For the Record: Buchenwald
by LT. COL. CHARLES R. CODMAN
WEIMAR must have been a rather attractive city — physically, I mean. Some of it still is. Northward the road winds through wooded country for three or four miles to burst abruptly upon an open sunlit area covered, until recently, with the buildings of a thriving German armament establishment, now a mass of rubble. The “heavies” do a good job. A quarter of a mile further on, the road — symbolically enough — comes to an end before a reddishbrown wooden pavilion from both of whose extremities stretch miles of wire fence encompassing long, low barracks of the same color. If you didn’t know what it was, you might take it for the entrance to a third-rate amusement park. In a sense it was that — to the SS. From the short pole on the wart-like cupola a flag hangs listlessly. A black flag. For the President, it seems.
Inside the gate is a spacious yard of rough flagstones. By prearrangement, our Military Government officer and a number of the French prisoners were waiting for us — Colonel Marhes, formerly head of the resistance movement in northern France, and Marcel Paul, member of the Paris Municipal Council; General Audebert of the Cavalry and General Challe, Aviation. All of them in for “resistance activities,” for it must be understood that the inmates of Buchenwald, while including many former officers and soldiers, is not a compound for military prisoners of war, but for those who have committed, or are suspected of having committed, “crimes against the Reich.”
“ You might as well see the end product first,” the Military Government officer said, “and then work backwards.”
While not large, the crematory is, as I remember it, the only solidly constructed building in the camp. In a smaller yard, enclosed by a wooden fence, a large wagon like a farmer’s cart had just been brought in. Over it the flies buzzed lazily. Its content, the Military Government officer explained, was part of the day’s toll — thirty or forty bodies, naked, crisscrossed like matches, and about as substantial. The crematory itself is not unlike the standard variety, with certain additional features. It seems that the routine was as follows. Prisoners who died from “natural causes” were simply carted into the ground floor of the crematory proper and tossed into six coke ovens, in which are still to be seen the charred remains of the last overhasty and incomplete job that the arrival of our troops interrupted.
The unusual feature is the basement. Here, according to eyewitnesses whom I have no reason to disbelieve, were brought prisoners condemned of capital crimes, — for example, attempting to escape, insubordination, stealing a potato, smiling in ranks, — usually in groups of twenty or so at a time. They were lined up against the walls, each one under a hook fixed at a height of about eight feet from the floor. (The hooks are no longer there. They were hastily removed the day we came in, but the emplacements are clearly visible.) A short slip-noose was placed about the neck of the condemned, who was then raised by the guards the distance necessary to affix the end of the noose to the hook.
If the ensuing strangulation took too long a time to suit the mood of the guards, they beat out the brains of the condemned with a long-handled club resembling a potato masher. (Specimens of the nooses and “potato mashers” are on view in the basement.) The remains were then placed on an elevator which lifted them directly to the crematory proper, the final run being made on a miniature railway of metal litters leading from the elevator platform to the furnace doors. Efficient.
Having seen and photographed the end products, we proceeded to the place whence they came — the infamous Barrack 61. Exteriorly, Barrack 61 is like the other barracks, roughly 150 feet long by 30 feet wide. Inside, four tiers of wooden shelves incline slightly towards the central corridor. In the rush season this single barrack housed 2300 prisoners jammed together on those shelves, 2300 “non-workers” that tuberculosis, dysentery, pneumonia, and plain starvation had rendered incapable of the daily twelve-hour stretch at the armament factory or near-by quarries. There were fewer when I was there. I did not count them, but the shelves were still well filled. Some of them were living human beings, but the majority were almost indistinguishable from the corpses we saw in the death cart.
On one shelf barer than the rest, three shadowy figures huddled together for warmth. Cold comfort for the outside two, since the middle one had been dead for several hours. Under the old regime he would eventually have been stripped and thrown out onto the flagstones to await the next tour of the wagon. Farther on, an emaciated specter of a man who had managed to get to the latrine and back was attempting to crawl up onto the first shelf. It was only three feet from the floor but he could not make it. As he collapsed, his shirt — he had no other clothing — fell open. A living — barely living — skeleton, with a long prison serial number tattooed on the inside of the thigh. Two of the inmates who accompanied us picked him up by the shoulders and ankles, his sagging wasted behind dribbling excrement and bloody mucus as they placed him on the shelf.
So much for Barrack 61. Barrack 47 was like it, but frankly I hadn’t the stomach.
ANY redeeming features? Yes. A number of individuals who through sheer will power and incredible fortitude managed to preserve their sanity and their self-respect, such as Professor Richet of the Académie de Médecine. An inmate of the camp for over a year, he had been allowed to organize his own clinic within the prison. With means so slender as to be negligible from the German point of view, he nevertheless brought some relief to those who could find room in the meager space allotted him — meantime amassing a wealth of informative data. From Barrack 61 we went there.
“What seems so pointless,” I said, “is the elaboration of horror. If extermination is the object, why haven’t they just wiped you all out once and for all?”
“Ah, my friend, there are certain considerations to be taken into account,” he said.
“Applied slave labor, turnover, example, and even public opinion.”
“What public opinion?”
“German public opinion.”
