An Afternoon at Buchenwald
by Henry F. Tonn
from a verbal history given by Richard Daughtry
April 11, 1945. Germany. The day breaks cold and clear. It will be in the high twenties again. In this last year of the war, Europe has been beset with record cold temperatures; today and tomorrow will be no different. Our 377 fighter squadron, part of the left flank support for General Patton, is quiescent at the moment. We pass time by the side of the road smoking and watching the traffic rumble by. It has been a long and difficult war and we are ready to see an end to it.
Suddenly a jeep screeches to a halt in front of us and the driver leans out. Dirty face, red hair, huge grin. “Got a cigarette?” he says. “I'm in bad need.” Three people offer him packs. He extracts a cigarette, tamps the tobacco down on the back of his hand, lights up, takes a deep draw, and savors the moment.
“You're not going to believe what I just saw,” he finally says, waving the cigarette. “I was in Weimar this morning. Down the road.” He points. “There's a prison camp where they've been burning people up by the hundreds. I've never seen anything like it.”
We gather closer.
“It's the Jerries,” he continues. “They've been burning people in ovens. There's stacks of bodies everywhere. You ought to see for yourself. It's unbelievable.” He shakes his head and sucks deeply on the cigarette.
“Weimar?” a soldier says.
“Yeah. Up the road.” He points again. “You won't believe it.” He shifts the jeep into gear. “Go see for yourself. It's incredible. Gotta go. Thanks for the cig.”
With a wave, he roars off.
The five of us toss this information back and forth for the next hour. Traffic continues to roll past us on the road, some civilian, mostly military. We hunch over against the cold, hands deep in our pockets. “I'd like to see what he's talking about,” I finally inform the group.
There is agreement all around.
“Let's go ask the executive officer,” someone suggests.
The executive officer is named Buchanan. He is a major from South Carolina, a thoughtful, intelligent man, easy to get along with. He listens attentively to our story and then says, “If you guys can get ten more soldiers to go, I'll requisition a truck. ”
An hour later we have the required number of people and preparations are put into motion.
The following morning breaks cold again and we are on our way by nine o'clock. Each of us carries enough “C” rations to last twenty-four hours, plus several cartons of cigarettes. Although some of us do not smoke, cigarettes, along with chocolate bars, are the major form of barter in this war. With those two items of trade, you can get almost any kind of food you want from the farmers. I have lived on fresh eggs for the past four years because I have cigarettes which I don't smoke and chocolate bars which I don't eat.
We bounce along unceremoniously through the countryside, occasionally passing vehicles. After a while we note a conspicuous absence of military personnel where we are traveling, and wonder where they are. Apparently the army has swept through the area and moved on. Have enemy soldiers been left in the wake? We wonder out loud if this journey could be more dangerous than we bargained for.
Our apprehension grows as we reach the outskirts of Weimar and spy two American soldiers lying in a ditch pinned down by enemy fire coming from a house nearby. Our truck comes under fire, too.
“Damn!” the executive officer swears as a shot bounces off the truck. “Damn!” He's not certain what to do.
“We've got to move forward or go back,” the driver says. “We can't stay here.”
“Damn!” the executive officer says. “Gun the son of a bitch. Let's get outta here.”
We roar off and bounce our way for two hundred yards until the gunfire dies away. We're a little shaken by the experience. We had no idea this area was not better secured when we set out earlier in the morning. The last thing we want to do is be captured and finish out the war in a German prison camp.
We enter Weimar and exit the other side, drive east for about five miles, and arrive at the main entrance of the camp. It's an imposing structure with the letters “Buchenwald” written at the top. Two American soldiers greet us cordially and check our papers. They inform us that only a few military personnel have been left behind to guard the area. More will be arriving shortly, however. We inform them we're just there to see the place for the day.
“The best place to start is the crematorium,” the one checking papers says. He's a burly guy with a weather-beaten air of confidence. He nods casually to his right. “Over there. Where the smoke stack is. You can visit the barracks from there.”
We look in the direction he indicates and see a huge chimney stretching into the sky. A high wooden fence completely surrounds it. We note prisoners wandering aimlessly about the compound, mostly emaciated, wearing tattered clothing, their faces blank. They were liberated only yesterday and really don't know what to do with themselves. It is cold and overcast, a gray and gloomy day, and we are wearing overcoats. The prisoners, however, are barely covered by their multitude of rags. The low temperature does not seem to bother them.
Suddenly three prisoners stroll up and begin speaking to us in excellent English. Two are Jewish, wearing black and white striped prison garb with a yellow star of David over their hearts. The third has a clean tan uniform. We later learn he is from Poland. They look remarkably healthy compared to the pathetic state of the others. They explain that they are the educated members of the camp and have been used by the Nazis to perform administrative work; consequently, they have been well fed and cared for.
