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July 22, 2011

What did Buchenwald look like when Elie Wiesel was a prisoner there?

Filed under: Buchenwald, Germany, Holocaust — Tags: , , — furtherglory @ 10:52 am

Elie Wiesel’s book Night has very few details about what the Buchenwald concentration camp actually looked like when he was a prisoner there for several months just before the camp was liberated on April 11, 1945.  There is an article here on the Elie Wiesel Cons The World web site about the curious lack of a detailed description of Buchenwald in Elie’s most famous book.

The Buchenwald camp was mainly a concentration camp for political prisoners; as a Jewish prisoner, Elie Wiesel would not have been allowed to walk around the whole camp, so he may not have seen everything. One thing that he would have seen is the gatehouse into the camp, which is shown in the photo below.  All incoming prisoners entered through this gatehouse.

Gatehouse at the entrance to Buchenwald

Note the clock on top which is permanently stopped at 3:15 p.m., the exact time, on April 11, 1945, when the Communist prisoners took over the camp and the SS men fled into the woods.  This view of the gatehouse is what Elie Wiesel would have seen as he marched up to the camp.

 Jedem Das Seine on Buchenwald gate

Jedem das Seine is usually translated into English as “To each his own,” but the phrase has the connotation of “Everyone gets what he deserves.”  Buchenwald was a Class II concentration camp for dangerous political prisoners and hardened criminals, who had little chance of being released, so the Buchenwald camp did not have the “Arbeit Macht Frei” sign that was used on Class I camps.  Note that the photo above was taken from inside the camp, looking out; the sign faces the inside of the camp.

Entrance to Buchenwald with zoo and gatehouse

Buchenwald had the usual barbed wire fence around it; in this old photo, the gatehouse is shown on the extreme right.  On the left side can be seen the Zoo.  Yes, those mean ole Nazis had a zoo for bears and other animals, but only the SS men, who guarded the camp, were allowed to visit it.

Bear pit in Buchenwald zoo

Sign points to zoo at Buchenwald

The Buchenwald camp was built on the northern slope of a gentle hill, so that all the prisoners in the main part of the camp had a view of the gatehouse from their barrack windows. In the foreground of the photo below you can see the doors into the root cellar where potatoes, carrots, turnips and rutabagas were kept for the prisoners’ food. The camp diet consisted mainly of whole grain bread and vegetable soup. Each prisoner carried his soup spoon in his pocket; the enamelware soup bowls on display in the Buchenwald museum are the size of an American serving bowl.

Root cellar in the foreground with the Buchenwald gate house in the background

View of Buchenwald from the gatehouse tower

In the photo above, taken from the gatehouse tower, the large two-story building on the far right is the camp storehouse, which is still standing today.

The photo below shows the same storehouse building on the left; the one-story building on the right was where the prisoners had to go through disinfection before entering the barracks. In the foreground is the stump of Goethe’s oak.  Buchenwald is in the middle of a woods where Goethe used to sit under his favorite oak tree.

Storehouse and disinfection building

The one-story building to the right in the photo above is the disinfection building which is connected to the storehouse by an underground tunnel. Incoming prisoners were first brought to the disinfection building where their heads and entire bodies were shaved. Then they were completely submerged into a large tub of creosote to kill lice and bacteria. Then they had to go into the showers, after which they were sprayed with a liquid disinfectant. All this was done in the effort to stop epidemics in the camp.

After that, the prisoners were driven naked through the tunnel to the storehouse where they were given a blue and gray striped uniform and a pair of shoes with wooden soles. Only then were they allowed to enter their assigned barrack building in the “Small Camp.”

Location of the former “Small Camp”

At the end of 1942, a quarantine camp was set up in the northwest section of the camp, far down the slope from the gatehouse. The prisoners called this the “Small Camp.” The photo above shows a stone path at the former location of the “Small Camp,” which was torn down long ago. Note how close the “Small Camp” was to the the storehouse and disinfection building. The prisoners didn’t have far to walk after their disinfection and shower.

The quarantine camp was called Camp II by the SS.  At first Camp II consisted of 12 army horse stables of the kind used for barracks at Birkenau, the notorious death camp in Poland. These buildings had only very small windows underneath the roof, not like the other barracks in Buchenwald which had lots of windows at eye level.

In 1945, Camp II, aka the “Small Camp,” had become increasingly overcrowded as Jewish prisoners were brought from the abandoned camps in Poland. During this period, between 1,200 and 1,700 people were packed into each horse-barn barrack which measured 40 meters long by 9.5 meters wide. When the barracks were full, some of the prisoners were put into tents. Thousands of prisoners died of disease in the “Small Camp” which eventually became a camp where sick and dying prisoners were isolated from the rest of the prisoners.

The interior of one of the regular Buchenwald barracks is shown in the old photo below.

Interior of a barracks at Buchenwald

The photo below shows a barracks building for Jewish prisoners.  Note the star of David inside a circle at the top of the building.  This photo was taken immediately after the camp was liberated; it shows dead bodies in front of the building.

Barracks for Jewish prisoners had Star of David

The “Small Camp” was a quarantine camp

All incoming prisoners in all the concentration camps had to stay in the quarantine barracks for several weeks in case they had some disease that was contagious.  At Buchenwald, the “Small Camp” was the quarantine camp.  The photo above shows the “Small Camp” which was sectioned off from the main part of the camp by a barbed wire fence.  The death rate for Jews was higher because they were living among prisoners who were possible disease carriers.

