famed for climbing the Ettersberg and writing under a beech tree. Buchenwald meant Beech Wood in German. After opening Dacchau, the NAZIs looked for other locations to expand their concentration camp system. SS General Eicke, Inspector of Concentration Camps, found a suitable site near the Ettersberg in Thuringia. He proposed transfering the Lichtenburg concentration camp to a more permanent location (June 3, 1936). Himmler approved the creation of Buchenwald (May 5, 1937). The SS trucked in the first 300 prisoners who were put to work building the camp (July 16, 1937). The initial name was Konzentrationslager Ettersberg. The name was changed to Konzentrationslager Buchenwald (August 6, 1937). It along with its many sub camps became the largest NAZI concentration camp in the Reich and along with Dachau is one of best known NAZI camps.
Himmler chose SS officer Karl Otto Koch as the first commondant. He and his wife Ilse were notorious for their murderous regime. Ilse was known as the Witch of Buchenwald, the most despicable of prominent NAZI women. Besides murder, koch also did his best to steal from the prisoners. Himmler transferred him to the even more infamous Majdanek camp, one of the death cmps. . His replacement was SS Colonel Hermann Pister. Koch who had even more opportunities for theft at Majdanek was arrested by the SS for fraud and theft. He was executed in Auschwitz.
The first guards at Dachau were both SS and SA men. Himmler did not yet complete control of theNAZI security aparatus. At Buchenwald and other camps by the time Bulenwald was opened, the guards were mostly if not entirely SS men. Many when Buchenwald was just opened had experience at Dachau. Guards in the Reich were members of the SS-Totenkopfverbände (Death's Head or camp guards--SS-TV). They were expected to exercise unrelenting haeshness. In Poland foreigners were recruitd, often Ukranians or Balts. The guards in the Reich camps were Germans. One of the most cruel SS-TV guards at Buchenwald was Martin Sommer. He was assigned to 'The Bunker' -- the high security prison of the Camp.
Buchenwald was infamous for its quarry. The SS-TV guards forced inmates to carry huge stones to the camp to be used in construction. Often the stones were beyond the physical capacity of the prisoners. This was enough to break even strong men in robust health. Those that faltered were beaten and whipped. Later prisoners were chained to huge four-wheel carts to pull huge loads to the Camp, The SS-TV guards forced them to sing and called them them 'Singing Horses'.
The Camp was ready when Hitler began his program of agression, beginning with the Austrian Anschluss (march 1938). The Camp population expanded rapidly: 1937 (July--1,000) and 1939 (September 1--5,400). The invasion of Poland brought and upsurge of prisoners and the number of inmates reached 8,600 by the end of September. The ensuing War brought a steady stream of inmates to Buchenwald. The SS significantly expanded Buchenwald during the War. At its peak there were 174 sub-camps and external kommandos. The camp population was: 1943 (December--37,319) and 1944 (December--63,100).
The NAZIs had different kinds of camps. There were many work camps. There were also death camps without any possibility of working. Conditions varied gretly at these camps. The possibility of survival varied, depebing in large measure as who you were. Jews were least likely to survive, largely because of the limited rations. The official purpose of Buchenwald was the destruction of the prisoners by work. Thousands of Jewish and political prisoners were murdered in over work, torture, beatings, or simply starvation and lack of hygiene. The criminals were the most likeky to survive. As there were many Jews in Buchenwald when it was liberated, the impression one may get is that the camp was was aat of the Holocaust. This is a misunderstahnding. Less than 1 percent of the Jews killed by theNAZOs werekilled in BUchenwald. Terrorizing a killing Jews was a part of the operation, but Buchenwald had several purposes. The the principal purpose was to deal with the political opposition, those Germans who had dare challenge the NAZIs. This at first meant Grmans, but as the War progressed and the NAZI empire spread, meant many non-Germans as well.
