Buchenwald – A Preliminary Report – 12th Army Group – 04-1945

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Headquarters 12th Army Group
Publicity & Psychological Warfare
April 24 1945
(Edgon W. Fleck – 1/Lt Edward A. Tenenbaum)

Note : Special distribution is being made of this report because preliminary evaluation indicates that is is one of the most significant accounts yet written on an aspect of life in Nazy Germany. It is not just another report on a concentration camp. It does not deal exclusively with the horror of life in Buchenwald, nor with the brutalities of the Nazy perverts. It is the story on wheels within wheels. It tells how the prisoners themselves organized a deadly terror within the Nazi terror. The report is obviously controversial. It has not been possible in so short a time to cross-check and weight every details. But independent investigation leads to the tentative conclusion that the basic history can be accepted. Later study and interrogation may lead to modification of this picture – one way or the other. But one thing is certain : there will have to be further investigation of the people of this and all concentration camps. Because the report makes it clear that in our search for decent, democratic elements which we can trust in Germany we cannot accept at face value all those people who were incarcerated for opposing the Nazi brand of fascism.

Alfred Toombs
Chief of Intelligence


Introduction

The full truth about Buchenwald will never be known. To approach it a large staff of interrogators would be necessary, as well as some means of protecting witnesses. The look of terror in the eyes of the inmates when certain questions were asked was not lost on the writers. Names and informants are not given in the thin report. They are still in Buchenwald, and would undoubtedly be in the grave gravest danger if what they have said ever becomes known there. The major informants are the two Allied intelligence agents who were caught by the Germans.

The writers first learned of the liberation of Buchenwald as they were riding down a forest road with an American column. They turned a corner onto a main highway, ans saw thousands of ragged, hungry-looking men, marching in orderly formations, marching east. These men were armed, and had leaders at their sides. Some platoons carried German rifles. Some platoons had Panzerfausts on their shoulders. Some carried ‘potato masher’ hand grenades. They laughed and waved wildly as they walked. Or their captains saluted gravely for them. They were of many nationalities, a platoon of French, followed by a platoon of Spaniards, platoon of Russians, Poles, Jews, Dutch, mixed platoons. Some wore striped convicts suits, some ragged uniforms of the United Nations, some shreds of civilians clothes. These were inmates of Buchenwald, walking out to war as tanks swept by at 25 miles per hour.

They were ordered to return to their camp by a tank officer. They did so, though many seamed disappointed. They wanted to know where the Germans were. They wanted to kill. The interrogators turned back towards Buchenwald, which lay close on the main road. At the gates of the camp were sentries. In the camp was a Camp Commandant, a German inmate. In the camp were 21.000 survivors who cheered at the sight of an American uniform, rushed out to shake hands, and threw valuable binoculars from their slave workshops at the passing troops. Yet in the camp there reigned order. Meals were served. Armed guards – inmates – patrolled the somber grounds and wildly excited groups of men calmed at a word from these in authority.

That evening the interrogators attended a meeting of the Camp Directorate and of the Council. Then, they were provided with beds in Block 50, the Typhus Experiment Laboratory, where victims or typhus injections were observed as they died. In the morning, they were awakened by a brass band, which serenaded them until they appeared as the windows, to be cheered by several thousand inmates. Later, they were present at a huge parade of part of the camp’s inhabitants, and addressed them over a loudspeaker system. It was an incredible experience, as hard to forget as the sight of the camp’s crematorium, the fresh corpses, and the living dead of the so-called ‘small-camp’. It was the rebirth of humanity in a bestial surrounding.

The immediate problems of Buchenwald are food and medicine. When American troops entered, there had been no bread for three days. The Nazis removed most of the food supply before leaving. Regular sources of supply are being visited by an inmate driving a car, who already had an MG pass. But these in the neighborhood cannot suffice. Dysentery, typhus and phlegmentia are most important diseases. Medical supplies are very low.

Evacuation

That there are 21.000 survivors of Buchenwald exceeds the hopes of most. It seemed more likely that the SS would bend every’ effort to liquidating the traces of its activities. The Nazis did succeed to evacuate over half of Buchenwald. Their failure to complete evacuation was partly due to the surprise advance of the 4th Armored Division, partly to a complicated pattern of resistance within the camp and reluctance within the SS organization itself. The entire camp was supposed to be evacuated on April 11 1945, the day the American troops arrived. The camp’s last meal had been ordered fro 0800 that morning. On previous days the following evacuations had been carried out :

April 3, 1500 mixed inmates, to the Theresienstadt
April 5, 3105 Jews, destination unknown
April 6-10, 22.080, including 1800 Russians with PW status, evacuated April 10. Supposed destination Dachau and Flossenburg

The evacuation columns marched on foot, accompanied by SS guards. The routes are believed to run east to the vicinity of Leipzig. One column of 5000 prisoners passed along the main road running east from Jena, leaving an unmistakable trail of discarded clothing behind it. American fighter planes patrolled overhead keeping the columns in view but withholding fire. A number of prisoners managed to escape en route, and are wandering the forest east of Jena.

