KZ: Two letters, literally hell
By Lisi Niesner
U.S. troops arrived at German KZ (concentration camp) Buchenwald, near Weimar on April 11, 1945. The hands of the tower clock on top of the entrance gate are exactly set to a quarter past three: the time of liberation.
Walking through a memorial side of a former concentration camp feels indescribably oppressive. Between July 1937 and April 1945 a quarter of a million people were imprisoned in KZ Buchenwald with a death toll of around 56,000. This is a place as inhuman as it may be possible, full of sorrow, torture and death.
Prisoners had to endure a dreadful extent of humiliation, starvation, coldness and disease. Many worked to death, others died in medical experiments or were murdered arbitrarily. Here on the grounds of the former concentration camp, you become even more aware of the terrible magnitude of the systematic genocide by the Nazis.
Visitors enter the inmate’s camp through an iron gate with an inscription which is just readable from the inside, “to give each his due”.
Survivors, their relatives and others gather annually on April 11, at 15:15 pm for a commemoration ceremony at the memorial to all inmates’ of Buchenwald located at the former muster ground. Twice daily, the prisoners had to line up for a roll call. They had to stand, to march, to form lines and sometimes to sing for hours. Naked prisoners were flogged there and others were hanged on gallows for all to see.
The commemoration ceremony involves the Buchenwald camp song.
I observed former inmate Szaja Chaskiel, born in 1929 in Poland who emigrated to Australia after the war. While sitting in a wheelchair he sang the words with a powerful voice and full of fervor:
(excerpt translated from German:)
“O Buchenwald (beech forest), I cannot forget you,
Because you are my destiny.
Those who left you, can realize
How wonderful freedom is!
O Buchenwald, we will not moan and complain,
And whatever our future –
We still want to say “yes” to life,
Because the day will come –
Then we are free!”
I then stopped taking pictures. This situation deserved respect and when the music silenced he still continued singing.
I had to summon courage to walk up to the former inmates and to address them as it was a very difficult list of questions I had. There are so many details and each survivor has his own individual ordeal which could fill an entire book. I was not sure if I can simply go and ask about their heavy past. Would that be rude or even offensive?
I have deep respect for Ukrainian survivors Victor Karpus’s, 88, and Petro Mischtschuk’s, 87, courage and strength to wear their old prisoner’s garb. Karpus was in several concentration camps for a period of three years. He even once managed to escape from a camp but got captured and came to Buchenwald until its liberation. “Work or die – it was impossible to get out from Buchenwald”, Karpus concluded and I saw him walking away with companions showing them the places of his memories at the former camp.
“The employable have to be destroyed by work”, Eva Pusztai explained the Nazi attitude. Her right eye filled up with one tear and ran down her cheek. She composed herself at once and smiled.
Pusztai, born in 1925 in Budapest, Hungary has Jewish origin. In July 1944 she was deported to Birkenau and six weeks later to Muenchmuehle, one of 136 satellite camps of Buchenwald. The forced labor in the arms industry or in the stone quarry took the imprisoned to the brink of their physical abilities. “You got just enough food to survive. I lost a third of my weight and I was almost starving to death”, she said. She offered to take a picture of her in front of the gallows.
Naftali Fuerst, Vice President of the International Committee Buchenwald-Dora and Subcamps, was born in Bratislava, Slovakia in 1932. “It was hell – I was dying there”, he said.
Fuerst was in three concentration camps, including Auschwitz before he came to Buchenwald at the age of 12. People who arrived on mass transport from Auschwitz were placed in the Little Camp which transformed to a cruel place of death for thousands of Jews. “I was seriously ill and owe my life to my late brother”, Fuerst, who now lives in Israel, said.
I met Professor Elling Kvamme on the corner of former Barrack Block 22. Kvamme was born in 1918 in Oslo, Norway where he also taught medicine at the University. “Students are always dangerous and the Nazis realized it very quickly”, he explained. Kvamme was arrested in 1943 as a member of an underground paper and as a dangerous political opponenT.
He was forced to take part in the Nazi program of Germanization and had to work at the pathology in Buchenwald. Before the dead were cremated in a specifically developed incineration system to veil the traces of murder, the pathological facility examined corpses to prepare specimens of skin and skeletons for anatomical collections.
“Where is your god? Why he does not help you?” Jakob Silberstein, born in Poland in 1924, reminds the mocking of a high-level Nazi on Yom Kippur. He survived six years of captivity in concentration camps Buchenwald and Auschwitz and witnessed brutal actions by the SS. “They screamed: the last is shot (the last person will be shot), when we had to enter into a cattle car for transport”, he told. Silberstein experienced first-hand being locked in a standing cubicle for one week, carrying stones and drinking rainwater for days. In Auschwitz he survived 50 “Schmitz” (blows) and became tattooed with number 68743.
“I already stood inside the gas chamber in Birkenau when a SS man asked for skilled labor and I stated I was an electrician which luckily saved my life “, he said. After the liberation he got to know that none of his family and friends in his hometown Tomasov had survived. Silberstein today lives in Israel and tirelessly tells his story.
Vasile Nussbaum spent one year in Auschwitz and Buchenwald. “Buchenwald was a sanatorium in comparison to Auschwitz” he said without hesitation.
Born in Klausenburg, today’s Romania, in 1929 Nussbaum visits every year on liberation day: “You never know what’s coming, today we are 83-years-old and in the next year we are no more here”, he said as he appeared in good health.
Regrettably he was not wrong. The opportunities to meet, talk and listen to eye-witnesses of World War II will not last forever. Watching interviews of concentration camp survivors on television or facing them while looking straight into their eyes makes a huge difference.