Buchenwald: Memory and Memorial

Buchenwald: A “Normal” Horror

In the summer of 2011, while studying World War 2 abroad throughout Europe, I had an opportunity to visit a concentration camp. It left an impression on me that I have struggled to define and fully understand. I thought that taking this class on genocide would help me in some way to “unpack” those experiences of which I will late speak. I also found this blog assignment a good outlet for my trip to this camp. The camp I speak of is none other than that of Buchenwald, located in Weimar, Germany. Obviously it still stands today, but it looks much different than it did nearly 70 years ago. Many have come to this place since its liberation, though not as prisoners, but as visitors to an historical site. Far fewer returned to Buchenwald, already having an extensive memory of a place where they once were held. Obviously I was a member of the first group and my memories of the place are bound to be much different, but the fact remains that I have memories of this place. I feel that this is the point of such places. These places must be visited in order to at least scratch the surface of those things which we simply cannot describe. Those who were not involved within the event must still know and have a memory of this place. I draw on the words of Alex Moskovic, “ I have certain responsibilities to the world, as a survivor of the Holocaust”[1] Just as he claims to have a responsibility to the world, to share his story, I too have the same responsibility as all who have visited these places do, to share that death cannot ever have the last word, so that the memory of what went on here will never fade away. This then is me in part fulfilling my own obligation. There is something to be said of seeing and touching a place. Reading and viewing pictures is one thing, but standing and touching for yourself gives you a better sense of things. It almost helps fill in the gaps that are left by words. From my experiences I have noticed a great deal of normalcy within the context of this atrocity. My memory today is that of a normal looking place, as some of my photos will show, in the present that will always hold with it an historical memory of death and atrocity.

It is very easy to say that these places were evil and get wrapped up in the emotions of it all, but what does that really do for us?  As historians we must do our best to distance ourselves from our emotions to get a more objective view of these places. At the same time though, how does a human being separate themselves from places that are often defined by the most extremes of human emotion and very often in the most negative of ways? It is a very tricky thing to accomplish, but I have tried my best to do so, but certain areas lend themselves well to emotion and certainly having visited Buchenwald, the emotions it drew from me are important to the story. With the backdrop then as Buchenwald, I will examine sets of photos, two taken following the liberation of the camp, and two taken during my visit there in June 2011. These photos are of the same general features, one of the crematorium and one of the barracks. The photos from 1945 are juxtaposed against the ones of 2011. I have also included photos from other significant “landmarks” around the camp that I feel are important to the overall story of Buchenwald. In addition to these photos, I use testimonies from both survivors of the camp as well as liberators and visiting journalists. I draw mainly on conversations/interviews done by Dr. Sidney Bolkosky in conjunction with the University of Michigan-Dearborn from the Voice/Vision Holocaust Survivor Oral History Archive, as well as testimonies from the film Kinderblock 66 Through this then, I have found that the images of these places may change through time, but the overarching memory they hold with them will forever remain unaltered as long as we keep the story of what happened here alive.

Concentration Camps

To fully build the picture (no pun intended) of Buchenwald, we must start with its history. What is rather interesting then about Buchenwald is that it is relatively young as concentration camps go. What is also interesting is that its role or rather the Nazi’s usage of it, changed drastically throughout the 1930’s and 1940’s. What began as a work prison for criminals of the German Nazi state would eventually grow into one of great horror stories of World War two. The story of Buchenwald begins in the tail end of the 1930’s. But before we go any further the way camps were setup must be addressed. There were two types of camps within the Nazi camp system, the concentration camp and the death camp. The latter was found entirely in Poland, outside of Germany proper. This can be attributed to the Nazi attitude of the Jewish population as a whole. They sought to rid their territories of these subhuman “vermin”. These camps were built after the German invasion of Poland in 1939. They served to eradicate the Jew as well as other “sub-humans” and dissidents from the face of the Earth. More times than not, train loads of Jews would arrive from across Europe to places such as Auschwitz, Treblinka, Sobibor, or Belzec, and never set foot in the camp itself, but rather were directly marched ultimately to their deaths in the gas chambers. The second type of camp, the concentration camp served another purpose. These camps were used to house forces of slave labor. That is not to say that death camps did not also incorporate this labor force, but concentration camps focused more on work than on execution. That is not to say that violence of this sort was not present here, but the scale did not compare to that of the death camps. Many concentration camps existed within Germany as early as 1933. Their roles were much different though then the camps we see as the war came to an end in 1945. These camps were setup to house criminals of the state, though that definition was much different at this point. Basically they were to hold political dissidents who were opposed to the Nazi party. It was not until after Kristallnacht (Night of the Broken Glass) in November 1938, that Jewish prisoners began to appear in these camps and it was not until 1944 as the Allied forces began to close in on Germany’s borders that Jewish people began to become the predominant prisoners at these camps.

