Literature of the Holocaust
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Buchenwald - visit fifty years later

Monday, April 10, 1995

"50 Years Later, a Visit With Buchenwald's Ghosts"


WEIMAR, Germany, April 9 - With a solemn and highly emotional gathering at the site of the former Buchenwald concentration camp, Germany today began a month of ceremonies to remember the victims of the Nazi horror.

Fifty years ago this week, American troops marched into Buchenwald, the first major concentration camp in Germany to fall into Allied hands. In the following weeks, Allied forces liberated other camps whose names have become symbols of evil among them Sachsenhausen, Ravensbruck, Bergen-Belsen and Dachau.

At each of these camps and at others, large-scale anniversary observances are planned. Former inmates from around the world have been invited, and to the surprise of organizers, thousands have accepted. For many of them, this will be the first time they have returned to the country where they were imprisoned, overworked and tortured, and where they saw countless comrades sent to their deaths.

At Buchenwald on Saturday, a special gathering was held to honor the memory of the half-million Gypsies who perished at the hands of the Nazi death machine. About 7,000 Gypsies were among the more than 56,000 Jews, Slavs, German Communists and other resistance fighters, homosexuals, handicapped people and others who died at Buchenwald. The stark granite memorial to the Gypsies that was unveiled here this weekend is the first of its kind at a German concentration camp.

Today, more than 1,000 former inmates stood in a cold wind on the camp's Appelplatz, the same spot where their Nazi guards once forced them to assemble each morning and evening. The iron gate through which prisoners were brought still stands, with its cynical inscription "Jedem das Seine," which means roughly "Everyone Gets What He Deserves."

"My blood ran cold when I walked through that gate today," said Heniek Wasserlauf, an Israeli who was brought to Buchenwald after being arrested with other Jews at a village in Poland. "I never wanted to come back to Germany, but when I got this invitation I decided to do it. For me it's a sign that in the end we won. They tried to wipe us out but they failed."

American soldiers who were among the first to reach Buchenwald also recalled its horror.

"I had been driving ambulances all the way from Normandy, always dealing with the dead and maimed," said James Sanders, an army veteran who now lives in Modesto, Calif. "I thought I'd seen everything, but I never saw anything like that. There were huge piles of bodies, and the people we found alive hardly looked better than the ones who were dead. You just can't describe how it looked or how it felt."

Buchenwald was a labor camp rather than a death camp, and inmates were sent daily to make weapons and other war materiel.

Ilse Koch, wife of the Buchenwald commander, has become a symbol for the extremes of Nazi cruelty.

"She was a very beautiful woman with long red hair, but any prisoner who was caught looking at her could be shot," recalled Kurt Glass, a former inmate who worked as a gardener at the Koch family villa. "She got the idea she would like lamp shades made of human skin, and one day on the Appelplatz we were all ordered to strip to the waist. The ones who had interesting tatoos were brought to her, and she picked out the ones she liked. Those people were killed and their skin was made into lampshades for her. She also used mummified human thumbs as light switches in her house."

In 1947 an Allied court sentenced Ilse Koch to life imprisonment. She committed suicide in jail 20 years later.

Perhaps the most emotional speech of the Buchenwald observance was delivered by Israel's Chief Rabbi, Yisrael Meir Lau, who spoke without notes to an audience of former prisoners and veterans of the American units that helped liberate them. Rabbi Lau was one of hundreds of children held prisoner at Buchenwald, and he recalled the moment when American soldiers arrived and an army chaplain embraced him.

"He came in and met a child of less than 8 years old -- that was me -- taking him in his arms, weeping and trying to smile and laugh," Rabbi Lau said. "Holding me in his arms, he asked me, 'How old are you, my child?' And I said, 'What does it matter? I'm older than you.' "

"'Why do you think you are older?' he asked me. I said, 'Because you laugh and cry like a child. I don't cry, and I haven't laughed for a long time. Tell me, who is older, me or you?' "

"It is much easier to say it happened on another planet," the Rabbi said. "But it's not true, because it happened on our planet."
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