POWs at Buchenwald
Although Buchenwald was not a POW camp, from time to time captured enemy soldiers were held there. After the July 1941 German invasion of the Soviet Union, approximately 7,000 Soviet POWs were incarcerated at Buchenwald—and virtually all of them were executed.
In 1944, the Germans had captured a group of 37 British and French SOE (Special Operations Executive—the British equivalent of the U.S. Office of Strategic Services, or OSS) operatives and confined them in Buchenwald. Accusing them of being spies, the Germans hanged 17 of them.
A group of 168 Allied airmen was also held at Buchenwald. One of them, a Royal Canadian Air Force bombardier named Art Kinnis, shot down over France on July 8, 1944, recalled, “We knew that our group must become very united and that we must make sure that the powers that be realize that we are all aircrew of the Allies, and that what is now happening to us is against the Geneva Convention.”
The Canadian also recalled that life at Buchenwald was not all suffering; the one bright spot was music. Kinnis said that one of his most pleasant surprises was hearing the camp’s symphony orchestra and jazz band playing English and American pieces. “Music is one language that requires no translator, and the evenings we spent listening to some very highly rated [European musicians] were exceedingly pleasant. The conductor had the reputation of playing before royalty, before his capture. How we loved to hear his rendering of ‘Tales from the Vienna Woods’ or ‘Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring,’ and many other lovely creations. A Russian choir there was as good as you could hear anywhere. The mere fact that you could not understand one word drifted into the background, as one was carried into the world of music. This little haven of sound was possibly the only pleasant side of Buchenwald.”
The intervention by a Luftwaffe general in October 1944 enabled the Allied airmen to be transferred to Stalag Luft III, near Sagan, Poland, after two months at Buchenwald.
The Goethe Oak Burns
However, while the Allied flyers were still at Buchenwald the American Air Force mounted the only bombing raid of the war against the camp—actually against the Gustloff-Werk II—on August 24, 1944. So successful was the raid that the entire factory was obliterated and production of the V-2 gyroscopes was halted. Unfortunately, many inmates working in the factory, along with their overseers and guards, also perished, as did SS family members living in quarters nearby. Princess Mafalda, too, was one of the victims of the air raid. The home in which she was being held collapsed upon her and, despite the efforts of SS doctors to save her, she succumbed to her injuries.
Perhaps the most symbolically important damage was done to the Goethe Oak. An incendiary bomb had set it alight, and it was later cut down. An old German prophecy said that the nation would exist as long as the Goethe Oak stood.
Discovering the Camps
As the war continued to go badly for the Germans, more and more inmates from camps in the East (including Auschwitz) that were threatened by the approach of Soviet armies were shipped to Buchenwald. Soon the camp atop the Etterberg was bulging with thousands of additional prisoners. The primitive, already overworked sewage system was pushed beyond capacity, and the meager rations became even more meager. Disease was rampant, and the camp had gone well beyond what might be called a humanitarian crisis. Still, the trains full of sick and starving prisoners, now mostly Jews, continued to arrive daily at Buchenwald’s railroad yard.
In early 1945, the war was quickly coming to an end for Nazi Germany, but Buchenwald continued to overflow with thousands more inmates from other camps. Himmler, hoping to save his own skin, sent directives to the various camps, telling the commandants to open the gates and send the prisoners on death marches into the countryside.
General George S. Patton’s U.S. Third Army was approaching from the west but, almost incredibly, neither Patton, General Omar N. Bradley (commanding the U.S. Twelfth Army Group), nor Supreme Allied Commander Dwight D. Eisenhower, was aware of the existence of the death and concentration camps; no camp was marked on the military maps the Allies were using. And, although American newspapers had regularly reported on the atrocities committed against Jews and other “undesirables” in Europe since 1933, no plans or training had been instituted by the U.S. Army to prepare the GIs and their officers for what to do in the event a camp was discovered. As a result, the Americans closing in on the camps were totally unprepared for what they found in April 1945.