Buchenwald’s History

Back to Buchenwald then; its history begins in July of 1937. Buchenwald is situated on a mountain just outside of the city of Weimar in the Thuringia region of Germany, which is a very central location in relation to the rest of Germany. It was initially used to house two main types of criminals, political criminals, mainly communists, and those deemed professional criminals.[2] These men were here because they had served prior prison sentences but showed no signs of rehabilitation. They were in essence deemed “unsaveable” and this was a last resort to keep them out of society. Buchenwald began its existence as an actual prison to house those who had actually done wrong, but that definition of “wrong” was soon to change. It can be noted that the majority of these earlier prisoners were German but this would soon change.[3]  The amplification of the war would lead to major changes within the ethnic makeup of Buchenwald. Treatment of prisoners at Buchenwald was anything but good, but only worsened as the camp numbers became larger and the Nazi campaign across Europe grew in strength. As the Nazi blitzkrieg, lightning warfare, raged across Europe, many different nationalities found themselves imprisoned within the electrified barbed wire of Buchenwald. It really became an international camp as Poles, Czechs, French, and Soviet prisoners were brought to the camp.[4] Not to diminish the experience of those interred in the camp in its early years, but my focus is more on the experience of the latter years when it became more crowded and heinous. As Niven states, those imprisoned in the early years had a much better chance of survival than those in the final chaotic months.[5] This is due in no small part to what these prisoners were used for. They were a massive force of slave labor used to build weapons for the Nazi war machine, in particular the V2rocket, towards the later stages of the war, which was used to terrorize civilian populations in cities such as London and Antwerp.

The Buchenwald Zoo stands as a feature of normalcy that one would not except in the vicinity of a concentration camp, nor within the camp itself, yet there it was. Built as entertainment for the SS guards who were stationed at Buchenwald and their families, it housed many exhibits, but none so striking as that of the bear exhibit. Now this exhibit itself is not very striking as zoos everywhere have bears. The location of the exhibit is what makes it so interesting. It is located directly across from the crematorium. As seen from my photo, what remains of the exhibit is no more than a stone’s throw away. The line between normal and atrocity here is literally marked by barbed wire. One wonders then, if people from Weimar, who had to have visited the zoo, ever saw the smoke billowing from the crematorium and knew why and where it was really coming from. The SS guards themselves were too symbols of the norm. As a singer in Weimar, whom regularly entertained the men noted, “They were normal people.”[6] From her impressions of the SS guards, she clearly never knew just what these men were doing up the hill at Buchenwald. To her they were just regular soldiers, regular people, just doing the job they were asked. The truth however could not have been further from her assumption.

The way the prison was run is something that also bears investigation. SS guards aside, there was a hierarchy within the camp among the prisoners. As was the Nazi way, everyone was given a designation. This came in the form of a triangle. The color dictated why you were in Buchenwald and also in an unofficial way designated ones rank among the prisoners. Green designated one as a criminal prisoner, whereas red was a political prisoner. They generally were at the top of the hierarchy and held the best chances for survival.[7] Their position among the top of the prisoner hierarchy meant they were often the ones in charge of individual barrack, known as Kapos. Underneath them were all the rest of the prisoners, yellow indicated those of Jewish heritage, Pink, indicated sexual criminals which almost always meant homosexuals and blue and purple which indicated foreign forced laborers and religious criminal who were not Jewish, mainly Jehovah’s Witnesses respectively. As the Nazi’s campaign began to crumble and their forces retreated, the work rate and death toll rose. In its final months, the focus on work seemed to diminish and the focus on eradication began to intensify. Even in its final days, as Allied forces closed in on Germany and the eventual downfall of the Third Reich, SS guards went about their “business” as if there was no danger to their own lives. As stated before, Buchenwald is located in central Germany in the region of Thuringia.

