Buchenwald and Oradur-Sur-Glan

Easter Sunday 1955, I turned off the Augsburg-Munich Autobahn to go to Dachau. I was en route to Rome for my first furlough from the First Infantry Division in Wurzburg and felt compelled to stop at one of the most notorious World War II sites I had heard about during the war. In 1955 there was not much traffic and few signs of help to tourists. In Dachau I did not see a single sign post for the infamous Dachau Concentration Camp. I found the place almost by accident.

At the edge of a lovely flower garden, there was a single stone  marker explaining that it was the site of the Dachau Camp and that the gardens were a memorial to the victims. A memorial chapel, recently completed, had been dedicated to the thousands of Jews, gypsies, homosexuals, and others who had died or been put to death there in the 1930s and early 1940s.

There didn’t seem much more to look at that day – an area beyond the park seemed closed to visitors, so I continued on my way to Munich and Italy.

As a high school student during the war, I had heard on the radio, read in the newspapers, and saw in Movietone news reels reports of German atrocities against Jews and political prisoners. I had seen news clips (in movie theaters; we had no television in those days) of refugees relocating from and around eastern Europe, and, as the war ended, I saw news reports about the Allied soldiers liberating concentration camps, and I became familiar with names such as Dachau, Buchenwald, Bergen-Belsen, Auschwitz-Birkenau, Treblinka, and others. And as I faced induction into the military, there was a part of me that wanted revenge against those who had perpetrated these horrific acts. I felt I had to see these places with my own eyes.

Buchenwald Guard Tower

Two months after my leave in Rome, the Army sent me to Fort Riley, Kansas, and I didn’t get back to Germany until 1958 when my wife and I took teaching jobs with the Defense Department Dependents Schools. One of our first weekend trips was to the Armed Forces Recreation Area in Bavaria which took us once again through Munich with a detour of some 15 miles to Dachau where we could see an enlarged memorial park, religious memorials under construction, and a general renovation of former facilities. Over the next ten years or so, our visits showed the development of the camp to show visitors just what went on there. We could see the main buildings, the Roll Call Square, the crematorium, and a couple of barracks.

The Crematorium

Dachau had never been an extermination camp as several other camps had been, but it did serve as a kind of model for how other camps would be organized. While there were executions there and deaths from disease, abuse, starvation, and forced labor, prisoners designated for extermination were sent eastward to Auschwitz.

Israeli students touring Buchenwald

It would be the spring of 1993 before I could see Auschwitz-Birkenau, the most notorious of the extermination camps. Today, peaceful as it seems, Auschwitz is still known as the “most streamlined killing center in history.”  The place has been remarkably preserved, to include a visitors’ center where videos are shown about life – and death – in the camp. It is astonishing to learn that so many records were kept about the fate of the inmates.

An oven in the camp

We could see the torture house, the gas chambers, the place of execution, and the labs where medical experiments were conducted. Guides would point out where victims got off the trains to form two lines: one line was for people who looked frail and vulnerable, selected arbitrarily by guards; the other for those who looked physically able to  do labor for a while. The first line was marched off with a promise of a shower and clean clothes. The shower room was actually a gas chamber which quickly but not instantaneously put them to death, as many as 6,000 in a single day.

Before Auschwitz, however, I had had opportunities to see Treblinka and Chelmno and to pay a couple of visits to Buchenwald. Buchenwald is on a pretty forested hill just a few kilometers from Weimar, home to Schiller and Goethe, two of history’s most civilized and enlightened literary figures. It’s inconceivable today to realize that a statue of those two literary giants stands only a ten-minute drive from the home of Ilse Koch,”the Bitch of Buchenwald,” wife of the camp commandant and who had a penchant for prisoner’s tattoos. Her collection is on display in the Buchenwald Museum without overt attention to how they had been flayed from prisoners’ bodies and stitched into lampshades.

Buchenwald was a Class II camp, not used for extermination but which nevertheless caused the deaths of thousands by starvation, malnutrition, abuse, and labor in nearby quarries and armaments factories. Ironically, it is on a site where Goethe used to come sit under an oak tree to think, read, and write. The stump of that tree is still in front of the former storehouse housing today’s museum.

Nazi atrocities were not limited to concentration camps. My daughter was born near a Norman village in which German occupation forces hanged every man in the village because of the mysterious disappearance of a German officer. My wife and I paid a couple of visits to the destroyed town of Oradour-sur-Glan near Limoges to see the burned-out skeletons of homes, shops, and public buildings. On June 10, 1944, upon learning of the capture of a German soldier, the commandant of Oradour ordered every citizen to assemble in the village square for roll call and identity checks. His troops separated the women and children, marched them into a church, locked the doors, and set the church on fire. The men were either shot or locked in barns which were also set afire.  The soldiers then razed the town, and today, more than 70 years later, you can still see the charred remains of cars in garages, washing machines in kitchens, children’s toys in bedrooms.

Oradur-Sur-Glan, Main street. Note 1940s power lines and kitchen on right.

Side street of farmhouses and barns/garages in Oradour-sur-Glan

My last experience with German concentration camps was a surprise because I had never heard of it till I became dean of the Schiller University Campus in Strasbourg, I learned of Struthof-Natzweiller, the only such encampment in France. Struthof is less than 30 miles west of Strasbourg and operated between 1941 and 1944 mostly for political prisoners and for prisoners in transit for Dachau and other eastward camps. Even so, there were thousands of deaths because of forced labor and specific executions. Guards had constructed a kind of home-made gas chamber where it’s known that 86 prisoners were put to death. Eighty of those were done for Dr. Josef Kramer’s collection of Jewish skeletons in the Reich University in Strasbourg.

Because our students came to Schiller University from all around the world but mostly from the United States and Europe, we organized visits to Struthof for all incoming students in the hope they would do whatever they could do in the future to prevent any more Struthofs.

My visits and studies about these repugnant places and the unspeakable atrocities within them cause me to wonder if we are really free of such places today. After all, these camps and their guards were created by people of my generation, in my life-time, in a culture not unlike my own. While these camps were not the direct cause of World War II, they offered a rallying cry to wage battles and a showcase for the horrible consequences of totalitarian dominance of a nation. They are places where millions of people endured the supreme sacrifice of warfare and oppression. They gave rise to a universal cry … “never again.”

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