Buchenwald, a German concentration camp for political prisoners was established outside the city of Weimar in Thuringia in July 1937. It was one of the largest camps and the first camp on German soil.

The Gate in Buchenwald

Inmates were used as forced labor in nearby weapons factories. Inmates were Jews, Poles, political prisoners, Roma and Sinti, Jehovah's Witnesses, religious prisoners, criminals, homosexuals, and prisoners of war (POWs). Up to 1942 the majority of the political prisoners consisted of communists and Anarchists; later the proportion of other political prisoners increased considerably. Among the prisoners were also writers, doctors, artists, former nobility, and princesses. They came from countries as varied as Russia, Poland, France, Germany, Austria, Czechoslovakia, the Netherlands, Belgium, Norway, Denmark, Latvia, Italy, Romania and Spain. Most of the political prisoners from the occupied countries were members of the resistance.

They worked in a factory making rockets to be launched at London, while two hundred others worked in a mine. When prisoners first arrived at Buchenwald they were told to strip naked and take a bath in disinfectant. After this, they were given striped uniforms and shoes; no underclothes. All prisoners were marked with colored triangles to represent nationality or religion. Although Buchenwald was not an extermination camp prisoners were frequently shot for breaking any of several rules. Putting your hands in your pockets, defects in clothing, bad attitude, violations of saluting, eating during work-time, begging for food and organizing groups were all subject to punishment. If someone was hanged, the whole camp was forced to watch as a warning. Buchenwald also had "death marches" where the prisoners would be marched to an extermination camp to be killed. There was often confusion among the planning of a "death march," so if a barrack was to be marched some prisoners were able to "submerge," changing their names and secretly switching barracks.

A Tale of Buchenwald — The Stench Still Lingers

By Max Whitaker
Company C, 735th Tank Battalion
Transcribed By Mitchell Kaidy

It was a warm morning in April, 1945 -calm and peaceful-unlike the grueling conditions we had recently left behind in Belgium and Luxembourg.

After those blood-spattered days, our 735th Tank Battalion tanks began moving rapidly across the Rhine River on a pontoon bridge behind the 87th Division infantrymen who earlier charged across in powerboats. As we ground our way across to the eastern side of the Rhine, the number of enemy soldiers and enemy counterfire began visibly dropping off, and we spotted more and more white sheets hung out of windows in the villages.

After consulting our maps, the three Co. C tanks with about four infantrymen aboard each, started aiming toward one of the villages for the night. At this point, my tank, numbered C-18, was in the lead, and as it grew dark we consulted our map before deciding to stop in the village of Weimar, a pretty place set in a valley
About 9 the next morning I was standing in the ammunition loader's turret when, along with two other tanks carrying infantrymen, we approached two tall, chain-locked iron gates with a few of our American infantrymen standing nearby.

Our Sherman tank could easily have barged through the iron gates, but we decided instead to shout for someone to remove the chains. A German guard quickly ran out, looked over the three American tanks and infantrymen, and, without comment opened the gates with his keys.

Inside the gates, we traveled another short distance, maybe 300 feet, when a shout went up. One of the infantrymen had notices German paper money scattered on the ground, so he jumped down and started picking it up. Other infantrymen who were walking also spotted the money. I shouted to an infantryman who had ridden my tank to pick up some of the bills for me.

The money, it turned out, was over-printed with the now-infamous "Buchenwald" on its face, and included the SS insignia. But since the name was unfamiliar to any of us, at the time it meant nothing either to those driving the tanks or the infantrymen.

It happened all of a sudden-we struck something that felt as palpable and real as a wall. It was a huge, overpowering odor-the kind of odor I remembered from the days the Kushner Packing Company burned its waste in my hometown of Muncie, Indiana.
Only as our tank wound its way down the cinder road did we discover the source of the order-a type of baggage cart stacked with two dozen of so naked, emaciated bodies. On the other side of the cinder road we could also see a pit, approximately 30 by 40 feet, flooded with a foul, sickening-looking green solution. It was fortunate that more than one American with me could manage elementary German.This we discovered by questioning, was acid being used to dissolve flesh and bones. Now we had some evidence that something really foul was going on, but at that point we were unaware of its scale.
With the infantrymen taking the lead, the three tanks started up again, soon coming upon a large mound of white ashes not far from a row of ovens. I now estimate that this mound stood at least 10 feet high, and we began suspecting it too contained human flesh and bones.

On of our infantrymen, who had penetrated deeper into the camp, returned with a German guard who disclosed to our German speakers that his SS commanders had learned of the American troop's advance and fled.
But we still had a war to fight, and definite orders to attack and enter other nearby villages. Unfortunately, those two hours was not enough time to penetrate deeply into other areas of the camp, and we concluded that the inmates had been ordered to stay out of sight. Our radioed orders were to keep pushing the German Army back toward the Czechoslovakian border, so the infantrymen clambered back on the tanks and we moved out.

Buchenwald survivors