This region once stood as the cultural and intellectual hearth of German culture. Following World War 1, the short lived    Weimar Republic drew its name from the city in this region. Among other things, the great German poet Wolfgang Goethe sought inspiration on these hills on which Buchenwald is situated. What is even more interesting is that the famous tree under which he composed so many of his masterpieces, the renowned Goethe Oak, sits within the barbed wire confines of Buchenwald. One ponders how such a symbol of culture and sophistication can reside within a place all but devoid of the most basic aspects of humanity. The main gate of Buchenwald is something that all whom entered the camp would inevitably have to see. It then served a purpose in the mindset of those who came to reside within Buchenwald. Inscribed on the top of the gate are the words, “Jedem das Siene.” Literally translated it means “to each his own”, a more fitting translation is “to each his own fate.” It is a scary thing to think as one enters the gates, that this is your ultimate fate, to be brutally exploited and killed by those who view you as subhuman. It seems to me that the Nazi’s wanted the prisoners here to believe thatwhat was happening to them was predetermined by some higher power, and there was ultimately nothing they could do about it. This stands as a chilling reminder of the feeling one gets when they enter the camp I have included a photo of this for reference.

Survivor and Liberator Testimonies

Buchenwald is truly a place that no human being can ever truly understand unless they lived within its walls. I have been asked as to why do we need these testimonies, in the context of this paper. I conclude that they are just as important to the telling of my story, because they fill in the gaps left by photos and what they do not and cannot show. Pictures are only the “frame work” because of who took them and when in relation to where they were taken. We very rarely, if at all, have photos of these places taken  during atrocities by perpetrators. Because of this we only see the structures and the aftermath, never the event itself. These testimonies then are the in-fillers for these photographs. No one aspect can give as the full picture. To get the closet sense that we can of what happened here we must combined photo and testimony as well as memory. Returning then to personal accounts we being our journey.  As a liberating American solider, Captain Frederic Keffer said in a letter after Buchenwald’s liberation, “I couldn’t possibly describe it. I looked back on it; it seems like some crazy dream out of this world.”[8]  The famous journalist Edward R Morrow also visited Buchenwald. His reaction was much the same. The stink was beyond all description… I saw it but will not describe it, when speaking of the death and those in its grasp. He later went on to say, I reported what I saw and heard, but only part of it. For most of it, I have no words.[9] I now turn to the accounts given by survivors of Buchenwald. What is interesting about the accounts taken from survivors is their lack of chronological flow and even in places lack of a cohesive thought or idea. The survivors seem to recount their experiences in a way that fits with our understandings of memory. This also could be due to translation issues as many of these people do not speak English as a first language and also in part due to the fact that they are recounting things from across a vast expanse of time. 40 or more years had passed at the time of their interviews and time can do much to the sharpness of one’s memory.. Their goal is clearly stated as, rescuing fragments of fragments of memory.[10] The wording is rather interesting and shows that over time the smaller details of events begin to fade away. 40 years after the fact, only a small fraction of the many experiences, in this case from Buchenwald, are still able to be remembered. These stand out then, as I see it, to be the most profound of their experiences, the things that stand out from the norm, all be it a very frightening and horrendous norm. Our first testimony comes from Sam Seltzer, which was done in November 1982. He details how desperate the food situation was within Buchenwald. In his story he recounts how a group of boys around his age came upon a leather conveyor belt in a factory. The food situation at Buchenwald being what it was, the boys sought to alleviate their hunger by consuming, or rather intending to consume bits of that leather. They never were able to as it was discovered and brought to the attention of the SS guards. All the boys discarded their pieces of leather, but Sam kept his. He remembers being scared for his life, saying that “I [he] was stupid and could have been killed for that.”[11] The next testimony comes from Abraham Pasternak in August 1984. He speaks mainly about the sanitary conditions, or lack thereof, and the great abundance of disease. He says that a great deal of prisoners were infected with lice and that diseases such as typhus were ever present, though the way he intertwines these two it may be that he mixes up the questions or is confused by them. One story he tells is particularly distressing. He recounts standing in front of a garbage can that held items such as potato peels and leftover bits of cabbage. Things we would never dare to touch or eat became means of survival. He goes on further to recount the words of who he presumed to be a German Kapo with his dog. The German remarked that even his dog would not eat this things to which he replied that he wished he was treated as well as the dog.[12] We can clearly establish just how lowly these prisoners were viewed, if even the dog of another non-Jewish inmate received better and more humane treatment than that of a Jewish prisoner. Another account comes from Saul Raimi, taken in July of 1982. Again we hear of the desperate situation within the camp. We get another mention of typhus and he talks of the camp as being overcrowded, being packed in like herring in a can.[13] Another survivor, Istvan Katona, a Hungarian Jew, recounts the meager amounts of food prisoners were given, The food was tea in the morning, soup for lunch and a piece of bread with a tiny bit of margarine, sausage or jam [one of these on different days] for dinner. We were constantly hungry, not knowing that this is only the beginning.[14] As an electrician, Istvan received better food rations than other prisoners because they were often called upon to fix things that broke within the camp. Even so the amount of food they received is very miniscule in comparison to that which we eat every day. One wonders how inmates of lesser standing fared on such meager rations of food. One last story from Katona is a rather cruel one, but one that we have come to expect from such a cruel place. He tells of a game the guards would play with inmates. SS guards would throw the hats of prisoners at the electrified fence surrounding Buchenwald. They would then order the prisoners to retrieve them. If the prisoners were not electrified by the fence, they would be shot on the spot as runaways.[15]