On April 2, SS Commander Pister held a meeting of the German police trustee of the camp, and announced that unless he received orders to the contrary he would not evacuate the inmates. He intended, he said, to remain and hand the camp over to the Americans. On the following day, however, he issued order for all Jews to be separated out and prepared to leave on transport. A few Jews reported voluntary. The rest, knowing the transport would probably end in death, simply hid in the barracks. At the same time the Communist group in the camp began to plan a general mutiny. It had at its disposal about three machine guns, fifty rifles and a number of hand grenades, all stolen from the guards and hidden about the camp over a period of years. This was, however, completely insufficient to sustain an open revolt. The regular SS Deaths Head guard at the camp was 1700. In addition, reinforcements of 4300 ordinary SS troops came in from Weimar to defend the forest area around the camp in the last few days before its fall. However, they were able to undertake certain sabotage measures. They spread the word that all inmates were to continue to resist evacuation, and that they were to be assisted by the trustee organization. Since much internal police of the camp was in the hands of the Communists trustees, this order made it almost impossible for the SS to find specific individuals.

The next day, April 3, the Jews were ordered to fall out at a camp parade and were told to go to the ruined factory buildings (destroyed in an Air raid in August 1944 during which not one surrounding barracks were damaged) in the camp. Some went to this area, but later broke away from the SS guards. The latter gave half-earthed chase, shooting a handful. That night, however, the SS managed to lay its hands on 3000 to 4000 of the 6000 Jews in the camp. It also became known in the camp that 46 men were on a special list for immediate execution. The list included the Camp Elder N°1 (senior trustee), several other prominent Communist trustees, some Frenchmen and others. All 46 were warned and went into hiding. The list disappeared from the camp office. The men were not found since the camp was searched only by the police trustee (Lagerschutz).

The cam an order for 4000 to be evacuated. The mutin became open. Whole blocks refused to come out. Thereupon the SS guards entered the enclosure area and rounded about 8000 prisoners, in some barracks having to thrown them bodily out of windows. On Saturday April 7, orders came from Berlin for complete evacuation of the camp, if possible by the following Monday. That Sunday the first large transport left consisting of about 5000 men. On Monday 10.000 were taken away, en on Tuesday, April 10, another 10.000 or so were moved off, including Russians having PW status and many French. These two were considered the backbone of the resistance movement, and it was hoped that thereafter there would be less difficulty.

On the morning of April 11, small arms fire was audible in the camp, announcing the imminent approach of the American troops. The lead tanks of the American unit were visible from the camp at 1300. About 1430, American tanks were attacking the immediate vicinity. The SS troops began a hasty retreat after receiving orders to move in small groups to a reassembly point at Suessenborn. At the same time the inmates brought their arms into the open and began to take control of the camp. Informants are not unanimous as to what happened then. The Communist group claims that SS troops were still on guard in the watch towers around the camp, and that these were stormed by the prisoners. Other say that there was no actual fighting between the inmates and the SS until the American troops had seized control over the area. It is, however, agreed that the prisoners captured 78 guards, mostly in the woods near the camp.

Besides the Communist-led plan to take over the camp, there was another scheme, worked out by certain Western European nationals independently, which played some’ part in the survival of the remaining prisoners. This consisted of playing on the feelings of the camp commander, to encourage him to continue delaying the evacuation. On Sunday morning (April 8), an inmate left the camp and donned the uniform of a German Luftwaffe EM. He went to Weimar and mailed a letter. The letter was based on information to the effect that Allied parachute agents had been dropped between Eisenach and Erfurt, and had not been captured. It was addressed to the commander of Buchenwald, and stated :

A special mission has been dropped in your area. We knows of the scandal and terror in Ohrdruf. We also know that there has been an improvement in your camp since the time of Koch (Pister’s predecessor). At the moment our tank commander are on the way to bring you to accounts. You must cease sending evacuation transports from Buchenwald. You must cease at once. You have one more chance.

SS Oberführer Hermann Pister (February 21 1885, Lübeck – September 38 1948, Landsberg am Lech) was commandant of Buchenwald concentration camp from January 21 1942 until April 1945.

Pister was given the command of Hinzert concentration camp and served there from October 9 1939 to December 31 1941. On January 1 1942 he replaced Karl Otto Koch as commandant of Buchenwald. The prisoners were ordered evacuated from Buchenwald in early April 1945 to prevent their liberation by Allied troops. Pister ordered the first group to leave on foot on April 7 to be sent to Dachau. This group was marched to the railroad station and placed in open boxcars. This train came to be known as the Death Train. It took until April 27 for the train to arrive at Dachau with many aboard dying of starvation and illness. There was also evidence that the train had been strafed. SS-Obersturmführer Hans Merbach was placed in charge of the evacuation of Buchenwald and the train.

Pister was arrested by the Americans in 1945; put on trial for war crimes by the American Military Tribunal at Dachau with 30 other defendants where he was charged with participation in a common plan to violate the Laws and Usages of war of the Hague Convention of 1907 and the third Geneva Convention of 1929, in regard to the rights of Prisoners of War. The trial began on April 11 1947. He was found guilty and sentenced to death by hanging. Pister died in the Landsberg Prison of an acute heart attack on September 28 1948. (Wikipedia)

The letter was received by Pister on Monday, and appears to have had a great effect on him. However, an order arrived from Berlin, insisting on evacuation and threatening that if he disobeyed he would be turned over to the Security Police (Sicherheitsdienst). Pister continued evacuation but did not make use of harsh measures which lay within his power, and which would have resulted in the speedy removal of all inmates.

 

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