Buchenwald was the center of a complex network of sub-camps. Some of the sub-camps had sub-camps of their own. The sub-camps were created so that slave workers were located reltively close to factories and plnts where they worked. Perhaps the most infamous was the Dora camps, especially Nordhausen where the V-2s were constructed under ground, safe from Allied bombing.
Besides the ordinry attrocities of abusing, overworking, and providing inadequate food, clothing, shelter, and medical care, there were a range of especilly heinous attrocities at Buchenwald. Buchenwald was infamous for collecting the skins of tatooed prisoners. Some were still there when the Americans liberated the Camp. There were human medical experiments at the Camp. SS doctors conducted medical experiments at Auschwitz. The Luftwaffe conducted experiments at Nuchenwald. Their primary interest was reviving airmen shot down in frigid waters simulating conditions experienced by the downed airmen. The Jews not killed in the experiments were killed after the tests were completed. Many inmates were the victim of medical experiments, especially men contaminated by the typhus bacillus. Recently reports have surfaced of Danish medical researchers developing vacines and who cooperated with tests on Jews at Buchenwald. There were killing actions targeting Soviet POWs. Thousands of inmates, especially Soviet POWs, were murdered in the infirmary by lethal injections,
There were several special groups of inmates at Buchenwald.
The Gestapo in Czecheslovakia began measures to destroy Czech nationalism. Einsatzgruppen played a role inidentifying and arresting anti-NAZIs and a ange of classes of people. Einsatzgruppwn were organized both for the Sudetenland (October 1938) and when the Germans entered the resty of Czechoslovakia (March 1939). These measures were employed in Poland in a much more draconian form including large scale exections--Aktion AB. Gestapo arrests initially targetted Czech politicians and the intelligentsia. Here we have only limited details. We note that the NAZIs did not initially close the universities. We have no information on other schools. Those arrested were transported to Dachau and some later transferred to Buchenwald. They included Czech officials, scholars, clerics and politicians. Thy were classified as 'protectorate prisoners'. They were temporarily held in a special position. They did not work and did not have their heads shaved. They has some other special privliges. They were allowed to receive parcels until this was banned (January 1940). Other priliges were gradually withdrawn and totaly eliminated (1942).
A group of Allied airmen were held in Buchenwaldf for a time. These seem to have been airmen captured in France who had contacted the Resistance and were trying to reach Spain. The SS wanted to treat them as spies and terrorists. Luftwaffe commanders managed to get them transferred to a POW camp where they survived the War.
A small group of non-Jewish Norwegian university students were held under special conditions at Buchenwald. They were rescued as part of the White Buses operation.
There were were a few children held in Buchenwald. We are not yet sure who the children were. We believe that they were mostly Jewish children that accumulated in NAZI camps in Poland after the Death Camps and Auschwitz were shut down. There were very few actual children meaning pre-teens. Unlike the boy here (figure 1), most of the minors found at Bucensald were teenagers. Teenagers that could be employed for light work. And they were old enough to survive the death marches organized by the SS from Poland to camps in the Reich. Most but not all were Polish, One was 15-year old Elie Wiesel. The clandestine underground resistance organization, in which Communists played an important role, attempted to save the small number of youths. m. They were concentrated in Block 66, a part of the Camp somewhat isolated and not as subject to attention from the guards as other area. Rabbi Lau had the children replace the patches identifying them as Jews. The American found about 1,000 Jewish children when they enteed Buchenwald. survivors found by American troops when they liberated Buchenwald. In addition to Polish children, they were survivors from Hungary, Slovenia, and Ruthenia (eastern Czechoslovakia). Many of the children were teenagers meaning that they probably have been given work assignments. The Americns were unsure what to do with the children, American Army chaplains, Rabbi Herschel Schacter and Rabbi Robert Marcus, contacted the Oeuvre de Secours aux Enfants (OES). This was the Jewish children's relief organization in Geneva, switzerland. The OSE found placement for the children in France (427), Switzerland (280), and Britain (250). [Hemmendinger and Krell] OSE representatives arrived in Buchenwald and with Rabbi Marcus escorted a transport to France (June 2). Rabbi Schacter went with a second transport to Switzerland. There was a problem finding decent clothing for the children, mny of whom were in rags or camp uniforms. The OSE staff found some Hitler Youth uniforms. There was, as a result, a problem when the trasport reached France. Some people when they saw them thought that they were Hitler Youth boys. To avoid this 'KZ Buchenwald orphans' was painted on the rail cars. The children themselves chalked their own messages, like 'Hiltler Kaput'.
