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April 10, 2010

The liberation of Buchenwald at 3:15 p.m. on April 11, 1945

The clock on top of the gate house at the Buchenwald concentration camp has been permanently stopped at 3:15 p.m., the exact time that the Communist prisoners in the camp took over and liberated the camp, forcing the SS guards to flee into the surrounding woods.

Four American soldiers with the 6th Armored Division of General George S. Patton’s Third Army arrived a short time later. Pfc. James Hoyt was driving the M8 armoured vehicle which brought Capt. Frederic Keffer, Tech. Sgt. Herbert Gottschalk and Sgt. Harry Ward to the Buchenwald camp that day. They arrived just in time to see 15 SS guards who had been captured by the prisoners and brought back to the camp.

The gatehouse at the Buchenwald concentration camp, 1999

There were 21,000 prisoners in the Buchenwald camp on the day that it was liberated, including around 4,000 Jews, most of whom had been brought to Buchenwald after the Auschwitz camp was closed. The typhus epidemic in the camp was being brought under control, but there were still 3,000 sick prisoners.

At 5:30 p.m. on April 11th, First Lieutenant Edward A. Tenenbaum arrived in a Jeep, along with a civilian named Egon W. Fleck; they stayed in Buchenwald that night in Block 50, the medical building.  (Source:  The Buchenwald Report, a book about the camp written by a special intelligence team of the American Army, led by Albert G. Rosenberg)

Fleck and Tenenbaum wrote a detailed report on what their lengthy investigation of the camp had revealed. Alfred Toombs, who was Tenenbaum’s commanding officer, wrote a preface to the report, in which he mentioned how “the prisoners themselves organized a deadly terror within the Nazi terror.”

The following quote from Fleck and Tenenbaum’s report describes the power exercised by the German Communist prisoners at Buchenwald:

“The trusties, who in time became almost exclusively Communist Germans, had the power of life and death over all other inmates. They could sentence a man or a group to almost certain death … The Communist trusties were directly responsible for a large part of the brutalities at Buchenwald.”

The next day, on April 12, 1945, soldiers of the 80th Infantry Division arrived in the nearby town of Weimar and found some of the liberated prisoners roaming around, looking for food.  That same day, Edward R. Murrow arrived in Weimar; he reported in his famous radio broadcast from Buchenwald that the liberated prisoners were hunting down the SS soldiers who had escaped from the camp the day before and killing them while the Americans watched. Marguerite Higgins wrote in her book News is a Singular Thing, that American soldiers joined in and helped the prisoners beat the German SS soldiers to death.

According to the Buchenwald Report, it was not until Friday the 13th that the rest of Patton’s troops arrived, accompanied by Generals Eisenhower, Bradley and Patton.

Although the Buchenwald Report says that the three top American generals saw the camp on April 13, Patton himself wrote in his memoirs that it was not until April 14, 1945 that he heard some of the gory details about Buchenwald from General Gay and Colonels Pfann and Codman, who had visited it.

Patton wrote in his book that he immediately called General Eisenhower, even before seeing the camp himself, and suggested that he send photographers and members of the press “to get the horrid details.”

General Dwight D. Eisenhower and General Omar Bradley had visited the Ohrdruf sub-camp of Buchenwald, along with General Patton, on April 12, 1945 but neither Eisenhower nor Bradley ever bothered to visit the Buchenwald main camp.

General Dwight D. Eisenhower on a visit to Ohrdruf camp, April 12, 1945

General Patton’s impression of the Buchenwald camp being controlled by the inmates was confirmed by Colonel Donald B. Robinson, chief historian of the American military occupation in Germany, who wrote an article for an American magazine after the war about the report of Fleck and Tenenbaum:

“It appeared that the prisoners who agreed with the Communists ate; those who didn’t starved to death.”

General Patton had visited the Ohrdruf  sub-camp of Buchenwald on April 12, 1945 along with General Omar Bradley and General Dwight D. Eisenhower. On April 15, 1945, the day that he visited Buchenwald, General George S. Patton wrote the following in a letter to General Dwight D. Eisenhower:

“We have found at a place four miles north of WEIMAR a similar camp, only much worse. The normal population was 25,000, and they died at the rate of about a hundred a day. The burning arrangements, according to General Gay and Colonel Codman who visited it yesterday, were far superior to those they had at OHRDRUF.

“I told the press to go up there and see it, and then write as much about it as they could. I also called General Bradley last night and suggested that you send selected individuals from the upper strata of the press to look at it, so that you can build another page of the necessary evidence as to the brutality of the Germans.”

General Eisenhower did not visit Buchenwald himself, but he did follow General Patton’s advice to “build another page” about the “brutality of the Germans.” A group of  “upper strata” reporters were flown to Germany, arriving at Buchenwald on April 24, 1945, and given the grand tour of the Buchenwald atrocities.

