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January 30, 2013

A poem about the liberation of Buchenwald ends with the “oath of Buchenwald”

Filed under: Buchenwald, Germany, World War II — Tags: , — furtherglory @ 9:51 am
Monument where the Buchenwald survivors swore the "oath of Buchenwald"

Monument stands where the Buchenwald survivors swore the “oath of Buchenwald”

This morning, I received an e-mail with a copy of a poem written by one of the French survivors of the Buchenwald concentration camp.  The poem, which was sent to me by Susan Perry Ferguson, can be read in full here. Susan is the daughter of Major Julian S. Perry, the American soldier who found the poem, written by an unknown prisoner after the liberation of Buchenwald. The poem was originally written in French; you can read the full text here.

The poem is quite long, so I am only quoting the last few lines, which are the most important:

Buchenwald is finished.
In the SS barracks, the liberated set themselves up
In a little bit of comfort.

The anxiety is over,
But we think, non-stop, about the two last processions,
Struck down by death.

There is but one survivor, hiding among the cadavers,
Who lived through the slaughter that was extermination.
The previous processions fell upon no peaceful haven.
No less than 42,000 human beings died.

So we will return to France, to our family homes.
Feelings of emptiness, which are many, spoil our return.
But there is an oath we need to assert:
We must avenge our dead,
Surround and stage an attack, in turn,
Against the race of murderers and sadists.
Men, women, and children they have killed,
Mercilessly, without pity.
Out of fanatic hatred.

Liberated Buchenwald prisoners outside the SS barracks

Liberated Buchenwald prisoners outside the SS barracks

The poet wrote “The previous processions fell upon no peaceful haven. No less than 42,000 human beings died.”  The word “processions” is a reference to the thousands of prisoners who were marched out of the Buchenwald camp, before the camp was liberated, in an attempt to prevent them from being released by the American soldiers who were on their way.

The prisoners in the “processions” were marched five miles to the train station in Weimar, the closest city to the camp.  The prisoners were put on a train and taken to the Dachau concentration camp, where most of them were dead upon arrival. You can read about it here.  The total number of deaths at Buchenwald is unknown; you can read about the death statistics at Buchenwald here.

The unknown author of the above poem was a French Resistance fighter, who was sent to the Buchenwald concentration camp, after he was captured.  The French Resistance fighters were civilians who had continued to fight during World War II  after France had surrendered.

Buchenwald was primarily a camp for political prisoners, who were opponents of Hitler’s Third Reich. The prisoners included prominent Communists and Social Democrats, as well as French, Polish and Dutch resistance fighters, and also pastors of the Confessional Church and Catholic priests who preached against the Nazis. A Monument to the Resistance Fighters stands on the highest point of the hill called the Ettersberg, about one kilometer from the former camp. A photo of the monument is shown below.

Monument to the French Resistance fighters at Buchenwald

Monument to the French Resistance fighters at Buchenwald

On April 11, 1945, the day that American troops arrived to liberate the Buchenwald camp, the Communist resistance fighters had already taken control of the camp and forced the SS guards to flee for their lives. When the American liberators arrived, they observed that some of the resistance fighters had left the camp and were hunting down the SS men in the surrounding forest. The SS soldiers were brought back to the camp and shot, hanged or beaten to death by the inmates while the American soldiers looked on and sometimes joined in.

Regarding the liberation of Buchenwald on April 11, 1945, Robert Abzug wrote the following in his book Inside the Vicious Heart:

The Americans were met by reasonably healthy looking, armed prisoners ready to help administer distribution of food, clothing, and medical care. These same prisoners, an International Committee with the Communist underground leader Hans Eiden at its head, seemed to have perfect control over their fellow inmates.

After World War II ended, the Germans were prosecuted as “war criminals”  because the Resistance fighters had been put into concentration camps, rather than POW camps. The resistance fighters from German-occupied countries who had continued to fight as partisans, killing German soldiers and blowing up trains, were called innocent victims by the American prosecutors in the American Military Tribunal trials at Dachau because they had been imprisoned in concentration camps after they were captured. Although the Geneva Convention of 1929 did not give the same rights to insurgents as to Prisoners of War, it was the prosecution’s opinion that the partisans and resistance fighters in German-occupied countries were the equivalent of POWs and entitled to the same Geneva Convention protection.

The monument shown in the photo at the top of my blog post is the memorial that was erected by the Communist prisoners at Buchenwald on 19 April 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 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 just one of the camps to which captured partisans in the French Resistance were deported. The main camp for French Resistance fighters was Natzweiler-Struthof, which now has a Memorial Site with a Museum devoted to the French Resistance.

According to Wikipedia, “the Buchenwald oath” was as follows:

The core of the Buchenwald Oath is: We will take up the fight until the last culprit stands before the judges of the people. Our watchword is the destruction of Nazism from its roots. Our goal is to build a new world of peace and freedom. This is our responsibility to our murdered friends and their relatives.

After the Buchwald Oath was read aloud, the prisoners raised their hands and said, “We swear”.[12]

In keeping with their promise to build a new world of peace and freedom, the Buchenwald camp was turned into a camp for German prisoners after World War II.  You can read about it here. In 1997, a Museum was opened at the Buchenwald Memorial Site which tells about the German prisoners at Buchenwald after World War II.

As the poet wished, the dead were avenged.  The oath that the poet said needed to be asserted was that every last culprit should stand before the judges of the people.  This actually happened when 31 people were put on trial by the American liberators.  You can read about the trial here.