Wooden barrack building at Buchenwald

Most of the Buchenwald prisoners lived in long, low wooden buildings like the one shown in the photo above. There were more than 30 of these wooden barrack buildings, each of them accommodating between 180 and 250 prisoners. These buildings, which were called “blocks,” measured 53 meters long by 8 meters wide. There were also 15 two-story brick barrack buildings in the main part of the camp, which was for the Communists and other political prisoners.

The photo below shows a reconstructed barrack near the spot where the “Small Camp” used to be.

Reconstructed barrack at Buchenwald

Buchenwald became the third major camp in the German concentration camp system on June 3, 1936, when the Inspector of the Concentration Camps, SS General Theodor Eicke, proposed to transfer the concentration camp of Lichtenburg near Berlin to Thuringia, a state in central Germany where Buchenwald was to be located. The wooded hill called the Ettersberg was officially chosen as the site of the camp on May 5, 1937 and on July 16, 1937, the first 300 prisoners arrived in the camp.

Initially the name of the camp was Konzentrationslager Ettersberg but on August 6, 1937, the name was changed to Konzentrationslager Buchenwald. (Buchenwald means Beech Tree Forest.)

Like all of the major concentration camps in Germany, there was an SS garrison right next to the Buchenwald camp.  The photo below shows some of the SS barracks buildings that are still standing; Elie Wiesel would not have seen these barracks buildings.

Former SS barrack buildings at Buchenwald

In 1940, a railroad line was extended to the Buchenwald camp.  The old photo below shows the Buchenwald gatehouse on the right hand side.

Workers building railroad line to Buchenwald in 1940

After arriving at the railroad station inside the Buchenwald camp, the prisoners marched into the camp on a road that led from the railroad station to the gatehouse.  There were a few “Red Spaniards,” or Communists that had fought the Fascists in the Spanish Civil War, who were imprisoned at Buchenwald.  These Spanish prisoners named the road into the camp Carachoweg (Caracho Way). The Spanish word caracho was prison slang for double time.

The Communist political prisoners, who lived in the barracks near the gatehouse, discriminated against the Jewish prisoners and would not allow them into their nicer section unless they received a bribe. After the camp was liberated, the Jews were not even allowed to attend the celebration ceremony which was conducted by the Communist prisoners near the gatehouse.

Monument erected at Buchenwald by Communist prisoners

The monument shown in the photo above is the memorial that was erected by the Communist prisoners at Buchenwald on April 19, 1945 in honor of the political prisoners in the camp. The Jewish survivors were not allowed to attend the ceremonies when the monument was dedicated.  The camp had actually been liberated by the Communist prisoners before the American soldiers arrived at around 5 or 6 o’clock in the evening on April 11, 1945.

This stone monument was moved in 1961 to a spot called Frederic-Manhes-Platz, which is the place where the road to the camp branches off from the main road up the hill called the Ettersberg. The place where it now stands was named after a French Resistance fighter named Col. Henri Frederic Manhes. Buchenwald was one of the camps to which many of the captured partisans in the French Resistance were deported.

Buchenwald was surrounded by an electrified fence

3 Comments »

  1. Elie is my hero :D

    Comment by alicia carbone — December 8, 2011 @ 9:18 am

  2. My question: Can Elie Wiesel be telling a real experience at Buchenwald when he writes that upon arrival his transport of Jews from Auschwitz were assembled in the Appelplatz and from there were sent to the showers? According to you, his group, in Jan. 1945, would have been directed to the “small camp” immediately for assembly, and then to the disinfection bldg before being allowed in the barracks. But he says it was such a melee around the place to take the shower that some of them couldn’t even get in immediately. So he and his father sit outside talking until dark and are then “chased to the barracks” still in their travelling clothes. They go inside the barracks and are now “so tired” they sink down onto the floor to sleep. How crazy is that? How do you explain this?

    On top of that, after sticking to his father like glue, he then “lost track of him” and they did not go into the same barracks. In the morning, he wanders around FOR HOURS before he finds him. How much ground did he cover? Could he have been so far away? And both he and his father are still in their clothes from Auschwitz? Is there anything here that can be believed? He writes that is was 3 days later that they finally took a shower! No mention of hair shaving, disinfection or new striped clothing.

    Comment by sceptic — July 23, 2011 @ 5:50 pm

    • It is my impression that there was only one Appelplatz, and it was located just inside the main gate. The Buchenwald camp was quite small. When all of the prisoners were assembled, it was on the Appelplatz that was at the top of the slope. There might have been another assembly place at the Small Camp, but I think that incoming prisoners would have been assembled as soon as they got inside the gate and then marched down the road on the east side of the camp, which goes directly to the disinfection building where they would have been disinfected and then showered. The “melee” that Elie described does not sound like something that the Germans would have allowed. The German people always do things in an orderly fashion.

      As for loosing track of his father and searching for him for hours, this doesn’t sound right. As I said, the camp was quite small and the Jews were not allowed to wander around. The camp was sectioned off with barbed wire, and the Jews were not allowed in the main part of the camp. They had to take a shower and then go to the Small Camp which was so small that even the name of it was Small.

      Elie was only 16 and a 16-year-old might not have noticed small details as an adult would have, but his description of his arrival at Buchenwald does not sound right. Just like his description of Auschwitz, which is also not believable.

      Comment by furtherglory — July 23, 2011 @ 8:42 pm


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