Buchenwald Concentration Camp and the Rescue of Jews

Buchenwald Concentration Camp was established in 16 July 1937 on Mount Ettersberg, seven Kilometres north of the city of Weimar that played an important role in the development of German culture and was home to many great men, including Goethe, Schiller, Luther, Bach, Liszt and others. The two places: Weimar – a symbol for the greatness of German culture – and Buchenwald, the manifestation of Nazi barbarism, are often juxtaposed when discussing German history. 

The initial purpose was to incarcerate opponents of the regime and other German undesirables, but in the eight years of its existence around 240,000 inmates from 30 nationalities passed through the camp – it is estimated that around 56 ,000 out of them were killed or died from the harsh conditions. In 1938 around 2,000 Jews were brought to Buchenwald from Austria, and following Kristallnacht, another 10,000 German Jews were imprisoned in the camp. They were subjected to brutal terror. 600 of them perished; the others were released after they committed to leave Germany.

During the war years the camp held many political prisoners and the camp population grew to 37,000 in 1943 and 63,000 in the beginning of 1944.

The Communist political prisoners in Buchenwald formed an underground movement, which managed to sabotage the work in the ammunition factories and smuggle weapons into the camp. Several of its members also engaged in saving inmates' lives. Some of these inmates in the resistance movement rescued Jewish inmates and were recognized as Righteous Among the Nations by Yad Vashem. Among them: Walter Kraemer who illegally smuggled a Jewish prisoner out of the "Small Camp" for medical treatment and who was killed because he refused orders of the SS doctor; Willi Bleicher who rescued Stefan, the three-year-old son of the Polish Jewish doctor Dr. Zacharia Zweig; Wilhelm Hammann who was the head of Barrack 8 where the children were held, among them Rabbi Lau, and who had the children replace the patches identifying them as Jews; Walter Sonntag who prevented the evacuation of the Jewish in his Barrack – Block 49 – on 6 April 1945, thus saving them from the death march.

In January 1945 the Germans began to evacuate Auschwitz and other camps in the East in face of the advancing Red Army. Many thousands of inmates – many of them Jews – arrived with these death marches in Buchenwald. The number of inmates swelled to 86,000. The Jewish inmates were put in the so-called small camp and in a tent camp where conditions were terrible.

On 6 April 1945, as the American forces were close by the Germans began to evacuate the camp. Between 15,000-25,000 inmates died in the process. The camp resistance managed to slow down the evacuation, and when the camp was liberated on 11 April 1945, there were 21,000 survivors, including 4,000 Jews and 1,000 children.