My Photographs

Photographs are a way to capture what words simply cannot. They serve as a medium to capture, in this case, that which is impossible to define. The old cliché fits perfectly here; a picture truly is worth a thousand words. I did not live through the horrors that made Buchenwald infamous. I have only visited the camp 6 decades after it was liberated, but yet I felt an inundated sense of sorrow the moment I entered the camp. Why is this? All the physical signs of death and destruction had long since been removed. The camp was not littered with piles of decaying corpses and the air did not stink of death, but still the feeling remained. Though I am not trying to categorize myself with those who survived, I most certainly do not wish to disrespect them in this way, but I find myself in the same situation as them. I find it very hard to describe this place in its true nature. This is where photographs and genocide stand hand in hand. They can tell us things about genocide that we cannot learn through words. I have chosen 4 photographs to analyze, 2 taken by me during my visit and 2 taken shortly after the camps liberation in 1945. I tried, and succeeded I believe, in using photographs that were similar across time. That is to same I tried to find a photo from 1945 that was similar to those I had taken. I will let you judge me to this point as the pictures are provided. What I found with many of my pictures is that I stressed the same things that past photographers had without ever seen these other photos before working on this project. I struggled with why this was. I think it is because our eyes were both drawn to things that we equated with suffering of this place, the symbols that became synonymous with the death and destruction at Buchenwald.  I therefore chose to focus on two things that I felt affected me the most, the barracks, or lack thereof today, and the ovens within the crematorium. I will work chronologically here starting with the photos from 1945 and arriving at the ones taken by myself in 2011.

