Concentration camp: "Oath of Buchenwald": How the survivors swore to themselves justice and the destruction of Nazism

When US soldiers arrived at the Buchenwald concentration camp, the prisoners were already waiting for them.

Concentration camp: "Oath of Buchenwald": How the survivors swore to themselves justice and the destruction of Nazism

When US soldiers arrived at the Buchenwald concentration camp, the prisoners were already waiting for them. A massive resistance had formed in the concentration camp, which had gradually undermined the command structures of the SS and armed themselves. Some prisoners even managed to contact US troops by radio. So it was clear: rescue was near. On April 11, 1945, the Allies were finally there.

There has been much debate over the past decades as to whether it was a matter of liberation by the Americans or self-liberation by the prisoners. The myth of the socialist resistance fighters who drove out their oppressors was cultivated in the GDR in particular. Historians assume that the prisoners did not have enough weapons for this. The memories of the surviving concentration camp inmates sometimes contradict each other. What is clear, however, is that there was a well-organized internal resistance movement in Buchenwald.

As early as 1943, an International Camp Committee was formed, which included German anti-fascists, but also other political prisoners from countries occupied by the German Reich. The communist Walter Bartel took over the leadership. The members of the camp committee sometimes succeeded in hiding wanted inmates, stealing weapons from the SS stocks or secretly obtaining information about the course of the war.

Some of the concentration camp inmates owed their lives to the resistance group. The Nazis delegated various tasks to prisoners - the camp committee always made sure that sick or weak inmates were assigned to the tasks and thus could avoid forced labor as much as possible. In January 1945, the Czech communist Antonín Kalina, with the support of the camp committee, set up "Children's Block" 66 to enable hundreds of Jewish children and young people to survive, including Elie Wiesel, who later won the Nobel Peace Prize.

As US troops drew ever closer, SS Reichsfuhrer Heinrich Himmler ordered the concentration camp to be evacuated. The guards sent tens of thousands of the originally almost 50,000 inmates on foot to the Dachau and Flossenbürg concentration camps or the Theresienstadt ghetto. A total of 12,000 to 15,000 people died on the death marches. The resistance groups in the concentration camp tried to delay the evacuations through targeted sabotage actions so that as many prisoners as possible were still in the camp when the Americans arrived. At 2:30 p.m. on April 11, US troops reached the concentration camp. Most of the SS men fled, and armed resistance fighters arrested some guards. The call came from the watchtower: "Comrades, we have the camp in our hands."

In total, more than 50,000 people died in Buchenwald. 21,000 survivors came together for a touching ritual eight days after the concentration camp was liberated. They commemorated those who had not survived the horrors of Buchenwald: "51,000 shot, hanged, trampled on, beaten to death, suffocated, drowned, starved, poisoned, hosed down. 51,000 fathers, brothers, sons died an agonizing death because they were fighters against the fascist Murder regimes were. 51,000 mothers and wives and hundreds of thousands of children accuse!"

Together they took an oath written by the International Camp Committee, the "Oath of Buchenwald". It says in French, Russian, Polish, English and German, among other things:

The words speak of the deep pain of the immeasurable suffering under the Nazis, but also of the fighting spirit and hope that kept many prisoners alive despite the most adverse circumstances. "Nevertheless, say yes to life" - as it says in the equally famous Buchenwald song. The Nazis were not yet finally defeated and the Second World War was not over, but the oath of Buchenwald already showed the will for a "new world".

Since then, the words have been repeatedly quoted at commemorations marking the anniversary of the liberation. The survivors see it as a mission to remind those born later of the horrors of National Socialism and the Holocaust. In 2015, on the 70th anniversary of the liberation, Buchenwald survivors renewed the oath in different languages ​​at the official memorial event. The oath was spoken in Russian by the Ukrainian Boris Romanchenko, who was killed in a Russian bomb attack in Kharkiv last March.

Sources: Buchenwald and Mittelbau-Dora Memorials Foundation / Federal Agency for Civic Education / MDR / "Spiegel"