After conversing with us briefly, the three men insist on being our guides. “We want to make sure you see everything important in this camp,” the shortest of the three says. He is balding, in his forties, with intensely dark eyes. “We want to make sure there's a record of what the Nazis have done.”
We hand them some cigarettes and chocolate.
“Come this way,” they say.
“We were told to visit the crematorium first,” our executive officer says.
“Yes,” the Polish guide says. “We'll go there second. I want you to see something else first.”
We bypass the crematorium and are steered into a nearby building. We walk up the steps and through the door and find ourselves in a room something like twenty by forty feet, with a large number of prisoners seated on the floor, backs to the wall, shoulder to shoulder, staring vacantly into space. They are all wearing nightshirts that fall just below their knees. They are incredibly thin, seeming to be no more than four feet tall, weighing no more than sixty pounds, and their eyes are sunk deeply into the sockets of their heads.
We are stunned, and look around in bewilderment. “What happened to them?” I ask.
The guides respond that all of these men have been starved into this condition. At the camp you either worked or were shot, so the men have worked to the point of death.
I hurriedly pull out a chocolate bar and ask if I can give them some food.
A guide shakes his head. “Their bodies can no longer accept nourishment. Yesterday when the camp was liberated, several of them were fed and they died instantly.” He goes on to explain that all of the men in the room will expire in several more days. They don't have a chance.
“Can we give them cigarettes?” I ask.
He shrugs. “It doesn't matter. I doubt if they have the strength to inhale the smoke. They can barely breathe as it is.”
Nonetheless, we walk around the room offering cigarettes. The emaciated prisoners follow us with their eyes, but do not speak. We place cigarettes in the mouths of several who appear to be interested and light them, but the guides are right. They can't really smoke, and the cigarettes just dangle uselessly.
It is a surreal experience. We remain in the room for a half hour listening to the guides speak softly and saying very little ourselves. The guides speak of the atrocities that have been occurring in this camp for many years: the beatings, the torture, the executions. I am numb. I cannot absorb what is being said to me. I wonder how human beings can treat each other like this. It is one thing to fight and kill people in battle, another to systematically destroy part of the human race.
Eventually we ask the guides if there is anything we can do, but they simply shake their heads. “Just witness and remember,” one of them says.
We leave the barrack and walk over to the crematorium a short distance away. On entering we see two brick structures, each housing three ovens. The ovens contain the remains of human beings that have only recently been incinerated. Various body parts are easily recognizable: ribs, portions of a skull, leg bones. Apparently the people assigned to burn them left in a hurry and the job was not completed properly.
On the opposite side of the room is a long, rough, wooden table covered with lampshades. As we approach it we are informed that the lampshades are made of tattooed human skin. “Look,” the short, balding guide says, “a nipple.”
In wonderment, I pick up one of the shades and feel it. The skin is smooth and dry and feels thicker than I would have thought.
“This is the work of Ilse Koch, the ex-commandant's wife,” the other Jewish guide says. “We call her the Beast of Buchenwald. She would have men with elaborate tattoos on their chests killed, the skin stripped off, dried, and then made into lampshades. We hear she gave them out as presents.”
My overwrought mind finds this difficult to absorb. It seems too eerie to be true.
“And these are shrunken heads,” the guide continues, moving to another part of the table. “They're mostly Russian.”
The heads are grotesque and hideous, the mouths twisted into bizarre angles. Years later I will see a picture of this very same table with the same items spread across it. But there will be only one lampshade. I will read at the trial of Ilse Koch that no one could produce any lampshades as evidence, consequently that particular charge against her was dismissed. What happened to the lampshades? Did somebody take them as souvenirs? The table was full of lampshades the day I was there.
We exit the crematorium through a side door and immediately come upon a stack of bodies waiting to be cremated. They are thrown together in a pell-mell fashion, a pile of them four or five feet high. Naked, emaciated. Some look as though they have been recently killed, splotched with blood, others appear to be older corpses. On top of the pile are two fully clothed German guards, the insignias ripped from their uniforms. I assume this is result of souvenir hunting. It is known fact that Americans have taken souvenirs during this war.
“The two guards were captured by the Americans yesterday,” the Polish guide informs us. “They were on their way to Weimar, but were brought back to the camp at gunpoint.”
“What happened to them?” I ask.
“The Americans put them into a room with ten prisoners armed with billy clubs and the prisoners beat them to death.” All three guides betray a slight expression of triumph as they impart this information.
I note that the faces of the two Germans are puffy and bloody. Later pictures taken of this pile of corpses show no Germans. I can only assume they were removed so as not to reflect poorly on the American army. But they were there when I walked through the compound.
