“Nothing has ever shaken me as much as this sight”

Remembering the victims of the Pogrom Night © Sebastian Kahnert

Only a few kilometers away from the classical city of Weimar, the SS built a concentration camp in 1937: "Buchenwald" became a synonym for Nazi crimes. On 11. April 1945 the camp was liberated.

When the Americans reached Buchenwald and its subcamps in April 1945, Dwight D writes. Eisenhower, the commander-in-chief of the Allied forces: "Nothing has ever shocked me as much as this sight."

trucks with bodies piled on them, half-burned bone remains in crematorium ovens, thousands of completely exhausted prisoners, including over 900 children and youths: The Allies are stunned by what they see when, 75 years ago, on 11. April 1945, liberated the Buchenwald camp and its numerous satellite camps.

Protest against the naming

Opened in the summer of 1937 in the woods above the world-famous Goethe and Schiller city of Weimar. The SS had the forest on the Ettersberg cleared for this purpose. The camp was intended to fight political opponents, persecute Jews, Sinti and Roma, and permanently exclude homosexuals, homeless people, Jehovah's Witnesses and people with criminal records from the German "body politic," as the Nazis put it.

But there was protest: Not against the concentration camp itself, but against the planned naming of the site "Ettersberg Concentration Camp.". Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, who was revered by the National Socialists and who at the time enjoyed spending time at nearby Ettersburg Castle on the Ettersberg, was not to be associated with "inferiors" in a concentration camp. SS Reichsfuhrer Heinrich Himmler relented – and the concentration camp was henceforth called "Buchenwald", in keeping with its natural surroundings.

After the start of the war, people from all over Europe were deported to Buchenwald. The first thing they saw was the cynical inscription at the entrance of the camp gate "To each his own". The imprisoned Bauhaus artist Franz Ehrlich designed the font in the Bauhaus style frowned upon by the Nazis – a personal protest that went unnoticed.

Forced labor and killing facility

Almost 280.000 people were imprisoned in the concentration camp on the Ettersberg and its 139 subcamps between 1937 and 1945, including at times the theologian and resistance fighter Dietrich Bonhoeffer and the later Nobel Prize winner for literature Imre Kertesz. The SS forced prisoners to work for the German armaments industry. About 56.000 people died of torture, medical experiments and emaciation. In a specially constructed killing facility, over 8.000 Soviet prisoners of war shot to death.

At the beginning of April 1945, the Buchenwald concentration camp still had about 48.000 people. When the U.S. Army had advanced as far as Gotha, the SS began on 7. April with the evacuation of the camp. She managed, despite all the delaying tactics of the prisoners, to get some 28.000 prisoners on death marches. About every third person died on the way or was shot by the SS, the Volkssturm or youths of the HJ.

After the SS fled from the American tanks, prisoners from secret resistance groups occupied the guard towers and the camp gate. "A short time later it came through the loudspeaker, 'Comrades' – the word actually took the microphone – 'Comrades, we have the camp in our hands,'" as reported by a contemporary witness in a film made by the Buchenwald memorial site.

Weimar population: "Somehow not spiteful, indifferent in itself"

After liberation, the U.S. Army forces 1.000 citizens of the classical city of Weimar to visit Buchenwald concentration camp. They are told to look at the SS atrocities, such as the "works of art" – human skin with tattoos, fashioned as pictures – and the piles of corpses. The film footage of Weimar residents with happy faces on the hike through the forest to the concentration camp and their shocked faces on the camp tour afterwards went around the world. Many claimed to have known about the existence of the camp – but nothing more detailed about what happened there.

Erna Ratsch, a native of Weimar and 28 years old at the end of the war, said in 2015 in an interview with Deutschlandfunk: "I only knew that they had guards outside and that there were criminals inside and Jews, we knew that". It was just the way it was and we put up with it. I had two children to feed, I had to work on the side, it was kind of… without interest. The main thing was to make ends meet with food and so on… that the firing was there. Somehow not spiteful, indifferent in itself."

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