Robert Abzug wrote the following in his book entitled Inside the Vicious Heart:

Soon after seeing Ohrdruf, Eisenhower ordered every unit near by that was not in the front lines to tour Ohrdruf: “We are told that the American soldier does not know what he is fighting for. Now, at least, he will know what he is fighting against.’” Eisenhower felt it was essential not only for his troops to see for themselves, but for the world to know about conditions at Ohrdruf and other camps. From Third Army headquarters, he cabled London and Washington, urging delegations of officials and newsmen to be eye-witnesses to the camps. The message to Washington read: ‘We are constantly finding German camps in which they have placed political prisoners where unspeakable conditions exist. From my own personal observation, I can state unequivocally that all written statements up to now do not paint the full horrors.”

The photo below shows American soldiers who were brought to Buchenwald to see the horror.  The prisoners had prepared exhibits for the visitors.

American soldiers enter a barracks at Buchenwald to see an exhibit

Exhibit at Buchenwald shows human lampshade and shrunken heads

Exhibit shows how the prisoners were whipped at Buchenwald

Although the whipping block was used for punishment in all the camps, no such block was ever found in either the Ohrdruf sub-camp or the Buchenwald main camp. The survivors of these camps had to improvise a wooden block to show the American soldiers how they had been punished. According to the testimony of Rudolf Hoess, the Commandant of Auschwitz, at the Nuremberg International Military Tribunal on April 15, 1946, this punishment was discontinued in 1942 after Reichsführer-SS Heinrich Himmler gave a new order that the SS men were forbidden to whip the prisoners.

The words on the top sign in the photo above, translated into English, read as follows:

“Model! The original was destroyed by the SS Murdering Bandits before their departure”

The English translation of the first two lines on the sign below it reads as follows:

“The so-called Support!”

“A Nazi cultural monument in all concentration camps”

The words on the lower sign then describe how the prisoners were whipped with 25 or more lashes on their naked buttocks until they were nearly unconscious. Then cold water was thrown on them to revive them and they were beaten some more.

All punishments in the Nazi concentration camps had to be authorized by the main office in Oranienburg after a report was made by the SS guards regarding an offense committed by a prisoner. A doctor had to be present during the whipping.

Another punishment that was no longer used was the infamous hanging punishment which was portrayed in another exhibit at Buchenwald.

Exhibit at Buchenwald shows the famous hanging punishment

The sign on the hanging punishment at Buchenwald

The words on the sign, shown in the photo above, are “Ein Strafvollzug der Nazi-Kultur: Das sogenannte an den Baum hängen.” The last two words are illegible. The English translation is “A Punishment of Nazi Culture: The so-called hanging on a tree.”

Martin Sommer, the innovator of this cruel punishment, was put on trial by SS officer Dr. Georg Konrad Morgen in a Nazi court in 1943 at the same time that Buchenwald Commandant Karl Otto Koch and his wife Ilse were put on trial by the Nazis for embezzlement and abuse of the prisoners at Buchenwald. After the trial, Sommer was transferred to the Russian front as punishment.

Sign put up by Polish prisoners at Buchenwald

The words on the sign in the photo above say “We from Silesia are ready to go back home and destroy the Fascists (Nazis).” Silesia is a province that became part of the German state of Prussia after the country of Poland was divided in 1772 among Prussia, Austria and Russia.

In 1871, Silesia became part of Germany after the German states united under the Kaiser who was the King of Prussia. After World War I ended, Silesia was given to the newly formed country of Poland. After Germany invaded Poland in September 1939, Silesia was annexed to Germany and became part of the Greater German Reich. Since the end of World War II, Silesia has been part of Poland.

At the end of World War II, the ethnic Germans in Silesia were expelled, after their homes and farms had been taken from them by the Poles. So it turned out that the former Polish political prisoners at Buchenwald did in fact participate in destroying the Nazis in Poland after the war.

Building where exhibits were set up at Buchenwald

On April 15, 1945, German civilians from the town of Weimar were marched five miles up a steep hill, at gunpoint, by American soldiers and forced to see the exhibits that had been set up by the prisoners.  Some of the Jewish survivors, wearing their striped prison uniforms, sat at a table in one of the barracks, ready to confront the German civilians with stories of what they had suffered at the hands of the Nazis.

The American soldiers were angry when the German civilian population said over and over: “We didn’t know.”  The American army was determined that the ordinary German people should see the atrocities that were committed at Buchenwald and other camps.

