buchenwald

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April 11, 1945: Buchenwald concentration camp is liberated.

Buchenwald was established in 1937 near Weimar, making it one of the earliest concentration camps constructed within German borders. During its years of operation, Buchenwald served primarily as a source of slave laborers – political prisoners, Poles , Jews, Romani, criminals, prisoners of war, etc. – who worked to support German factories and production, and who died in massive numbers from their working and living conditions, although Buchenwald and camps like it were technically not considered “extermination camps” (these camps, equipped with gas chambers and crematoriums, were mostly located in Poland). Buchenwald was also made notorious by the brutality of its guards and overseers, most famously Ilse Koch, the “Bitch of Buchenwald”, who allegedly collected the tattoooed skins of camp prisoners. Tens of thousands of prisoners died at Buchenwald and in its subcamps by the time of its liberation by a detachment of American troops, while some 28,000 were evacuated and forced on a death march just days before the troops arrived.

Margaret Bourke-White, a war correspondent who was present at Buchenwald around the time of its liberation, wrote in her 1946 memoir Dear Fatherland, Rest Quietly on the German citizens from nearby Weimar who were made to walk through the camp and look upon the atrocities committed by their countrymen:

This whiteness had the fragile translucence of snow, and I wished that under the bright April sun which shone from a clean blue sky it would all simply melt away. I longed for it to disappear, because while it was there I was reminded that men actually had done this thing — men with arms and legs and eyes and hearts not so very unlike our own. And it made me ashamed to be a member of the human race.

The several hundred other spectators who filed through the Buchenwald courtyard on that sunny April afternoon were equally unwilling to admit association with the human beings who had perpetrated these horrors. But their reluctance had a certain tinge of self-interest; for these were the citizens of Weimar, eager to plead their ignorance of the outrages.

When US forces arrived at Buchenwald, the 21,000 prisoners who had been left behind had taken control of the camp after their SS guards fled, aware of the inevitable arrival of Allied forces. 

LIFE Behind the Picture: The Liberation of Buchenwald, April 1945 (graphic images)

“Literature has played a dual and contradictory role in my life. The act of writing appeases one’s memories and eases the act of forgetting. When I write, I make my memories tangible, and in this way I can get rid of them. On the other hand, writing is but a ploy to convulse memory back into life. And the more I write, the more my memories return to inhabit me.” —Jorge Semprún

Mafalda (1934). Leonard Campbell Taylor (British, 1874-1969). Oil on canvas. Bradford Museums and Galleries.

Princess Mafalda of Savoy was married to Queen Victoria’s Great Grandson and was the daughter of the Italian King Victor Emmanuel III. During WW II, Adolf Hitler believed she was working against the war effort; he called her the “blackest carrion in the Italian royal house.” She was imprisoned and died at the Buchenwald concentration camp.

Obit of the Day: Shalom Aleichem, Yiddem! Ihr zint frei!*

April 11, 1945 was the day that General George Patton’s Third Army liberated Buchenwald. When Rabbi Herschel Schacter, a U.S. Army chaplain, heard the news he quickly found his way into the infamous concentration camp built in Goethe’s hometown.

When he arrived the sights and smells were so devastating that he asked a passing lieutenant, “Are there any Jews alive here?” There were. The Army would liberate 21,000 prisoners.

Random note: Just a few days earlier there were 28,000 prisoners in the camp. As the Allied armies approached, the Nazis attempted a mass evacuation. One-quarter to one-third of the prisoners died of exhaustion.

Among the survivors Rabbi Schachter discovered one thousand orphans (including a teenager named Elie Wiesel, noted author and Nobel Peace Prize winner). Rabbi Shachter would eventually help evacuate the children to France, Switzerland, and Palestine.

Rabbi Schachter would spend weeks in the camp overseeing religious services and counseling victims. He would always remember those early days especially the victims desperately asking, “Does the world know what happened to us?”

Between its opening in 1937 and it’s liberation in 1945 it is estimated that 250,000 prisoners walked through the gates of Buchenwald. It is believed that 56,000 men were murdered over that eight year period. (The camp did house women but not until 1943 and I could find no information on their mortality rate in the camp.)

Rabbi Schachter was discharged from the military as a captain and returned to New York where he led Mosholu Jewish Center in The Bronx for fifty-two years, until it closed in 1999. He would take an interest in the plight of Soviet Jews, visiting the U.S.S.R. in 1956. Later he served as an advisor to President Richard Nixon.

On March 22 President Barack Obama and Rabbi Yisrael Meir Lau met while the president visited Israel. During that time Rabbi Meir Lau spoke of Rabbi Schachter who he had met when he was only seven years old - one of the orphans that Rabbi Schachter had saved. Neither the president nor Rabbi Meir Lau knew that Rabbi Schachter had passed away a day earlier at the age of 95.

Sources: NY Times, The U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, and Wikipedia

(Image of Rabbi Schachter, far left, leading a prayer service with survivors of Buchenwald, 1945, courtesy of Vad Yashem, via the NY Times)

* The title of the post translates as “Peace be upon you Jews! You are free!” which Rabbi Schachter exclaimed as he went from barracks to barracks in Buchenwald.

Check out Obit of the Day’s new World War II page for more amazing members of the “Greatest Generation”