As bad as conditions were, they got even worse at the end of the War. The SS emptied camps in Poland and the Red Army drove west. The SS did not want the Red Army to find any live inmates in the camps, presumably as they could report what had been done. SS-Totenkopfverbände (Death's Head or camp guards--SS-TV) units began to receive orders, presumably from Himmler, to conceal as much of the evidence of thir horendous crimes as possible. The SS attempted to destroyed camps. They shot sick prisoners. Many prisoners still wekk enough were firced on death marches by the SS-TV gurds away from the advancing Allies armies. The death marches were mostly composed of theJewish prisoners. The SS-TV also murdered hundreds of political prisoners to prevent their liberation. The SS-TV organized the death marches, often in freezing winter weather without food or warm clothing for the prisiners. Any Jew to sick to evacuate was shot in the camps. Straglers were also shot, along the roads. This had the added advantage to the SS of dispersing bodies, one method of hising crimes. Survivors reached Biuchenwald and other camps in the Reich as sick and desperate people. Not all the Jews arrived at Buchenwald on these death marches, but many did.
The Buchenwald population thus swelled in 1945 just before liberation (March--80,400). And the camp population was more heavily Jewish than at any previous time. As a result of over crowding and the almost complete lack of food, daily death rates soared. As the Americans neared the Camp, the SS organized another death march.
There is no precise accounting of the number of people the NAZIs killed at Buchenwald. We have seen various estimates about the death too at Buchenwald. These have vaied over time and depending on the source. The estimates seem to range from about 30,000-60,000 people. The estimates can vary from about 25,000-60,000. The count can be affected by how one counts the sub-camps. There were a lot of deaths at Dora in 194 and early where the V-2s were assembled. Many of the deaths occurred in the final nonths when the situation became increasingly chaotic. A reasonable estimate seems to be about 55,000 deaths at the Camp. This does not include the approximately 13,000 internees transferred to Auschwitz and other camps, most of whom went to the extermination camps and were killed there. As horrifying as the death toll and Buchenald as well as other camps in the Reich were, thy need to be put in perspective. The killing at Buchenald reprents only a 1-2 weeks tally at any of the deth camps.
As the Allies apoproached Buchenwald the SS began organizing the 'evacuation' of the priooners. American troops reached the small Ohrdruf, sub-camp (April 4). Probably as a result, the SS began 'evacuating' the camp (April 6). This was a standard measure beginning with the camps in Poland as the Red Army approached from the East. The Germany wanted as few survivors as possible. Not only were these peoole slated for death, but they were also people who could testify as to NAZI barbatity and identify the killers. These SS evacuations were in reality death marches. They enabled the SS to spread out the bodies and thus reduce the body count in the camps. The victims in Poland had huge treks in freezing conditions with horendous casualties. By the time the Americans approched Buchenwald, the SS was running out of places to where they could march their victims, but several thousands of imates were driven out of the Camp on forced marches at gun point without food and water. Any one who faltered was summarily shot. We note one author who claims that, "These ‘death marches’ were not intended to kill prisoners, as the name perhaps suggests, but were a way of moving prisoners who could still be used to forced labour deeper into Nazi-occupied territory." This not accurate. Perhaps moving the labor force was part of the calculation when the firsr camps in Poland were evacuated, but killing the imates was from the beginning a major part of the process. And by ghe time that the Allies entered the Reich, preserving the sklave lsbior fiorce was no longer a consideration. Sigbifuicant production from these camps had ceased. The SS began evacuating the main Buchenwald camp (April 6). Some 3,100 inmates began a long, gruelling march toward the narriowing areas still in NAZI hands. Some 1,400 of these poor people were murdered along the way. For the next 4 days, some 40,000 prisoners were forced out of the Camp and on marches without food and water. It is believed that 13,500 of these people did not survive the march. This lefy ionly a little over 20,000 prisoners remaining in Buchenwald when the Americans reached the Camp, many to sick to walk.