The first photograph is that of the inmate barracks. It was taken in 1945, but I could find no information as to the photographer. From the looks of the camp and the date, April 1945, as well as information within the title I would say it was taken by an American, a soldier, as it would have been much too soon for journalists to have reached the camp. The title indicates this with the words “at liberation”. After looking over the photo, the evidence would suggest that it was in fact an American photo. This photo as will all photos has strengths and weakness. The major weakness of this particular image is that it contains no human beings. This is problematic as humans are such a large portion of the subject of genocide. That being said, one does not need humans to feature in this photo to understand the implications behind it. The barracks look very normal and unassuming. Without prior knowledge of what one was seeing they could easily be confused for something much less ominous such college dormitories. It is not until one is made known the background story behind this image that the true nature of the buildings becomes clear. The buildings are merely a shell for the suffering that went on inside of them. In the top right corner of the photo, a building stands much in the same way as the barracks. Again without prior knowledge this could be seen as an office building or maybe a school. It is fact however, the camps medical facility. It is here that test subjects, human guinea pigs, were subjected to many unspeakable medical experiments. It is here that lampshades made from human skin were found, as well as shrunken human heads, “artwork” of tattoos cut from human skin, and preserved human tissue, were extracted from prisoners of Buchenwald.[16]

The next photo is that taken by myself during my visit to Buchenwald. It is of relatively the same area, though it looks much different as many years have passed since the first photograph and mine. The barracks have disappeared and few buildings still stand, having been torn down in subsequent years following the liberation of the camp for sanitary purposes. All that is left are the foundations of what once housed thousands of prisoners. They are each still numbered as the originally had been. The barrack in question is number 11. While this number really has no significance to me, it surely means a great deal for whomever resided within this building. The buildings themselves may be gone, but the memory of the events here certainly is not. I think the foundations serve as a reminder of this. While the people and structures, for the most part, have disappeared, the “foundation” of the events that took place here from 1937-1945 still linger just as the foundations of buildings do. They stand as a reminder that though manmade structures can be destroyed, the memories of the manmade events that took place here are not so easily eroded. As long as the story is retold, this place will remain as a testament to those who never returned from it.

My second set of images is much more emotionally evoking than the first. They deal with an aspect of the camp that was directly involved with death and destruction. These are none other than the ovens contained within the Buchenwald crematorium. Again I will look at them chronologically. The first photo was taken upon liberation of the camp but by who is unclear. I would assume that since it was upon liberation, that it was an allied soldier or journalist who snapped this picture. As these things were supposed to remain hidden I doubt any SS guard would have taken these sorts of pictures. You can clearly see the remains of a human being, though as to whether it is a man of woman or child you just do not know. But does the identity of this person really matter? It is the remains of a human being, who never should have been here in the first place. You only can see 1 oven clearly and a bit of a second, but there are 4 more in the room. You cannot know if they too have remains, but you get the sense there is a great possibility they do. Once again you do not see people, remains aside, and I think this has a lot to do with what you are looking at. These are not the types of photos that one would expect to see others, posing or otherwise, especially since it is likely that these are photos taken by Allied troops. You clearly make out the fact that the oven contains human remains, but you don’t get these is great detail.

My second image, of the same oven reveals much more. My information on the photo states that it was taken by the US Army, though beneath it is writing in French. I’m not sure what to make of this but I don’t think in this case the source matters, as it was a member of the Allies taking the photo. This is a closer view of the body within the oven. You can see that a significant amount of the bones remain, but as the bones are upside down it is harder to distinguish what you are seeing. If the imaged is rotated 180 degrees the image becomes a bit more clear. You can see the face of whoever this person was. You can clearly see the spaces where eyes once viewed the world. You can clearly see a mouth that once laughed and talked amongst friends and a nose which once smelled the crisp spring air. Seeing human remains this way is very powerful and moving. You can almost make out an expression on this persons face. It is a very fitting expression of terror, pain, and anguish, things that we remember most about these camps.

