Tour of Buchenwald Concentration Camp

View through open gate shows empty expanse of former camp

The photograph above shows the entrance into the former Buchenwald concentration camp through the iron gate of the gatehouse. This was one of several entrances. The sign on the gate can only be read from the inside. Unlike other Nazi concentration camps which had "Arbeit Macht Frei" (Work makes Freedom) over the entrance gate, the sign over the Buchenwald gate reads "Jedem Das Seine" which means "To Each His Own" or "Everyone gets what he Deserves.

The former Buchenwald concentration camp, as it looks today, is one of the most depressing sights I have ever seen in my whole life. It is mostly an empty, deserted expanse of gravel and black rocks which indicate where the barracks once stood; most of the buildings were burned down or blown up by the Soviet Union when they finally closed the camp in 1950, so that the little that remains has the feeling of an ancient Roman ruin.

Most of the other Nazi concentration camps that have been turned into memorial sites have beautiful monuments and places for religious worship or mourning on the grounds of the camp, but not Buchenwald. The only memorials inside the former camp are placed flat on the ground so that they are not noticeable as you first enter the camp. The two large monuments in honor of the victims are located at a distance of one kilometer from the actual camp.

According to the autobiography of Rudolf Höss, who was an adjutant at Sachsenhausen and the first Commandant at Auschwitz, non-political prisoners were sent to the concentrations camps in the early days for a six-month period and if they learned the value of work, they were released. This rule did not apply to hard core Communists and Social Democrats who were held indefinitely at Buchenwald.

For the celebration of Hitler's 50ieth birthday on April 20, 1939, there were 2,300 Buchenwald prisoners pardoned and released. Buchenwald was primarily a camp for political prisoners, which is reflected in the gate sign which does not promise freedom for working hard.

Another sign which used to be on the stucco walls of the gatehouse has been removed. This sign said "Recht oder Unrecht mein Vaterland." (My country, right or wrong.) This is an English expression which the Germans adopted.

Buchenwald was originally built to house 6,000 to 8,000 prisoners. There were 30 wooden barrack buildings and 15 two-story brick buildings like those in Auschwitz. All of these buildings were demolished by the Soviet Union after 1950.


Empty fields where barracks once stood, as shown in photograph

The camp was built on the northern slope of a gentle hill called the Ettersberg, so that all the prisoners had a view of the gatehouse from their barrack windows. In the foreground of the photo below, you can see the doors into the root cellar where potatoes, carrots, turnips and rutabagas were kept for the prisoners' food. The prisoners' diet consisted mainly of whole grain bread and vegetable soup. One of the survivors said that the prisoners were served whole potatoes with the peeling still on. Each prisoner carried his soup spoon in his pocket; the enamel ware soup bowls on display in the Buchenwald Museum are the size of an American serving bowl.

In the center of the photo below is where the barracks once stood.

Gatehouse overlooks the spot where barracks once stood

Polish Prisoners in 1940 had to have their heads shaved to control lice

The old photo above shows what the barracks looked like when the camp was in operation.

An electrified barbed fire fence surrounded the camp with 22 guard towers spaced at regular intervals. Only two of the guard towers are still intact, with the ruins of two other towers still standing. The photo below shows the fence that is to the left as you enter the camp through the gate house.

Electrified fence with prisoner's canteen to the right

In front of the fence was a strip of rocks and then a strip of grass, called the neutral zone, which the prisoners were forbidden to step on. The picture above shows the fence and one of the guard towers in the background. The red-roofed building to the right in the picture was the prisoner's canteen. Here the prisoners could buy cigarettes or personal items with the camp money that they earned by working, or with money they received from relatives outside the camp. A sign at the Canteen says it's purpose was for the Nazis to get all the prisoners' money.

The electric fence around the perimeter of the camp was approximately three kilometers in total length and width. Each of the 22 towers outside the fence was manned with three sentries. They were authorized to shoot any prisoner who got within 30 meters of the fence, and hundreds of prisoners were shot while attempting to escape. Sentries also patrolled the path around the outside of the camp.

One of the two guard towers still standing at east entrance gate

Another view of the same guard tower

At the end of 1942, a quarantine camp was set up on the west side, far down the slope and north of the gate house. The quarantine camp was called Camp II by the SS, but the prisoners nicknamed it the "Small Camp."

At first, Camp II consisted of 12 army horse stables of the kind used for barracks at Birkenau, the notorious death camp in what is now Poland. These buildings had only very small windows underneath the roof, not like the other barracks in Buchenwald which had lots of windows at eye level.

Prisoners who arrived at Buchenwald had to live in the quarantine camp temporarily as a health measure in the effort to stop epidemics. A barbed wire fence separated the Small Camp from the main camp. In 1945, it became increasingly overcrowded as Jewish prisoners were brought from the abandoned camps in what is now Poland.

Two of the most famous inmates of the Small Camp were Elie Wiesel and his father, both of whom survived the death march from Auschwitz-Birkenau when that camp was abandoned in January 1945 due to the advance of the Russian army. Between 1,200 and 1,700 people were packed into each barrack which measured 40 meters long by 9.5 meters wide. When the barracks were full, the prisoners were crowded into tents. Thousands of people died of disease in the Small Camp, including Elie Wiesel's father; in 1944 and 1945, it became increasingly a camp where sick and dying prisoners were isolated.

The prisoners in the main camp treated the Small Camp prisoners with contempt; the gate into the main camp was controlled by the Communist political prisoners who demanded bribes to let people pass. Even after the liberation, the Small Camp prisoners were not allowed to mingle with the others, and were not invited to the celebration ceremony for the liberation.

The picture below shows a stone path in the Quarantine camp that had been recently uncovered by excavation in 1999. In the background of the photo, you can see the storehouse and disinfection building.

Site of the "Small Camp" with storehouse in background

In the early days of the camp, there was a soccer field in the square in front of the canteen. When temporary barracks were built there for the Jews, the sports field moved to the spot where the Small Camp was later built.

According to The Buchenwald Report, soccer was the main sport, but the prisoners also played handball, volleyball, rounders and even basketball. After the Small Camp was built on the sports field, a new field was created in the forest near the gardening area. There were several teams organized and they played against each other for championships. There were also boxing matches held in the movie theater, and some of the inmates even practiced gymnastics in the theater. The only thing lacking in Buchenwald was a swimming pool like the one in Auschwitz.

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