Buchenwald, only a handful of kilometers outside of the town of Wiemar, was a massive and horrific Concentration Camp established by the Nazis prior to the start of the war. In fact, many of the guards for camps all over Europe were trained at Buchenwald. Buchenwald held over 250,000 prisoners between 1938 and 1945, and well over 50, 000 of them are known to have died while at the camp (not counting the ones who died when Allied/Americans bombed the area due to a local armament factory). Pretty dark stuff…
Before I really get into recounting my own experience at the memorial, I wanted to share a couple of quotations I’ve seen related to Buchenwald. I’m hoping that their words can help.
Never shall I forget that night, the first night in camp, which has turned my life into one long night, seven times cursed and seven times sealed. Never shall I forget that smoke. Never shall I forget the little faces of the children, whose bodies I saw turned into wreaths of smoke beneath a silent blue sky.
Never shall I forget those flames which consumed my faith forever.
Never shall I forget that nocturnal silence which deprived me, for all eternity, of the desire to live. Never shall I forget those moments which murdered my God and my soul and turned my dreams to dust. Never shall I forget these things, even if I am condemned to live as long as God Himself. Never.
– Elie Wiesel, “Night”
Nothing has ever shocked me as this sight. – Dwight D. Eisenhower, Supreme Commander of the Allied Expeditionary Force. (from the man who administered our end of the war, I felt like this was really saying something; this was his comment following the liberation).
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.
I pray you to believe what I have said about Buchenwald. I have reported what I saw and heard, but only part of it. For most of it I have no words…. If I’ve offended you by this rather mild account of Buchenwald, I’m not in the least sorry.—Edward R. Murrow
This is such a difficult post to write. There really aren’t words, to borrow from the above quotation. I have been to another concentration camp (Dachau) in the past, and the sense of isolation I encounter in these places is overwhelming. It is almost as if the experience itself becomes isolated from my ability to put it into words. I feel a sense of obligation to endure in the face of the memories held here, to bear witness to the lives that were cut short by evil and hate, but at the same time, just being there made me tired. I kept thinking, “I’m ready to go home,” and then how horribly I remembered that hundreds of thousands of people wanted the same thing without ever having that option.
At the end of the war, Buchenwald was the largest concentration camp on German soil, housing nearly 240,000 people over the course of the war, and more than 40,000 of these were admitted in 1945 alone (3 months!) (and all of these numbers reflect on the people that the camp officially processed; many, many were never officially admitted because they were killed before they were registered; those deaths are not reflected in any accounting, either). There were over 80,000 people there at the end of March, 1945. Although Buchenwald was officially a “forced labor” camp, the death toll and living conditions are reflective of something far more sinister than what you and I think of as “work.” Among the experiments conducted by the Nazis here were experiments with poison, experiments with incendiary devices, spotted fever experiments, and experiments with typhus.
Many famous people were Buchenwald inmates, including Elie Wiesel (whose father died in Buchenwald). I bring him up at this point to comment on the underground resistance movement within and among the inmates; this movement is said to have saved thousands of lives at the end. Mr. Wiesel was young at the time of Buchenwald, around 15, and was kept in Barracks 66, a place created in the Little Camp by members of the inmates’ resistance to help save young people and children at the camp. The adults working with them (all inmates) sang them songs, gave them extra food, and even taught them some math. As the Nazis realized that they were fighting a losing battle, they tried to evacuate the camp, but the resistance held on and refused to leave (evacuation usually meant death march). At the end, inmates had overpowered some of the guards and had control of the camp even as the American and Allied soldiers arrived. There was one story that members of the resistance had obtained a short wave radio and telegraph machine and used morse code to let the American troops know they were there. When they got a response, basically saying “Hang on, we’re coming,” they were bolstered (and shocked) up, and were able to resist just a little bit longer.
With that, I’ll close with the words of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a hero among men and a survivor of hell on Earth: “Silence in the face of evil is itself evil: God will not hold us guiltless. Not to speak is to speak. Not to act is to act.”
If you would like more information on Buchenwald, I would highly recommend the following links:
Buchenwald (translate this page with Google Chrome)