Buchenwald and After
In 1942 1 was served with a warrant for my arrest by the Gestapo. The warrant alleged that I was "corrupting the unity of the German people during wartime."
I appealed against this warrant of arrest but heard absolutely nothing more about it. On 5 October I arrived in Buchenwald after having spent two nights in a prison in Halle. In Halle there was very great overcrowding and incredibly bad food. There too, as in all prisons in which I had been, there were plenty of vermin.
Our reception in Buchenwald was not exactly welcoming. First, our personal data and possessions were taken and the experience with the SS man was not exactly pleasant. Then to the so-called bath house of the camp where we had to completely undress, leave our clothes in a heap, and take a bath. From there we were delivered into the hands of the barbers who shaved the hair completely off the head and all parts of our bodies. After a medical examination, we were passed to another department where vests and pants, trousers, jackets and caps were thrown at us. Stockings and socks did not exist, but we were given wooden clogs which soon made our feet raw with blisters. We stood up in the zebra striped uniform "pyjamas" and could hardly recognize ourselves or our mates. We were then given numbers and colors for identification. There were several different kinds-red for political prisoners, green for habitual criminals, black for those regarded as asocial, pink for homosexuals, violet for Jehovah's Witnesses and, of course, the yellow "Star of David" for the Jews.
We were then taken to a barracks in which all contact with other inmates of the camp was prevented. We were not only Political prisoners but all kinds of thieves and criminals. There were 42 different nationalities in Buchenwald. At the time of my committal, the concentration camp was not very big, about 8 000 to 10 000 prisoners, whereas later the population increased to 47 000. During the first few days we were allocated all kinds of unskilled work and eventually I came to a work team which was doing some ground levelling in Weimar where some factories were being built. Apart from the dreadful pain in my feet as a result of the wooden clogs I had to wear, I also had great trouble with my hands which were not used to working with a pick and shovel. I was then transferred to the penal group-something I still don't understand. These people were accommodated in special barracks separate from the rest of the camp. The treatment in these barracks was for the most part meted out by prisoners which defies any description. It was not only the SS who made most trouble for me, but rather some of the old lags who were in command. When one had the chance to discover something about their past, one could really understand that they were the sort of people from whom society should be protected. Later still I came to work in the stone quarry company which was building one of the crematoria of the concentration camp.
Every now and then I found people who were well intentioned towards me, but the condition of my health deteriorated steadily. I had no particular complaint, it was mainly weakness probably due to lack of food. I had no news from home, and was not allowed to write. It was, therefore, a great joy when, at the end of November, an inquiry came from Mary addressed to the commander of the camp. To begin with they were angry and shouted at me asking why I had not written home and when I explained I had not been allowed to, I was ordered to send off a letter that very night. To my great joy a new directive had been issued to the effect that prisoners were allowed to receive parcels of food and essential clothing from their homes. I wrote this to Mary and said that I could do with some boots and other things, and from that time onwards my health improved. While I was in Buchenwald Mary sent me a parcel every week, to the contents of which many kind friends contributed. I can say today with a clear conscience that it is to them that I owe thanks that I am still alive. I could hardly have survived the suffering and brutal treatment had it not been for this material support and the thoughts and prayers of so many who remembered me.
In the meantime, I was transferred to a different work team-the so-called sewerage and drainage squad. In this team we had to carry out all the drainage operations-that is to say, digging and closing ditches carrying heavy drain pipes and everything that went with it. I generally worked with bandaged hands because I was not very fit to do this work, but somehow I managed it despite great exhaustion. While working out of doors we were particularly exposed to all sorts of harassment by the SS men. They came and went and took the least opportunity to report us and subject us to beatings. During the first winter we had very thin coats which did not afford much protection. As soon as the sky was a little brighter we were ordered to take the coats off and we had to work in the freezing cold. Our day began in the morning at 4:30 and then we were given half a litre of coffee or the so-called morning soup which consisted of boiled bran. An hour later we had to stand for a roll call then the various columns marched to work.
About the tortures and ill treatment meted out to people I will say very little because this is now well known. I can only say that I personally experienced quite a bit of it but in the end by divine providence I was spared the worst.
In Buchenwald the prisoners had to carry out any work, clearing forests, constructing complete huts and factories. Any work between these operations, such as road construction, drainage, electrical engineering, was carried out by prisoners who eventually worked in the completed factories.
In June 1943 1 was put in a works store and eventually became in charge of it. Now I had a chance of achieving a certain personal independence -that is during the working hours of the day. There was a lot of unpleasantness now and then, but I did however manage to cope with it. In the concentration camp itself conditions deteriorated increasingly as so many prisoners came to Buchenwald, especially in the last winter, when the big camps in the East had to be cleared. In November, December and January they arrived in open coal trucks in which they had travelled from six to fourteen weeks. I cannot talk about the misery I have seen. Food was scanty, warm clothes were non-existent and travelling for weeks in an open railway truck without any sanitary arrangements-it is not surprising that many died. The camps were overcrowded so that in spite of all safety measures taken, the prisoners suffered from all sorts of illnesses and the death rate rose alarmingly. Added to this were the many atrocities to which we were subjected at the so-called roll calls. We had often to stand for hours till the result was correct or if anyone was missing till it had been established who it was or until he had been found. These roll calls cost many lives as no consideration was taken whether it was snowing or raining. There is much I could say about this, especially about what happened towards the end. Most of those who came from the camps in the East were again removed in March 1945, this time on foot since the railways were no longer running. Those who couldn't walk any more, or stepped aside, were shot en route. The corpses were left lying in the ditches. In this manner the population of the camp decreased to about 21 000 by the time the allied troops arrived.
The camp of Buchenwald was to be gassed and blown up. The orders for this were given by SS Brigade Tirlewanger, but by good fortune the Americans arrived more quickly than was expected. It was with peculiar feelings that I watched the arrival of the "enemy" who had come to liberate us. We started breathing again, and once more realized that we were human beings. The food which in that year had been particularly wretched, became very good since all the stores left behind by the SS had been given to the camp. After a further five weeks during which I assisted American officers in the Commission for releasing the prisoners. I arrived home in Pyrmont on Whit Sunday.
I must praise the Jehovah's Witnesses who, in spite of ridicule and persecution, held in the most wonderful way firmly to their beliefs. I am today of the opinion that we in Germany could only have come to such a state because the religious strength and the inner life of individuals were allowed to deteriorate. We will always find that the men and women who frankly confess their belief in their God without hesitation will be given the inner strength, even in these times, to hope for a better future.
As I left the camp it became perfectly clear to me that I had two great duties,, namely not to forget the 51 000 dead left in Buchenwald, and secondly to help show to the world that the German people are not what the Nazis and criminals made them appear to be.
Source: Reprinted from The Journal of Historical Review, vol. 2, no. 1, pp. 85-89.
Published with permission of and courtesy to the Institute for Historical Review (IHR).
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