Established in July 1937, Buchenwald was one of the largest concentration camps in Nazi Europe. Located just outside of Weimar in east-central Germany, the camp had more than 85 sub-camps, all of which used forced labor. Initially, the inmates were mostly political prisoners. After the November Pogrom, some 10,000 Jews were brought to the camp. By the end of 1945, the prisoner population reached more than 110,000. Prisoners carried out forced labor in the camp’s stone quarry, in camp workshops, in armaments factories, and on construction projects. Weak and disabled prisoners were transferred to euthanasia killing centers and gassed. A number of prisoners were killed by camp doctors.
When the Soviet army invaded Poland in the summer of 1944, the Germans evacuated thousands of concentration camp prisoners from western Poland and sent them on death marches into Germany. More than 10,000 prisoners, mostly Jews, from Auschwitz and Gross-Rosen arrived at Buchenwald in January 1945.
In early April, as American forces approached the camp, the Germans evacuated about 28,000 prisoners from Buchenwald and its sub-camps. During this process, about one third of the prisoners died from exhaustion, starvation, exposure, or SS bullets. In the final days, the camp’s underground resistance movement sabotaged the evacuation by obstructing German orders, delaying the evacuation.
By April 11, 1945, most of the SS guards had fled Buchenwald, and the underground took control, trapping several dozen SS men in the camp. That day, the 6th Armored Division of the U.S. Third Army arrived and found more than 20,000 prisoners, including 4,000 Jews, in the camp. Precise mortality figures are not available for Buchenwald, as camp administrators did not register large numbers of prisoners. The SS murdered at least 56,000 male prisoners in the Buchenwald camp system, about 11,000 were Jews.
The United Nations passed a resolution designating January 27 as International Holocaust Memorial Day. The date coincides with the anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz. It is important to recognize that the camps were liberated over the span of nearly a year, from July 1944 to May 1945.
The first concentration camps were liberated by the Soviet army as they invaded German-occupied territory from the east. In the summer of 1944, they liberated Majdanek and overran the sites of the Belzec, Sobibor, and Treblinka killing centers, which the Germans had dismantled in1943. In January 1945, the Soviets liberated Auschwitz, but the SS had already forced the majority of its prisoners on death marches into the German interior. In addition to Buchenwald, the American army liberated the main camps of Dora-Mittlebau, Flossenbuerg, Dachau, and Mauthausen. British forces liberated camps in northern Germany, including Neuengamme and Bergen-Belsen, in April 1945. On May 7, Germany surrendered in the West, and on May 9, in the east.
If you chose to teach to the liberation of Buchenwald, you might talk about Buchenwald as part of a larger discussion about the evolving roles that concentration camps played before and during the Holocaust. The last days of Buchenwald also lend insight into the subject of liberation.