Weimar, summer 1937, a pretty, picturesque town in Thüringen. The town where people such as Goethe, Schiller. Liszt and Bach have spent a considerable part of their lives.
Three miles away lies Ettersberg, where one of the first Nazi concentration camps was established. On July 16, 1937 the first batch of 300 prisoners arrived in Konzentrationslager Ettersberg, from August 6, 1937 onwards better known as concentration camp Buchenwald. Initially, it was intended for political opponents of the Nazi regime, hardened criminals, anti-socials, Jehovah witnesses, Jews etc.
From September 1939 onwards, people from all over Europe were incarcerated in Buchenwald. It was no dedicated extermination camp like Auschwitz but by selecting inmates for the extermination camps it was part of the Nazi extermination machinery. Another murder method was put into practice: "Vernichtung durch Arbeit" or death by work. And hard work had to be done: for hours on end without sufficient food, hygienic, clothing. The camp was constructed entirely by inmates. They felled the trees, cut stones from a stone quarry, erected the barbed wire fences, built the barracks. Many perished from exhaustion.
The camp was situated on top of the Ettersberg, in the middle of the forest. To ease access, a long road was constructed from the foot of the mountain to the gate of the camp (with the sign "Jedem das Seine" (to everyone his own) over it). This road, called the Blutstraße or blood road was constructed in a stiff pace and claimed thousands of lives. A stretch of the road is still in its original state in memory of the many dead. The road from the railway station to the gate of the camp was called the Caracho road. This Russian word simply means "good" but it was interpreted in various other ways. When the SS men called out: "Caracho!", the inmates had to run along this road on the double, spurred on by rifle butts, boots and dogs. Whoever trailed too far behind or fell down was killed mercilessly. Those "lucky" enough were shot, most of them were kicked to death.
Ever more prisoners flowed in. At the end of September, their number stood at 3,634. On December 17, 1943, the camp housed 37,319 prisoners, in December 1944 the number had risen to 63,048 and at the end of March it reached 80,436. A total of 56,545 Schutzhäftlinge (person in preventive detention) did not survive the hell that was Buchenwald. We should add however the many thousands who were sent to other camps such as Auschwitz to be exterminated. The official number exceeds 13,000.
Life in a concentration camp was characterized first and foremost by dehumanization. As soon as you passed the gate, you were no longer a human being. You were even lower than the swine. The camp staff took away your personal clothing, henceforth, you would be walking around, like all the others, in some zebra-striped uniform. You were shorn bald and above all, you were given a number. You no longer had a name but a number. This method was applied in all camps; it was a good method to soothe the conscience of the guards. They weren’t dealing with people, they dealt with numbers. They killed the nameless who were not worthy of living. No one, not even the most hardened SS man liked to be tackled on the vast suffering in a concentration camp. You put your life at risk by looking a guard straight in the eye. You were never to penetrate that invisible barrier between the suffering of the inmates and the personal sphere of the guards.
The guards attempted to undermine the camaraderie among the inmates as much as possible and enhance the mutual jealousy. Some inmates were allowed to write letters but did not receive any; other did receive letters but were not allowed to write them. Only the "lucky" very few enjoyed both privileges, many others enjoyed none of them. Jews, Sinti and Roma were always given the hardest work and the barest minimum of food. The other inmates were strictly forbidden to help them. Whoever was caught by the SS was subjected to the same regime.
Every day, the inmates rose very early. Then came "Bettenbau" , making up their beds. Each "bed", consisting of a wooden box, a straw sack and a blanket, had to be made up perfectly, if not, the entire barracks was punished. Subsequently they went, - always in double quick time – to the wash room and the common room where they changed their clothing. During roll call, the guards counted the number of prisoners. This was also the moment for punishment and executions. Often, the internees stood in cold and rain for hours for some minor transgression or just because the SS guards felt like it. After morning roll call, a work day of 12 hours followed, cutting wood, cutting stones, constructing roads, erecting barracks ……… on a daily ration of a few ounces of bread and 0.5 quart of watery soup; that is if the SS felt like distributing the food. Many inmates worked in the Gustloff Werke, a weapons factory near Weimar. In 1942 a sister factory was established near the camp. Other inmates cut stones all day long in the stone quarry near the camp. Those stones were transported to the camp in enormous lorries, drawn by inmates. Meanwhile, they had to sing and the SS men called them the Singing Horses. In addition to the normal Arbeitskommandos – labor teams – there was also the Sonderkommando – special unit - : volunteers who picked up the dead and took them to crematoriums in Weimar, Jena and Leipzig. Buchenwald had its own crematorium from the summer of 1940 onwards. In the evening, roll call was held again. The inmates had to be counted every time. If the numbers did not match, counting had to be done all over again. That way a roll call could take three to four hours with a sad peak on December 18, 1938. That roll call lasted 19 hours as three prisoners could not be found. All the time, the inmates had to remain standing, whoever dared to move was kicked and beaten, usually to their death. Whoever collapsed was not to be helped. 75 inmates did not survive that night.
Labor took a central place in camp life. One project was not yet finished when another one was already started. One of the major projects was the construction of the railway connection to Buchenwald. That was started rather late. Construction of the line Weimar to Buchenwald began as late as March 17, 1943. The railway, constructed entirely by inmates, was completed in just under four months: the first batch of new victims arrived by train on June 21, 1943. In order to accommodate the increasing number of prisoners, still more new barracks had to be built. A Sonderlager – special camp – was also built for the first Poles. Less than half of the 3,000 men survived this Lager. Early 1940, construction of the new crematorium was started. Later on, a quarantine camp, a prisoners’ mess and a special camp for Soviet prisoners-of-war were also built. All this was constructed by the inmates themselves, always in a murderous pace and claiming many lives.
Famine was epidemic. No one had to eat or drink enough. The SS men often made up reasons not to distribute food. Camp commander Koch decided regularly that the food rations for the Jews were to go to the swine. Soup cauldrons were kicked over which continually caused fights over the small chunks of potato and (often rotten) meat. The continuous shortage of even the most elementary nourishment led to a disease called Buchenwalditis. First, the inmates lost their body fat, later on their muscles until they were no more than living skeletons. Anything that was even remotely edible was eaten. Typhoid, dysentery, scabies and other diseases were the order of the day. In order to obtain extra rations, the inmates were very resourceful. For instance, two prisoners dragged a corpse along for an extra ration of bread. Whoever was caught – which happened often – was sentenced to a few days without any food at all, in the best of cases.
The internees themselves saw various stages in the decay and exhaustion. A Muselmann was a prisoner who displayed the first signs of deadly apathy (an unstable gait, an absent gaze). The Lunatik (Polish for moon man) was so far gone he did not recognize anyone anymore and wandered about the camp like a zombie. This situation lasted two to three days and would inevitably be followed by death.