60 years ago today: The liberation of Buchenwald

Sixty years ago today, on April 11, 1945, elements of the U.S. Third Army reached Buchenwald. It was two and a half months after the liberation of Auschwitz, and less than three weeks before Berlin would fall to the Russians. What they found when they arrived there were approximately 20,000 remaining prisoners, most of whom were starving, ill, or dying.

And stacks upon stacks of bodies.

As described by some of the liberators, the scenes that greeted the American liberators of Buchenwald and other camps in April were as horrific as the one the Russians encountered when they liberated Auschwitz in January, with skeletal prisoners staring weakly at their liberators, the dying, and stacks of bodies. Dwight Eisenhower wrote in a letter to Chief of Staff George Marshall:
I have never felt able to describe my emotional reaction when I first came face to face with indisputable evidence of Nazi brutality and ruthless disregard of every shred of decency...I visited every nook and cranny of the camp because I felt it my duty to be in a position from then on to testify at first hand about these things in case there ever grew up at home the belief or assumption that the stories of Nazi brutality were just propaganda.
While inspecting Buchenwald and other camps, even hardened warriors like General George S. Patton felt themselves becoming sick to their stomachs. Imagine the soldiers who first found the camp, most of whom were kids between the ages of 18 and 22.

Unlike Treblinka or Sobibor, Buchenwald was not primarily a death camp. It wasn't a combined death camp and concentration camp, like Auschwitz. It was primarily a concentration camp, like Dachau, for political prisoners, who were used for slave labor in nearby armaments factories. But that didn't mean that mass killings didn't happen there. It didn't mean that, in its own way, Buchenwald wasn't a place of unspeakable cruelty.

Nine years before the Third Army entered, the Inspector of Concentration Camps, SS General Eicke, had proposed to transfer the concentration camp of Lichtenburg to Thuringia. The field of Ettersberg was chosen, and on July 16, 1937 three hundred prisoners arrived at the camp (at this time, the camp was called "Konzentrationslager Ettersberg"). The prisoners built the camp up in their "spare time," being forced by the SS to carry huge stones from a nearby quarry, and on August 6, 1937, the name of the camp was officially changed to Buchenwald. The name "Buchenwald" means "beech forest" in German, because of the forest that surrounded the site. It was initially designated as a place to hold political prisoners, particularly those whom the Nazis considered social misfits, Jehovah's Witnesses, those who spoke out against the regime, homosexuals, the homeless, and, of course, Jews. Given the cramped conditions of the camp, the overcrowding, and the inadequate nutrition given the prisoners, many sentenced to Buchenwald would not return. After the invasion of the USSR in 1941, the camp was also used to house Soviet P.O.W.'s. The population of the camp rapidly swelled from around 1,000 prisoners in the fall of 1937 to nearly 40,000 by 1943 and 80,000 in early 1945, with an estimated 250,000 prisoners passing through the camp during its existence, one-fifth of whom died, either through execution, overwork, starvation, or epidemic disease. Indeed, the SS even built a special chair to place Soviet prisoners in a position that made it easier to shoot them in the back of the head. Many of the surviving prisoners remaining in March 1945 were evacuated east as part of a series of "death marches" that the SS undertook as the Allieds advanced into Germany. Buchenwald was one of the places where the Nazi philosphy of destroying its enemies through overwork in service of the war machine was implemented." All the while, life was not unpleasant for the SS running the camp, who enjoyed a zoo, a riding hall and a brothel.

Although Josef Mengele at Auschwitz is the best-known Nazi who did horrific experiments on humans, many such experiments were also performed at Buchenwald. The most notorious of these included large-scale testing of vaccines for typhus. The prisoners were first injected with the vaccine and then injected with live typhus, with large numbers of fatalities. Similar experiments were carried out with spotted fever, as well as to serve as a source for the virus. Prisoners were also injected with phenol in order to kill them, first intravenously but then later by direct intracardiac injection. Last of the more famous atrocities was the testing of various compounds to treat phosphorus burns after inflicting painful and disfiguring phosphorus burns on hapless prisoners.

