A visit to the concentration camp at Buchenwald

Words & Photography: Rahul Basu; Year of visit: 2013

Although most of the concentration and extermination camps were destroyed at the end of World War II, some camps have been meticulously reconstructed and transformed into memorials open for public viewing. I recently had the opportunity to visit one such concentration camp located in East Germany, not too far from the city of Weimar.

What makes Buchenwald so different from the more conventional concentration camps that multiplied into the hundreds at the peak of the 2nd world war was the varied nature of operations that were carried out within its walls. Not only was it infamous for mass killings at the time, but also housed medical facilities, where SS operatives performed experiments on the prisoners, especially for trials of vaccines against typhus (epidemic).

Very understandably my knowledge and understanding of Nazi concentration camps until this point had been largely fed by documentaries, photographs, articles and movies based on the world wars. But the sheer scale of the Nazi Holocaust and its supporting infrastructure presented itself in a far more imposing manner as I stepped inside Buchenwald for the very first time.

The tall watchtowers at each corner of the massive compound wall draped in barbed wire and the high entrance gate with the embedded slogan “Jedem Das Seine” or “To each his own” quickly establish the camp’s cruel credentials.

Much of Buchenwald’s interior structures including the prisoner of war barracks (housing) and the medical chambers were completely raised to the ground immediately after the war. However, for the sake of preservation and intended public viewing many of Buchenwald’s edifices have been re built and restored to their original form.

Besides the Depot, which is the largest multi-storey building in the compound and the location of the present day Buchenwald history exhibition area, most of Buchenwald is demolished and in ruins. This sadly also includes the famous Goethe Oak, whose centuries old stump tells a very disturbing tale. One of the most frequently visited structures by Tourists in the camp site is the Crematorium.

Used for the Prisoner of War (POW) execution and subsequent incineration of piled up corpses, its walls and interior furnishing are as blood curling and tear jerking as you’d expect. The lower level of the crematorium was used primarily for hanging inmates until death. Quick executions of Soviet POWs were also carried out at Buchenwald. In 1941–42 a special task force of three Dresden Gestapo officers were sent to the camp to eliminate Soviet prisoners with a single gunshot to the back of the neck.

Amidst all the darkness that one would presumably associate with any concentration camp much like Buchenwald, I personally was very impressed with the organized manner in which visitors were being educated about its history via ipod audio players. Preloaded audio guides in a number of languages were listed in sequential order and denoted by the same numbers allotted to each of the site’s structures marked out on a map that was provided to all visitors of Buchenwald for a nominal fee.

I must say I was a little disappointed to see one of the concentration camp’s most sinister sections, better known as the ‘Little Camp’ in complete ruins. Nothing better than the slum area of Buchenwald at the time, Little Camp was separated from the main camp by a barbed wire and its inmates were subjected to the most severe and inhuman conditions that one could possible imagine.

According to the trivia inscribed on stone planks at the Little Camp memorial there, by 1945 a large percentage of deaths at Buchenwald occurred in the Little Camp, which imprisoned as many as 20,000 inmates at a time. With only one latrine, many inmates were forced to use their food bowls as night latrines. Some of its survivors settled in the United States; they and their descendants have supported the creation of this memorial.

The Jewish memorial is one of many multi-ethnic memorials that were built to pay homage to the thousands who suffered and perished within the four walls of Buchenwald. A forest cemetery located behind the main Depot, beside the Soviet Special Camp No.2 is of special significance.

All in all, Buchenwald was for me more of an educational journey rather than an unnerving exploration of sorts. Most of us fall short of words when it comes to expressing our grief over what was carried out in the concentration camps during the Nazi regime. However what remains remarkable in all of this is Germany’s efforts to preserve and protect this tragic yet inseparable part of its history, which as we see today it has not only overcome with swift action, but in doing so has transformed itself into a global superpower.

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