This blog marks the 76th anniversary of the liberation of the Nazi concentration camps Buchenwald and Mittelbau-Dora. It was written by The Wiener Holocaust Library’s Photo Archivist, Torsten Jugl.
Thuringia, April 1945. Over the last few months, this rural region in central Germany had already seen several Allied airstrikes. Now, the United States Army inexorably advanced into this picturesque landscape shaped by rolling hills and dense forests. The war the Nazis had unleashed in Europe ultimately made its return to the heart of the German Reich. Violence and death, however, had been present in the region for years. Two of the most notorious concentration camps, Buchenwald and Mittelbau-Dora, were operated by the SS nearby.
Buchenwald was established in July 1937, just outside the town of Weimar. In the pre-war period, the camp was instrumental to the Nazis in targeting all those excluded from the propagated Volksgemeinschaft (people’s community). Alongside political opponents, this applied to Jews and Sinti and Roma above all, but also to men with a criminal record, Jehovah’s Witnesses, homosexual men, and social outsiders. Throughout the Second World War, people from all over occupied Europe were deported here. By the end of the war, Buchenwald was the largest concentration camp in the German Reich. In total, almost 280,000 prisoners were incarcerated here, of whom more than 56,000 would die.
Some 90km north, on the outskirts of the city of Nordhausen, in the late summer of 1943 the SS set up Mittelbau-Dora as a satellite camp of Buchenwald. It was assigned the status of an independent concentration camp the following year. Though mainly known as a production site for the infamous V2-missiles, Mittelbau-Dora saw the majority of inmates actually forced to work in construction. Under horrific conditions, the mainly French, Polish and Soviet prisoners had to construct massive tunnels and underground facilities for the German armament industry. Of the 60,000 people imprisoned here, one-third did not survive.
Both camps, and their respective satellites, were dreaded sites of systematic abuse, exploitation, negligence, and murder from the time they were established. Yet, the conditions worsened dramatically in the first months of 1945. Although the war was nearing its end, the SS increased the terror towards inmates. With the arrival of thousands of exhausted and emaciated prisoners, most of them Jews, from previously abandoned camps like Auschwitz, prisoner numbers and death tolls peaked in both Buchenwald and Mittelbau-Dora. Resistance groups in the camps tried to alleviate the suffering, but there was only so much they could do.
By the beginning of April 1945, both camps were now in disarray. Rumours abounded of the Americans closing in. While desperate prisoners yearned for liberation, a rattled SS prepared for retreat. Ordered by their leader, Heinrich Himmler, the perpetrators were relentlessly determined not to let any prisoner fall into Allied hands.
Following two heavy airstrikes against Nordhausen, the Mittelbau-Dora camp complex was almost completely emptied by 6 April. The SS retained enough power to drive some 40,000 inmates out of the parent camp and its nearby satellites. Most prisoners were brutally crammed into open railcars to be taken to other concentration camps, most prominently Bergen-Belsen.
One of them was Eugene Black (formerly Jenö Schwartz), a 17-year old teenager from Hungary, who remembered that “the train would pull up, the doors would open, and we had to throw the dead bodies out.” Other prisoners were forced by foot on death marches where guard details would shoot anyone too weak to keep up.
The Library’s current exhibition, Death Marches: Evidence and Memory, uncovers how forensic and other evidence about the death marches has been gathered since the end of the Holocaust.
When elements of the U.S. 3rd Armored and 104th Infantry Divisions finally reached Nordhausen they only found a few hundred survivors left behind, mostly the sick or dying. Among them was 49-year-old Fritz Pagel from Berlin. The father of two had lost his family in Auschwitz and had had his right arm amputated in Mittelbau-Dora. He commented on his experience:
“For four days we lay in no man’s land until we were liberated by American troops at 6.30pm on 11 April. Guided by our paramedic from Berlin, who called us his special protégés, four soldiers, tall as trees, showed up in our Jewish barrack and greeted us:’Ir brojcht nicht redn englisch, ir kent redn jiddish!’ [You don’t have to speak English, you can speak Yiddish!]”