“The system is not pointless,” he continued; “it is carefully thought out. In this camp are 25,000 Russians, Poles, Czechs, French, Belgians, and others who are in disagreement with the tenets of the Reich. True, they must disappear, but before they go they must contribute their bit. On arriving here they are put to work, twelve hours a day at the factory or in the quarries or elsewhere. A workingman requires a diet of 2000 or 2500 calories per day. Here he is put on a diet of 800 calories per day — a diet calculated to produce death by starvation in a certain period of time. That period may be lengthened or shortened in accordance with available replacements. If the replacements are ample, the quotas of non-workers sent to what are frankly known as extermination camps, such as Ohrdruf, are increased. There the principle is the same but the tempo is accelerated.”
“Why not exterminate them here?”
“They do. During the months of January, February, and March of this year there were 14,000 deaths. With the milder weather the rate has dropped slightly. Around 3000 a month.”
“From what cause?”
“Overcrowding, disease, beating, hanging, starvation — chiefly starvation.”
“Then why bother with extermination camps?”
“A certain amount of distribution spreads the number of ‘deaths from natural causes’ over a wider area. Public opinion, you see. Also among the workers the threat of being sent to an extermination camp has its uses.”
“I have managed,” he went on, “to retain a good many of my written observations of the system. Several volumes. I should like to get them to Paris.”
“I think that can be arranged.”
On the way out one of the Frenchmen said, “ Did you know that Colonel Heurtaux is here?”
Good God, Heurtaux! Twenty to thirty German planes to his credit during the last war —perhaps more. I only saw him once, in 1916, when we were alongside the Cigognes at Bar-le-Duc. It was out at the field. He was talking to one of his pilots, a quiet unassuming young lieutenant with very clear eyes — Lieutenant Guynemer.
Well, here was Heurtaux again. We sat in the office of the former superintendent of Buchenwald and smoked cigarette after cigarette. He looked fine — that is, he looked like a fine man who has been through hell and still remains a fine man.
“Yes, I remember you,” he said, “and Norman Prince, and Cowdin, and Thaw.”
I gave him news of his old squadron, of Accart, of Murtin, and of the death of Marin la Meslee.
“A great leader,” he said.
“What were you accused of?” I asked.
“Organizing resistance, sabotage, spying, and hostility to the Reich.”
“An honorable indictment.”
“And true, thank God. But they had no proof. My interrogation ran to 175 typewritten pages. I saw it. But all they had was accusations and they don’t like to shoot an army officer without some ‘semblance of proof.’ ”
“Who accused you?”
He was silent for a moment and then smiled — the saddest smile I have ever seen.
“A compatriot,” he said. “I believe he thought he was doing his duty.”
We talked some more — of other things.
“Are you also of the opinion that the whole system here is carefully worked out?”
“Does anyone doubt it?”
“Well, who works it out? Are there general directives, with the details left to the individual camp commanders, or what?”
“Listen, my friend,” he said, “make no mistake. Down to the last detail it comes from the top, with many willing hands to carry out both the policies and the details. Coming across France you must have learned of their interrogation methods — burning matches under the fingernails, pulling out tongues, eye-gouging, crushing the testicles with nutcrackers. Standard procedure. Occasional improvisations, as in the case of one of my comrades, who was seated naked on a dining-room table that was pulled apart sufficiently to contain his private parts and slowly pushed together from either end by a couple of SS men.
“Or the case of the four girls at Lyon suspected of knowledge of resistance activities. Stripping and beating them was merely standard procedure. An SS noticed, however, that one of the girls was having her monthly period. Being a man of fantasy, he removed her sanitary pad, dipped it in gasoline, replaced it, and struck a match. The other girls received similar treatment in terms of gasoline-soaked wads of cotton. It was four days before the last one died. One can go on endlessly. But to what good. Those who cannot or will not believe — and I don’t blame them — say ‘propaganda.’
“But I say to you that the obscene violence, the sadism, of the interrogation chambers is merciful compared to the prolonged inferno of the concentration camp. You yourself have seen the physical effects. What you have not seen at work is their diabolical ingenuity in breaking down morale. Do you think, for example, that when a contingent of prisoners is destined for the extermination camp at Ohrdruf the names are simply announced by the German officials? Certainly not. They make us do it. The head or heads of the prisoners’ committee are summoned. They are told, ‘You will this evening submit a list of a hundred prisoners to be ready to leave for Ohrdruf at 5.00 tomorrow morning. When it has been approved, you will call the roll and announce the names to your section and have them ready at the appointed time.’
“In the same way prisoners are put on the cremation detail, the burial detail, the flogging detail. Anything and everything that is calculated to engender internal distrust, bitterness, hatred, is applied, often with considerable effect. That these people are individually and collectively mad there is no possible doubt. But there is method in their madness and a kind of genius for evil. The important thing is that this evil should be fully understood.”
I have taken a bath, changed my clothes, smoked two packs of cigarettes, but the overpowering moral and physical stench of Barrack 61 remains in my nostrils — the sour-sweet stench of death, dysentery, and despair. Perhaps it is meant to.
The day before, I had visited the camp at Ohrdruf. The pattern was much the same with minor variations. The hanging nooses were wire instead of clothesline and there was no crematory — just lime and a big ditch. The mayor of Ohrdruf was brought up to see for himself. “I had no idea this was going on in my municipality,” he said. Then he went home and shot himself through the head. Tomorrow a number of former officials and leading citizens of Weimar will be taken on a personally conducted tour of Buchenwald. I shall be surprised if any of them commit suicide. I think the mayor of Ohrdruf was just one of those oversensitive Germans. No good to the Reich. Better out of the way.