The first camp uncovered by the Americans was Ohrdruf, a slave labor camp stocked with inmates from Buchenwald, 30 miles west of Buchenwald. Brig. Gen. William M. Hoge, the 4th Armored Division’s commanding officer, had split his command and sent Combat Command B (CCB) to the city of Gotha and Combat Command A to Ohrdruf. The 355th Infantry Regimental Combat Team of the 89th Infantry Division was attached to CCB.
On April 4, 1945, the 4th’s CCB and the 89th’s 355th Infantry broke through the gates of the Ohrdruf camp and discovered a horrific scene almost beyond description: thousands of dead, nude, and emaciated bodies scattered around the camp, each one showing signs that he had been shot at close range. In some of the foul barracks GIs also discovered hundreds of sick inmates on the verge of death. A funeral pyre with the charred remains of uncountable numbers of victims smoldered nearby. The rest of the inmates had been marched back to Buchenwald at the approach of the Americans.
The Buchenwald Revolt
Higher headquarters was quickly informed, and Patton, Bradley, and Eisenhower would tour the camp and witness its horrors firsthand on April 13, their jaws firmly set in anger. Bradley wrote in his memoirs, A Soldier’s Story, “Third Army had overrun Ohrdruf … and George [Patton] insisted we view it. ‘You’ll never believe how bastardly these Krauts can be,’ he said, ‘until you’ve seen this pesthole yourself.’”
In his 1948 best-selling memoir, Eisenhower wrote, “I saw my first horror camp. It was near the town of Gotha. I have never felt able to describe my emotional reactions when I first came face to face with indisputable evidence of Nazi brutality and ruthless disregard of every shred of decency. Up to that time I had known about it only generally or through secondary sources. I am certain, however, that I have never at any other time experienced an equal sense of shock.”
But on April 4, the existence of Buchenwald was still unknown to the Americans about to stumble across it. A week later, the southern column of Combat Team 9, the advance element of Maj. Gen. Robert W. Grow’s 6th Armored Division, ran into enemy resistance at the village of Hottelstedt, about two miles northwest of Buchenwald.
As the brief firefight ended, the GIs were astounded to see a group of emaciated men in striped uniforms coming down the road from the direction of a heavily forested hilltop, waving their arms wildly and jabbering in a strange tongue.
When the men could be calmed down and an interpreter found someone who could speak Russian, the Yanks heard a fantastic tale—tens of thousands of political prisoners were just up the road at a terrible place known as Buchenwald. After the sounds of battle emanating from Hottelstedt had been heard, said the Russians, a secret resistance group inside the camp had revolted against their guards and taken over the camp.
Bringing American Supplies to Buchenwald
Captain Robert J. Bennett, commanding the southern column, sent the battalion intelligence officer, Captain Frederic Keffer, ahead in an M-8 armored car along with three men (one of whom was fluent in German) to scout the situation. Several of the Russians rode along atop the M-8 to guide the Americans to the camp.
Clearing the screen of trees, Keffer and his party came across an astonishing sight, a huge camp with scores of barracks and thousands of men, all of them skeletal in appearance and some armed with German weapons, behind a barbed wire enclosure. A wild cheer of joy greeted Keffer and his German-speaking sergeant as they entered the encampment.
Suddenly, Keffer found himself lifted off the ground by a score of hands and carried around “on the shoulders of the crowd like a conquering hero.” Keffer said, “What an incredible greeting that was. I was picked up by arms and legs, thrown in the air, caught, thrown again, caught, thrown, etc., until I had to stop it, I was getting so dizzy. How the men found such a surge of strength in their emaciated condition was one of those bodily wonders in which the spirit sometimes overcomes all weaknesses of the flesh. It was a great day!”
Keffer was pulled and pushed through the crowd toward a building where he met some of the leaders of the prison underground who were now in control. “I told them I would radio for medical help and for food, and I requested them not to let the former prisoners, if they could help it, wander far outside the camp and possibly unwittingly interfere with our military progress. Then I managed somehow to return to the scout car, give all the food we had to the camp, and drive back to our main column [at Hottelstedt].” At 5:35 pm, the Yanks left Buchenwald; the camp was now under the complete and sole control of the inmates.