Using the word oven is something also I feel that need to be discussed. When said normally it seems like such an unassuming innocent word. We use ovens every day to cook our food and sometimes in the winter to heat our cabins up north. How then do we make the transition from something so useful and beneficial to that of an instrument used in the perpetration of genocide? It really makes no sense, and perhaps this fits in with the overall issue of genocide. It too makes no sense to those looking back on it, and even less sense to those on whom it was done. Scholarship has tried to make sense of the acts of genocide, but can we really understand it? We may understand that this certain thing happened here at this time, but how can we understand the true nature of what took place if we did not live through it ourselves and even then do those who lived through it have a full understanding? As on survivor of Buchenwald, Naftali-Duro Furst stated, “ I ask for forgiveness for putting into words things that cannot be described.”[17] Even those who lived through them often times cannot accurately describe what they went through as another Buchenwald survivor, Pavel Kohn said, “To communicate it for me is impossible”[18]. We scholars want to know about something that survivors either struggle to talk about or simply cannot speak of. So here, we have arrived at what I feel is a major problem within the scholarship on genocide. Both the survivors and their accounts are needed as well as the scholars and their insight on what the survivors experienced, but often times meshing these two together simply does not work. Survivors may not want nor have to ability to communicate their experiences and scholars may not have the abilities to fully comprehend the stories told by survivors. It is a quagmire that because of which we will never truly understand this all too common phenomenon.

The second image is my own, again taken during my visit to Buchenwald in June 2011. For obvious reasons, my eye was drawn to the ovens. Again I had not seen the counterpart image from 1945 before beginning this paper. These ovens, just as with the barracks, are a symbol of the unspeakable acts that took place at Buchenwald. I can say with almost complete certainty that my pictures are of the same ovens as the ones taken in 1945. While clearly you can see that the bones have been removed, not a job I envy, you can see remnants of some ashes left in this oven. This is a very chilling thought indeed. More than 60 years have passed since that original photo was taken, and yet remains of that final victim and surely many others still lie within this oven. What then is the purpose of leaving these ovens intact? Why do these symbols of death and sorrow still stand? My experiences tell me that they are here for emotional value. They are to bring about emotional responses in those who view them, so that they too cannot leave this place unaffected by what they have seen here. On top of all that, they are a memorial to the countless dead who will never be accounted for and whose remains will never be found. They are a tombstone of sorts to those who succumb to the tyranny and horror brought about by the Nazi regime.

Bringing it together

What is interesting about these photos is their relation to normalcy. With regards firstly to the buildings, as stated before, they look very unassuming and carry with them no connotation of terror or tragedy. This is rather profound. One would expect the facilities and instruments of genocide to be frightening and intimidating even before their background story is revealed. This is not the case at all. They appear to be places that we see and use every day. They don’t look menacing and they don’t immediately frighten. It is not until they are put into the context of the event, The Holocaust, that they take on a terrifying significance. The same is true with the ovens within the crematorium. While it is harder to see these in the same light as the barracks, they too are not frightening, though rather confusing when taken out of the context of the concentration camp. The bear exhibit and the zoo in general is another fine example of this. Though they played no part in murder, they were a part of the lives of both prisoner and guard, as well as civilian. This area for recreation and relaxation was within the camp itself and only a stone’s throw away from the crematorium, which these “normal” Weimar citizens undoubtedly had to have seen. I draw on the closing statement and the very name of Chris Browning’s book Ordinary Men, “If the men of Police Battalion 101 could become killers under such circumstances, what group of men cannot?”[19] Not only were the mechanisms normal, but so were the perpetrators. As Browning’s title suggests these men were anything but spectacular, put they took part in something anything but ordinary.   I think it is this context of normalcy that makes this place so horrifying. One expects horror in a frightening place, but one does not expect horror in the normal every day. You wouldn’t expect to walk into your dorm and see hundreds of starved over worked people near death nor would you expect to open your oven at home to destroy human remains. You would not expect that a cultural hearth of some distinction such as Weimar, to be home to a place of such atrocities. It is this “unexpectation”, this surprise that makes Buchenwald what it was and still is to this day, a place of normal horrors.


[1] Kinderblock  66

[2] The Buchenwald Child p.10

[3] The Buchenwald Child p.10

[4] The Buchenwald Child p.11

[5] The Buchenwald Child p.11

[6] Kinderblock 66

[7]  The Buchenwald Child p.12

[8] Beasts of Buchenwald p.3

[9] They Died 900 a Day in ‘the Best’ Nazi Death Camp, radio broadcast April 16th, 1945

[16] The Beasts of Buchenwald p.186

[17] Kinderblock 66

[18] Kinderblock 66

[19] Ordinary Men p. 189