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A Description of Buchenwald Concentration Camp

World war two was one of the most difficult times for Europe. With the Nazi regime rounding up people of non-Arian race from all over Europe and sending them to work and death camps. There were very few people, the incredibly lucky and powerful ones, who could find a way to escape the grasps of the Nazis and Hitler. Many of those caught in ravaged Europe were children, split up from their families and many were taken to their deaths. From the beginning of world war two, through the liberation of the Buchenwald concentration camp, to the story of children fighting to survive this entire story is quite the tragedy. Buchenwald was one of the largest Nazi concentration camps that operated before and during World War II. The camp was built in 1937 in eastern central Germany and operated until liberation by American soldiers in April, 1945. This was a key place where political prisoners were sent. But Jews were sent there too. At one point there were almost 112,000 inmates.1 Besides forced labor at the camp there was medical experimentation, cruelty, and killing. Fortunately, there was also a resistance force and its efforts saved lives. Among them were the lives of children, who were otherwise often the first to die. Buchenwald was not just one camp but the head of a system of 88 camps throughout Germany that provided forced labor at the expense of political prisoners, gypsies, homosexuals, and Jews.
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As the Soviets, British and American forces were liberating camps, the Nazis moved prisoners to other camps. Buchenwald was one of the destinations. What the liberators found was shocking: thousands of men’s suits, almost a million women’s suits, and an obscene amount of human hair. They also found incredibly emaciated human beings. 3And they heard stories of
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brutal murder. But they also heard stories of resistance and courage. Such was the story of Cellblock 66. This was located in one of the more remote and disease-infested parts of the camp. 600 children were hidden there. These were Jewish children who had been sent from other camps. Among them was future Nobel Prize winner Ellie Wiesel. The adults in the camp tried to protect them from harsh duty. They were even funneled Red Cross packages from other prisoners and tutored in school subjects. They were also told stories about life in the outside world to give them hope that a better life awaited them.

The Liberation of Buchenwald and Reflection
In April, 1945, as liberating forces approached Buchenwald, the Germans began to evacuate 28,000 prisoners from the main camp and subcamps. One third of the prisoners died of exhaustion or were shot by SS guards.4 On April 11, 1945, even before liberators camp in, prisoners attacked the guards. The communist inmates took over. Some of the guards had been killed by them. That afternoon American soldiers entered the camp and liberated Buchenwald. On the next day prisoners were in the neighboring town of Weimar hunting down SS guards and killing ones they found. The town was bombed out and the townspeople were in hiding. Left at the camp were approximately 21,000 inmates and this included 900 children., among them the residents of Cellblock 66. The American soldiers, in shock at what they were seeing, had no sympathy for the residents of the town of Weimar, just five miles from the camp. While those residents said they didn’t know what was happening at Buchenwald, the Americans doubted that, knowing the people had seen full trains going in but no trains going out.

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General Dwight Eisenhower visited one of the Buchenwald subcamps on April 15, 1945 and sent a letter to his commander: “The things I saw beggar description….the visual evidence and the verbal testimony of starvation, cruelty and bestiality were…overpowering.” On June 5, 2009 President Obama visited the site. His great-uncle had been one of the liberators. As part of his speech the President commented how the nearby town of Weimar was a vibrant art center. However, he pointed out this was not the case at Buchenwald, “This, however, was not a place for living, but a place for dying. Unimaginable horror, shock -- there are no words to adequately describe what we feel when we look at the suffering inflicted so cruelly upon so many people here and in other concentration and extermination camps under National Socialist terror. I bow my head before the victims.”

The Story of the Survivors
After liberation, as tormented as adult survivors were, many assumed the children were spared, that they didn’t remember the atrocities. Adults told the children that they were “lucky.” However, the children were very aware. And as they reconnected with the relatives they had left, it was apparent so many had died. Lost friends, lost parents, lost aunts and uncles. Children tried to make sense of it all and they could not. The children, along with the adult survivors were sent to displaced persons camps in Germany, France, Italy and Belgium. 5 At first they were housed behind barbed wires and the treatment was harsh. Sanitation and nutrition conditions were poor. In 1946 conditions started to improve. There were schools in the camps and people made friends and even married.

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Many people waited years for a chance to leave the camps, for a chance to emigrate to the United States, Canada, or Palestine. They feared going back to their former homes because of antiSemitism. Fortunately, organizations tried to train them to give them skills to make a new life in a new place. Opportunities to emigrate to the United States were limited. In 1945. President Truman ordered a loosening of the quotas for emigration to the U.S. and 41,000 people were allowed in. 28,000 were Jews. In 1948, the U.S. Congress allowed for 400,000 more in including another 68,000 Jews. Others went to Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Mexico, South Africa, Western Europe, and South America. 6

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11-year-old Rebecca Friedman, my character, was one of the children housed in Cellblock 66 at Buchenwald. She had been separated from her family at another camp, the famous death camp, Auschwitz. As Soviet liberators approached, SS guards evacuated her and other children to Buchenwald. It saved her life because political prisoners there protected her.
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Rebecca got placed in this camp specifically because of the children’s community that Buchenwald had. She was also placed there because of where she was taken from as a prisoner of the Nazi regime.
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There were many obstacles that Rebecca had to face even after being liberated from Buchenwald and being separated from her family. Many children left the work camps, if they left at all, very hurt, weak, and malnourished.
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On liberation day, adults tried to shield her from the revolt of the prisoners against the guards and the killing that followed. But when the Americans came in she wandered to the center of the camp.
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One of the Americans, scooped her up. He cradled her, trying to protect her from the ravages around her. Rebecca cried for the first time in years. It was tears of joy that the nightmare might be over.
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The struggle wasn’t over. It was just another chapter that would take her to a displaced persons

camp. Eventually she would be united with the few relatives who still were alive. But her parents were gone. There was no point sending her back to her hometown in Austria. No, she would be

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going to America to be taken in by distant relatives who yearned to give her a new start and erase the horrors of war. This new life is the focus of our story.

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