Survivors and liberators of Buchenwald, one of Nazi Germany’s notorious concentration camps, gathered Saturday to commemorate their release 70 years earlier.
At a memorial at the site near the German city of Weimar, they observed a minute of silence, with some offering flowers and tearful tributes.
Buchenwald was a forced-labor camp, initially for political prisoners, though it was equipped with gas chambers and crematoria. Many were forced to work in its armament factories, or were subjected to horrific medical experiments or summarily executed by SS guards. Thousands also succumbed to disease. In all, 56,000 people, including 11,000 Jews, perished there. The Nazis had established death camps as part of the Final Solution, their plan to systematically annihilate European Jews.
Buchenwald survivor Henry Oster, 86, recalled the midafternoon of April 15, 1945, when U.S. troops entered the camp through the iron gate that bears the inscription "Jedem das Seine" or "To each his own."
"We had no idea that the Allies were in Europe," said Oster, a Jewish German born in Cologne. "And when we heard noises … we looked out of the window, which took great effort, and one of my friends said with a weak voice, 'I think we are getting liberated.’ And we thought he had lost his sense of reality like so many people there."
Seattle resident Robert Harmon, who turns 90 Sunday, was a U.S. Army private serving under General George Patton when he met Buchenwald survivors a few days after the camp’s liberatation.
"They were tired, they were cold," he recalled. "… April in Weimar can be a little cool. They had these thin pajama clothes. They had terrible food, you can imagine, and of course the men had not shaven forever, and they just looked awful.
"And they were stunned psychologically," Harmon continued. "They were so afraid of authority that they were very careful about speaking to us. But they were so hungry that they dared, and that was such an act of courage, I think, for them to speak to us."
Patton reportedly was so disgusted by what he found at the camp that he ordered Weimar residents to march the few miles up the hill to see what had happened so close to them.
Before the Nazi takeover of power, Weimar was best known as the home of such luminaries as writer and statesman Johann Wolfgang von Goethe and poet, philosopher, historian and playwright Johann Christoph Friedrich von Schiller.