In Buchenwald, the SS rounded up around 28,000 prisoners between 7 and 10 April and forced them on deadly transports and marches towards Flossenbürg, Dachau, or Theresienstadt. At the same time, however, inmates obstructed the SS efforts by any means possible and succeeded in preventing the camp from being emptied entirely.
With elements of General Patton’s Third U.S. Army approaching the perimeter of the camp on 11 April, the perpetrators began to withdraw. Battles ensued and the SS were soon defeated. Equipped with clandestinely procured firearms, members of the camp’s resistance movement then seized control over the camp and finally announced liberation. 17-year-old Moniek Levi from Poland recounted the nerve-wracking events a few months later:
“There was alarm at noon. We lay in the barrack until 2.30pm, heard shooting, saw the SS on the watchtowers retreating. Then we saw the Lagerschutz [a security detail comprising of political prisoners] armed, white flags. After one hour, around 4 o’clock, the Americans came in tanks.”
Around 21,000 survivors were liberated in Buchenwald that day. Many of them at the brink of death, like 35-year-old tailor Josek Samoszul from Brussels, who would later be among the co-founders of the Belgian Association of Jewish Deportees:
“We were free, free at last, but weak and drained to the point of not being able to take the situation in. We had no food, no water, no care.”
Although the Americans arranged for the immediate care for the most debilitated, hundreds of men would continue to die over the next few days and weeks. Special attention was paid to 900 liberated child survivors like Moniek. Alongside some other boys from this group, he would later be sent to Switzerland for recuperation.
Buchenwald and Mittelbau-Dora were neither the first nor the last Nazi concentration camps the Allies would encounter. The liberation of the camps had been an ongoing process since the Soviet Army discovered Majdanek in occupied Poland in the summer of 1944. Yet many soldiers were totally unprepared for what they would find on 11 April. In an interview given to the USC Shoah Foundation, U.S. veteran Ernest James recalls the shock his unit was left in upon arriving at Mittelbau-Dora:
“It’s indescribable. Some of my men threw up, others got violently angry…First of all, we were almost numbed to war. We’ve been in war from June to April and almost constantly in battle of one sort or another. We’d seen many, many people who were killed, violently killed […] None of that had the same effect as seeing all this.”
Determined to document and disseminate what they had uncovered on these sites, liberators and war correspondents produced numerous photos and film footage over the following days. Today, these images are among the most well-known visual testimonies of Nazi crimes in the camps. Cross-party delegations from Congress and the British Parliament were conducted through Buchenwald to report first-hand on the atrocities committed there. Equally unprepared for what they would encounter, the MPs stated in their official parliamentary report “that such camps as this mark the lowest point of degradation to which humanity has yet descended. The memory of what we saw and heard at Buchenwald will haunt us ineffaceably for many years.”
By 11 April 1945, Buchenwald and Mittelbau-Dora concentration camps ceased to exist. Since then, survivors and their families from around the world return to Thuringia in April to celebrate the day of liberation. Unfortunately, the global Coronavirus pandemic has made this trip impossible both this year and the last. Through an online portal, the voices of some survivors will be represented this year alongside other virtual commemorative events.
Stein, Harry, Buchenwald concentration camp 1937 – 1945: a guide to the permanent historical exhibition, Wallstein, 2010.
Stone, Dan, The Liberation of the Camps: the end of the Holocaust and its Aftermath, Yale University Press, 2015.
Wagner, Jens-Christian, Produktion des Todes: das KZ Mittelbau-Dora, Wallstein, 2010.
Buchenwald camp: the report of a Parliamentary Delegration, HMSO, 1945. Wiener Holocaust Library Collections.
Eyewitness account by Fritz Pagel, Berlin, of his experiences in forced labour camps and death marches. 1656/3/8/198, Wiener Holocaust Library Collections.
Eyewitness account by Moniek Levi, Poland, of his experiences in forced labour camps and death marches. 1656/3/8/446, Wiener Holocaust Library Collections.
Eyewitness account by Josch Samoszul, Polish refugee in Belgium, of his experiences in labour and concentration camps. 1656/3/8/268, Wiener Holocaust Library Collections.
For more related sources, try a search for any of the following keywords in our Collections Catalogue: Buchenwald (concentration camp); Mittelbau-Dora; liberation; concentration camps; displaced persons camps.