The liberation of German concentration camps was more complicated than actually depicted. The major camps had multiple sub-camps, some of which were sizeable. The process began an Ohrdruf, a Buchenwald sub-camp (April 4).
Units of the U.S. 89th Infantry Division entered the camp. It was the first camp liberated by the Americans pushing into the Reich. U.S. soldiers at heard of NAZI concentration camps, but none including the top commanders were prepared for what they found. The SS after the Americans reached Ohrdurf began 'evacuating' the main Camp.
While the evacuationds were in process, Polish engineer and pre-War short-wave radio-amateur, Gwidon Damazyn, who had been an inmate at Buchenwald since March 1941, cobbeled together a short-wave transmitter and generator in the camp movie room. Damazyn and Russian prisoner Konstantin Ivanovich Leonov sent a Morse code message approved by the prisoners' underground resistance. (April 8). It read: "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." The transmission was sent several times in English, German, and Russian. Three minutes after the last transmission, the headquarters of the U.S. Third Army responded: "KZ Bu. Hold out. Rushing to your aid. Staff of Third Army."
After receiving the reply from the Americans, Communist inmates stormed the watchtowers using arms they had been collecting since 1942 (one machine gun and 91 rifles) and killed the remaining SS guards. A small detachment of troops of the U.S. 9th Armored Infantry Battalion (6th Armored Division, U.S. Third Army) commanded by Captain Frederic Keffer, reached the mnaingate (April 11). It was 3:15 pm which is imortalized by the settinhg of the clock at the entrance gate. The soldiers were given an emotional hero's welcome. Shortly after a larger firce of the U.S. 83rd Infantry Division overran Langenstein, another sub camp. The soldiers there found 21,000 prisoners. Thecommander ordered the mayor of Langenstein to immediately send food and water to the camp. He requested medical supplies to be rushed from the 20th Field Hospital. Third Army Headquarters ordered sent elements of the 80th Infantry Division to take control of the camp and what they could for the starving inmates (April 12). Journalists arrived on the same day. The reports nd phoytograohs, shiockd America to the core. There were many reoports about the NAZI camps, but very few Americans imagined the extent of NAZI depravity. Among the journalists was Edward R. Murrow. His broadcast describing liberation of the camp was broadcast on CBS radio in the States. This briadcasts along with his briadcasts from London during the Blitz are major audio documnts of the War. He intioned in that famous voice, :"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 totaled 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." [Murrow] As bad as this sounded, Buchenald was so crowed that many did not even have barracks to live in. Conditions were so terrible in the Camp that even after liberation and the arrival of food and medicine, some 40 inmates were dying daily.
A few days after liberation, The Army forced Weimar's civilians to complete a tour of the camp—to 'see for themselves the horror, brutality and human indecency' perpetrated by NAZI authirities. Many burst into tears. Others repotedly fainted at the sights and spells.
The killing at Buchenwald did not end when the Americans liberated the Camp. Weimr was in the Soviet occupation zone. Thus shortly after VE Day, the Soviets took over the Camp (July 1945). The Soviets turned it back into prison camp--Special Camp No. 2. The Soviets used it for German prisoners, both NAZIs and others who were resisting Communist and Soviet control.
Some 123,000 Germans were arrested were interned in Buchenwald and other camps. Nearly 43,000 of those arrested died.
Another 756 Germans were executed in these camps.
Hemmendinger, Judith and Robert Krell. The Children of Buchenwald (Gefen Publishers, 2000).
Murrow, Edward R. 'Buchenwald Report' (April 15, 1945).
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