A short distance away we come upon a flatbed trailer piled high with dead bodies. The bodies are stacked very neatly in a row, head to foot, foot to head, alternately. I assume they were the next pile of bodies to be delivered to the crematorium as soon as the other pile had been burned. We don't stay long. How many dead bodies can you look at?
We ask our guides to take us into some of the nearby barracks. They agree, and we break up into different groups, my group falling in with the balding one who has been so helpful. We enter a barrack which looks similar to the previous one except there are only a half dozen or so prisoners. They are lying in the bunks, not moving. I do not know if they are sleeping or dead, and do not ask. We move rapidly from one barrack to another, all being pretty much the same: few prisoners, no movement.
Eventually our guide warns us: “Don't want to go any further than barrack number forty-five because the Germans have been conducting medical experiments there, injecting the prisoners with typhus, and an epidemic has broken out. You could still catch the fever if you venture into the area.”
We turn around and head in the opposite direction. Prisoners mill about in the overcast, cold weather, ignoring us. Their faces are gaunt for the most part, devoid of expression.
“Why do they look so grim?” I ask. “They should be happy now that they're liberated.”
Our guide gives me a wry smile. “They were jubilant yesterday. But now the reality of it all is setting in. They have nowhere to go.”
I offer the Jewish prisoner some more cigarettes and chocolate and he is obviously grateful for this bounty. The other two groups join us and the executive officer announces that it is time to leave.
We pile back into the truck and drive into Weimar to find a place to stay for the night. A goodly number of troops from the third army are here now, even though earlier we had seen only the two soldiers in the ditch. We come upon a group of Americans warming themselves by a fire, so we stop and warm our “C” rations by the fire with them. There is much camaraderie as the darkness settles in.
Eventually we inquire about a place to sleep for the night and are directed to several abandoned buildings nearby. “Take any one you want,” a first lieutenant who is in charge says, grandly. “Nobody will be using them for a while.” He laughs, showing strong white teeth.
We wander over and inspect the buildings, finding a room on the second floor that is adequate for our needs. It is barren, and everyone will be sleeping on the floor, but this does not concern us at all. We will simply wrap ourselves in our overcoats, turn over on our sides, and go to sleep. The temperature is expected to drop into the teens this evening, but it does not matter. We have slept under worse conditions.
Unfortunately, our slumber is rudely interrupted at midnight by a violent firefight which breaks out beneath our window. The Germans have apparently come out of hiding and are attempting to re-take the city. I am concerned that someone will lob a grenade into our room and kill us all, so I crawl into a corner and quake with fear. I am used to being bombed and strafed, but not shot at with small armed weapons. I now wish I had never come to this place. If the Germans re-take the town, we will end up in a prison camp ourselves. The irony is just too much.
Fortunately, the firefight moves away from us quickly and eventually fades into the distance. I thank the Lord for all the brave soldiers down there who are willing to put their lives at risk in the darkness. I have been taught how to use a rifle but have not done so throughout the war. I don't want to start now. I have difficulty returning to sleep, and the hours pass with agonizing slowness. Finally, at the first light of dawn, we note with satisfaction that the streets are now patrolled freely by the third army. Our group is up and ready to roll by seven o'clock.
I had read about Weimar in the history books and knew it was considered an ancient and beautiful city. I suggest we take a sightseeing tour while we are here, and everyone heartedly agrees. We pile into the truck, put the top down, and drive through the narrow streets to observe the colorful buildings and interesting architecture. Most of the pedestrians we come across are army personnel, though a few townspeople can be seen here and there. We call out and make jokes with the other soldiers in an atmosphere of revelry. The war is coming to a close and everyone is happy at the prospect of returning home.
At noon we observe a number of Weimar citizens being escorted at gunpoint to some army military trucks. We are told they are being taken to Buchenwald to witness the atrocities. The civilians are obviously quite unhappy about this but they have no choice in the matter. General Patton will come through several days later and throw such a fit at what he sees that he orders the entire civilian population of the city to walk the five miles to the camp to witness what has happened. This is recorded in history. But it had already happened to a lesser extent on April 13. I was there to witness it.
Most of the buildings are intact in this quaint city and we enjoy our tour. By early afternoon, however, it is time to depart. Looking back on these two days, I find my thoughts constantly returning to that room in Buchenwald full of living people whose lives were now beyond hope. I saw many dead bodies during the war, so the piles of emaciated bodies prepared for incineration do not affect me so much. But looking into the sunken eyes of a man who has no hope of living because of circumstances beyond his control affects you in the most profound way.
I am eighty-eight years old now, with a fading memory. But the day I spent in Buchenwald will haunt me forever.
Copyright © 2011 by Henry F. Tonn
[Editor’s note] Information about the author’s oral history interview with Mr. Daughtry appears in issue 418.