But perhaps what Buchenwald is most remembered for is one person: Ilse Koch. She was the wife of Karl Koch, the first Commandant of Buchenwald. Dubbed the either the "Witch of Buchenwald" or the "Bitch of Buchenwald" by the prisoners for her sadism, she and her female overseers were responsible for a reign of terror over the prisoners. In 1943, her husband was arrested for embezzlement and removed from the camp, but, after a trial for embezzlement during which she was acquitted, Ilse remained at Buchenwald, where she continued to terrorize female and male prisoners. Perhaps what produced the most infamy was her predilection for taking souvenirs from the skin of murdered inmates with distinctive tattoos. She is one source of the famous but disputed claim that she made lampshades from this human skin. There is no doubt, however, that she collected pieces of human skin with distinctive tattooes and that her family dinner table was decorated with shrunken human heads (also here) of murdered inmates. Although cruel and murderous, Ilse could appear to be mild-mannered when she wished to be. When U. S. soldiers went to arrest her, they were surprised that she didn't appear to be the sadistic monster described. Ilse was tried and sentenced to a life term in 1947, which was commuted to four years because of doubts about some of the testimony against her, but was re-tried by a German court for killing German nationals, and sentenced to a life term. Since then, besides being the very vision of the sadistic female prison matron and proving that women are just as capable of cruelty and murder as men, she has also unfortunately served as the inspiration for disgustingly bad campy movies, like Ilsa, She-Wolf of the SS.

Although less famous than Auschwitz or Treblinka, Buchenwald was every bit as much a cog in the machinery of the Holocaust as any Nazi camp. Thousands of Jews and political prisoners perished there, and hundreds of thousands were imprisoned under horrific conditions. It is therefore appropriate that the anniversary of its liberation be commemorated.

Other links:

Frau Ilse Koch, General Lucius Clay, and human-skin atrocities
Harry J. Herder, Jr.'s firsthand account of the liberation of Buchenwald
Orr Iverson's firsthand account of the liberation of Buchenwald
Informational site on the Buchenwald Concentration Camp
Buchenwald from The Forgotten Camps
Wikipedia entry on Buchenwald


  1. On Saturday I heard an interesting radio show about the liberation of Buchenwald.
    After they entered the camp, the US army officers were so shocked they decided to force 1000 citizens of the city of Weimar (10kms away from the camp), to 'visit' the camp and see the bodies and the inmates.
    They chose people who belonged to the Nazi party first, 75% wealthy people, 25% poor, between 18 and 45 (or 50), men and women...
    And during one afternoon these citizens had to see what they had not heard of, even if when the wind blew from the North, the stench of the crematorium smoke reached the city.

    A German woman who did this forced visit and a French POW who lived through Buchenwald met at the camp for the recording. Very interesting.

    Most of the German who did the visit took part in education and memory programs about WWII afterwards, to pass this memory to future generations.

  2. I am so grateful that you write about the Holocaust. My grandparents came to America from Germany in the early 1920s. My grandmother's parents and siblings stayed. In the 30s the correspondences between them became more concerned and then frantic. At first my great-grandparents could not believe that it could happen, and then when they realized that it would, it was too late for them to get out. When the letters stopped coming, that was the last of my grandmother's family. Fifty years later my grandmother's nephew (my mom's first cousin) was found alive in Israel. The only one of the extended family to make it.
    When you write about this, it is like they are all remembered for a moment. All of them. And I am grateful.

  3. See a simliar related entry today @ www.juggernuts.com

  4. Hello, just passing through. Anyways, I am not sure if there is anyone in this room who has read the book called simply "Night", by Elie Wiesel, but there seems to be a pervading message here that humans will reach the depths of humanity slowly. Even the Jews, who enabled this type of onslaught, always said to them selves that it couldn't get much worse, and they continually were disappointed. Fortunately, the silver lining is that there was enough sympathy in the world to allow them access back to their original homeland.

  5. http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/in_depth/4445811.stm

    for Bergen Belson comentary

  6. Thanks. I added it to a blog entry I was going to post tonight on that very issue.


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