Geoff Walden

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Buchenwald Concentration Camp

   One of the major Nazi concentration camps was set up in 1937 at Buchenwald, on the Ettersberg Hill near Weimar in Thüringen. Buchenwald remained one of the major camps throughout the history of the Third Reich, with numerous subcamps under its administration. Buchenwald was not, per se, an extermination camp (such as Auschwitz), but prisoners were starved, maltreated, and worked to death in the camp quarry and adjacent armaments factories. Russian POWs and others were executed and cremated. Buchenwald was also made infamous by Ilse Koch, wife of camp commandant Karl Koch. Frau Koch had a fancy for prisoners' tattoos, and would often have these flayed from the victims and preserved, sometimes as lampshades. Jews and Gypsies were transported from Buchenwald to extermination camps further east, for annihilation. Later, as these camps were overrun by the Soviet Army, prisoners were crammed into Buchenwald, some 13,000 of whom died during three months in 1945 alone. The total death toll at Buchenwald may never be known, but it was at least 51,000.

   The camp was liberated by the U.S. Army on 11 April 1945, when the American soldiers found that the inmates had already taken the camp over after most of the SS guards fled, and were organizing its surrender. Buchenwald was one of the first glimpses that Americans had of the horrors of the concentration camp system. After the war the Soviets used Buchenwald as a "Special Camp" for German and other political prisoners, some 7100 of whom died there from 1945-1950.  (follow the links at the bottom of the page for location information and maps)  (MapQuest Map Link)

Warning: This page contains somewhat gruesome photos of concentration camp victims.

 

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Most prisoners arrived by rail at the Buchenwald Bahnhof, a short distance from the camp.  (Gedenkstätte Buchenwald)

 

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From the train station, prisoners were marched through the SS headquarters area, then through the gatehouse into the camp section. This photo shows the gatehouse soon after liberation in April 1945.  (U.S. Army photo)

 

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Iron gates of the gatehouse, looking out toward the SS headquarters buildings, in 1945 and today. Each prisoner passed through these gates, labeled "Jedem Das Seine," which can be translated as "To Each His Own," in contrast to most concentration camp gates, which said "Arbeit Macht Frei" - "Work Makes You Free."  (Gedenkstätte Buchenwald)

 

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The infamous quarry, where thousands of prisoners were worked to death.  (Gedenkstätte Buchenwald)

 

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The bodies of the dead prisoners were taken to the crematorium.  (Gedenkstätte Buchenwald)

 

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When the U.S. Army liberated the camp in April 1945, they found many bodies stacked outside the crematorium.  (Gedenkstätte Buchenwald)

 

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The crematorium ovens as found by the Americans in April 1945.  (U.S. Army Signal Corps photo)

Today the ovens serve as a memorial to their victims.

 

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These two photos, taken by the famous Life Magazine photographer Margaret Bourke-White, show the contents of the Buchenwald ovens when they were discovered by the Americans.  (TimePics collection)
(see also Margaret Bourke-White, "Dear Fatherland, Rest Quietly" (New York, Simon and Schuster, 1946)

 

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Camp headquarters and administration buildings, just outside the gatehouse.  (Gedenkstätte Buchenwald)

These buildings were severely damaged in a bombing attack on 24 August 1944.

 

These photos from the United States Strategic Bombing Survey collection show the bombing attack on 24 August 1944. On the left, before the attack - the inmates' camp appears at the upper right, with the SS compound in a semi-circle (and the adjacent buildings), and the Gutsloff armament factory - the actual target - at the lower right. In the center, bombs are hitting the Gutsloff complex and the SS compound. On the right, the resulting damage - the Gutsloff complex was heavily damaged, but several bombs, including incendiaries, also fell on the inmates' camp. Some estimates of inmate casualties from this attack number as high as 8000.  (National Archives, RG 342-FH, 3A22603, 3A22601, 3A22604)

 

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SS buildings - barracks for the band and arsenal.
(Gedenkstätte Buchenwald)

These buildings are among the ruins
that can be found on the site today.

 

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SS Commandant's quarters, built for SS-Sturmbannführer Karl Koch, commandant from 1937-1941.  (Gedenkstätte Buchenwald)

Haus Buchenwald and nearby additional SS housing can be found in ruins on the site today. The modern photo on the left shows the same view as the period photo - the front retaining wall. The other photo shows stone stairs and the basement and garage foundations. An air raid shelter was beneath.

 

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Koch had a zoo built for the enjoyment of the SS guards and their families. The zoo was located immediately outside the fence, where the prisoners could look over into a completely different world.  (Gedenkstätte Buchenwald)

 

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A well-known site in the prisoner camp was the "Goethe Oak," said to have been a favorite visiting spot for the poet when he lived in nearby Weimar. At that time, the Ettersberg Hill was in a wilderness area, and this spot afforded an overlook across the valleys to the north.  (Gedenkstätte Buchenwald)

The tree was located beside the prisoners' laundry. It was hit by an incendiary bomb during the August 1944 air raid. The laundry building no longer remains, but the storehouse seen behind it in the period photo now serves as the Camp Museum. The stump of the Goethe Oak can still be seen on this side of the storehouse.

 

Gedenkstätte Buchenwald webpage -- http://www.buchenwald.de/

Memorial Museums for the Victims of National Socialism in Germany -- http://212.68.78.12/gfue/index.html

Buchenwald Liberation Controversy  --  http://www.koch-athene.de/6th/weimar-buchenwald/bu-hot1.htm

Other concentration camp sites  --  Dachau, Dora (Nordhausen), Sachsenhausen, Flossenbürg, S/III Jonastal, Mauthausen (includes Gusen), Ebensee (Austria)

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All contents copyright © 2000-2014, Geoffrey R. Walden; all rights reserved.  All photos taken by or 
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This page initially uploaded on 20 July 2000.


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