Bodies of prisoners who had died at Buchenwald

Postcard from Buchenwald shows the barracks for the prisoners

Exhibit shows how prisoners were hung from hooks in the crematorium

US Congressmen on a tour of Buchenwald, April 24, 1945

According to the exhibits put up after the camp was liberated, the Germans had a unique method of killing prisoners at Buchenwald.  Instead of gassing prisoners in the crematorium, as was done at Auschwitz-Birkenau, there were hooks on the walls of the crematorium where prisoners were hung a few inches from the floor until they were dead.  The photo above shows US Congressmen as they view the club that was allegedly used to kill prisoners who didn’t die fast enough when they were hung on hooks in the morgue.

However, a different explanation for the hooks was given by one of the former Polish prisoners to Cpl. Norman W. Paschen when he toured the camp shortly after it was liberated by American troops.

The following quote is from a letter to his family, written by Cpl. Paschen:

“We then went to the crematory, a cold, dismal building resembling a dungeon. A large chute similar to a coal chute had been used to convey the bodies to a cellar. On the walls of the cellar were many hooks which were used to hold the corpses until it came time for them to be elevated to the crematory upstairs. The hooks had been forced into the neck behind the ear. They were still blood-stained. In this room, also men were executed if they were deemed no longer useful to the Nazi. The methods of execution were varied. Sometimes a bullet was used, but our guide informed us that his captors had said many times that a bullet was too expensive a price to pay for the death of a slave. Poison gas or starvation was much cheaper.”

The morgue at Buchenwald which was the alleged execution room

General George S. Patton, who toured Buchenwald on April 15, 1945, wrote the following in his autobiography regarding what he was told by the former prisoners:

“If a sufficient number (of the Buchenwald prisoners) did not die of starvation or if, for other reasons, it was desirable to remove them without waiting for nature to take its course, they were dropped down a chute into a room which had a number of hooks like those on which one hangs meat in a butcher shop, about eight feet from the floor. From the execution room in the Buchenwald set-up there was an elevator, hand operated, which carried the corpses to an incinerator plant on the floor above.”

The “chute” which Patton saw was built to drop dead bodies down into the morgue in the basement.  According to the Buchenwald survivors, the basement room at the end of the chute was an execution room, not a morgue. This means that there was apparently no morgue for storing the bodies at the Buchenwald crematorium before they were cremated.

According to the camp guidebook, which I purchased on a visit to Buchenwald in 1999:

“Approximately 1,100 people were strangled to death on wall hooks in the body storage cellar. Ivan Belevzev from Kharkov, 8 years old, was the youngest victim of the murderers.”

Under German law in the Third Reich, no one under the age of 16 could be executed, but an exception was apparently made for the 8-year-old who was executed at Buchenwald.

According to the book entitled IBM and the Holocaust, by Edwin Black, the Jewish prisoners at Buchenwald were assigned to “the Little Camp, where they were expected to lose 40 percent of their body weight and then move on to other barracks.” The Little Camp was the quarantine camp where prisoners had to be confined for several weeks after they first entered the camp.

According to information that Black obtained from an Army report, the Jews were “arbitrarily condemned to death,” one shelf at a time. A shelf was a three-tiered bunk bed where 16 prisoners slept together.

The following quote is from IBM and the Holocaust in which Edwin Black describes the corpse slide at Buchenwald.

Once the murder decision had been made, all sixteen Jews in the shelf were immediately marched to a small door adjacent to Buchenwald’s incinerator building. The door opened inward, creating a short, three-foot-long corridor. Jews were pushed and herded until they reached the corridor end. There, a hole dropped thirteen feet down a concrete shaft and into the Strangling Room. A camp worker recalled, “As they hit the floor they were garroted … by big SS guards and hung on hooks along the side wall, about 6 1/2 feet above the floor … any that were still struggling were stunned with a wooden mallet … An electric elevator … ran [the corpses] up to the incinerator room.

Elevator in the corner of the “incinerator room”

On April 14, 1945,  the 120th Evacuation Hospital arrived in Weimar with a staff of 273 service personnel to take care of around 3,000 sick prisoners at Buchenwald; a hospital was set up in the barracks of the SS soldiers who had been stationed at Buchenwald. There was a typhus epidemic at Buchenwald and also at Dachau, where the 120th Evacuation Hospital was sent after Dachau was liberated on April 29, 1945.

One of the soldiers with the 120th Evacuation Hospital was Tech. Sgt. Warren E. Priest from Haverhill, MA. In his letter home to his mother, Warren Priest told about objects made from human skin that were found at Buchenwald:

“I saw lampshades made of patches of human skin – anyone who came to the camp with a tattoo on him evidently didn’t enjoy himself quite as much as he might have. The commandant of the post collected these as a hobby, and had lampshades, pictures, even a ship’s sails made from human skin. I have that boat now. Ironically, it’s called the Santa Maria and has pictures of the Virgin & Child on the sails, with crosses garnished about. Quite a charming fellow, this commandant.”

The sailboat with sails made from human skin was donated to the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, DC.

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