Going on holiday with me can be a thrill-a-minute, side-splitting, bundle-of-laughs…sometimes. Other times it can be a sedate, sombre and sober experience.
Germany has culture in abundance, scenery to take your breath away, some of the best beer in the world, and centuries of history to ponder over. Some of that history though, is rather uncomfortable and unpleasant, but then, so is much of the history of mankind (not to mention the present and I have no doubt, future).
And so it was that driving from Eisanach to Dresden, we decided to stop for a few hours at a little place near Weimar. Weimar itself has a story or two to tell, but we weren’t listening. We drove right through and on up the heavily wooded hill to a place called Buchenwald.
A Brief History
Situated 8km north of Weimar (in Thuringia), Buchenwald was one of the largest concentration camps on German home soil, having around 130 satellite camps. The first inmates arrived in July 1937, and were mostly political and criminal prisoners, although some 10,000 or so Jews were detained after ‘Kristallnacht’ in 1938.
After the outbreak of war, large numbers of new inmates arrived, most notably Poles and later Soviet pows. Eventually, with the setting up of armament factories, the camp was ‘home’ to some 86,000 unfortunate souls. In total, from 1937 to 1945, over 238,000 prisoners passed through through Buchenwald and its associated camps. That’s not strictly accurate – around 50,000 of them didn’t pass through, they died (or were killed). This figure for deaths does not include the many thousands of inmates subsequently transferred to Auschwitz where, it’s safe to assume, very few survived.
The camp was liberated by US forces (although the communist underground had already taken control by then) on April 11 1945. After 1945, it was used by the Soviet army to hold political prisoners, including former Nazis. From 1945-1950, about 28,000 people were imprisoned, over 7,000 of whom died.
In 1947, 31 former nazi staff members were tried by an American court. Two were given death sentences, and four sentenced to life imprisonment.
The location chosen for this camp was in many ways a strange one. Some of Weimar’s former residents included such cultural luminaries as: Goethe, Schiller, Franz Liszt, and Bach – what better place to practice some nazi bestiality!
Driving through Weimar and on up the hill, the camp would be invisible, cloaked as it is in dense woodland, and almost impossible to find. However, a massive monument called the Bell Tower helps to guide you in the right direction. It’s also well signposted.
Buchenwald covers a large area, but much of it is taken over by the former SS barracks and administrative buildings which are located outside the main compound. This is where the car park is and also various other facilities such as: a book store, information centre, cafeteria and toilets. A short film can be viewed here twice daily. A short walk leads you to the main gate. There is NO entrance fee.
Arbeit Macht Frei?
Apparently not at Buchenwald. Unlike most other nazi concentration camps, the sign on the gates here (which reads from the inside rather than as you enter) states, ‘Jedem Das Seine’ – ‘To Each His Own’. I think this is in the context of something like, ‘everyone gets what they deserve’.
Entering the camp is quite striking. Instead of the row-upon-row of huts which you would normally expect, there is nothing. A bleak expanse of gravel is all that meets your eye with just a couple of buildings in the furthermost extremities. The barracks were demolished when the Soviets closed the camp down in the 1950s. Any memorials, such as there are, are at ground level and not readily visible (most memorials to the victims are located at the Bell Tower, around 1km distant). Pretty much the only evidence of what stood here are the foundations of the various buildings and some bits-n-pieces of rubble such as broken tiles etc.
Just outside the wire, adjacent to the main gate, lie the remains of a zoo. How cruelly ironic that the human inmates could gaze at the animals in the zoo who probably had a more comfortable life than they did.
The Storehouse is/was the largest building in the camp and is now home to the museum. The displays mainly consist of artifacts which were personal possessions such as: food bowls, combs, shoes etc. There are very few photographs because many were apparently destroyed during an Allied bombing raid and subsequent fire in 1944. It’s not the most comprehensive, or for that matter, the most heart-rending of Holocaust museums, but it’s still quite poignant and melancholy nevertheless.
The Art Gallery is housed in the former disinfection building. Apparently, Zyklon-B was one of the disinfection agents used here – of course it was used in a more sinister fashion at Auschwitz. As you would expect, most of the exhibitions here are the work of former inmates and there’s a large collection of charcoal sketches – perhaps the most readily recognisable art-form associated with the Holocaust. Personally, I usually find these drawings somehow more depressing and dark than photographs, no matter how graphic. There are also various sculptures and free-standing work – most of it is morbid and oppressive, but there are some lighter works too.
The Crematorium and Mortuary still survive, albeit in a reconstructed form. However, this doesn’t diminish the powerful sense of dread imposed by them. The room where the ovens are situated is remarkably light and airy considering its purpose. of course Buchenwald was never a death camp like Birkenau or Sorbibor. Yes, many thousands of people were cruelly murdered or killed through neglect/disease/hunger, but that was more of a by-product of the system than a deliberate attempt at annihilation. Experiments were carried out on human guinea-pigs here though. Things like testing the effects of phosphorous bombs, poisons, and exotic diseases, so it was hardly a 4-star resort.
Buchenwald was first and foremost a place where ‘enemies of the state’ were interred – communists and criminals in the main, most of the jews passing through did exactly that, passed through. When you think about it, in the eight years it was in operation, only 50,000 people died. Only? For me, that sums up the enormity and incomprehensibility of the holocaust. The fact that we can use a word like ‘only’ when talking about 50,000 murders.
Built into the hill below the Store House is the museum for Special Camp No2. This is a modern building (having opened in 1997) and is dedicated to the period after the fall of nazi Germany when the Soviet Union were in control. For 4 years, more ‘enemies of the state’, the state this time being the communists, were interred under possibly even worse conditions. The interior of the building somehow reflects this communist theme, with different shades of grey dominating and stone and steel cabinets making it feel more like a monument to industry than imprisonment. It’s jam-packed with all sorts of information, in fact, far too much to absorb in the short time we were there. The fact that almost all of it is only in German certainly doesn’t help matters.
In conclusion, Buchenwald is worthy of a visit by anyone who wants to keep in touch with their humanity. It’s also beneficial to remind oneself just how low the human race can, and all to often does, sink. It’s not a fun day out, but it’s a worthwhile experience. I’ve visited a few concentration camps sites now: this one, Auschwitz, Dachau and Mauthausen. I don’t think Buchenwald can compare to Auschwitz/Birkenau, but then, what possibly could? But it has a similar feel to the other two, which is not surprising really as all three had a similar function, a similar cross-section of inmates, and remarkably similar death-tolls.
I hesitate to say I enjoyed my visit there, interesting might be a better description. I was glad I went, but I was even more glad to leave.