The 50th anniversary of the liberation of the Buchenwald concentration camp over the weekend was marred by plans to install a special exhibit on Nazi prisoners who were interned at the camp after its liberation by the U.S. Army.
More than 30,000 so-called “small-time Nazis” were interned in the camp by the Russians, according to German media reports.
Prisoners of the original camp, located near Weimar in the German state of Thuringia, strongly protested plans to erect an exhibit about these internees.
Willi Schmidt, a former Buchenwald prisoner, said that if a separate exhibit were erected, it should at least be clearly separated from the Buchenwald camp with a fence.
But others protested more strongly, saying an exhibition on Nazi prisoners had no place on the grounds where Jews, Gypsies and political prisoners were persecuted and killed.
John Ranz, the head of the Survivors of the Buchenwald Concentration Camp, USA said prior to leaving for the commemoration that the “brewing controversy” over the exhibition was “one of the most painful things on a 50th anniversary.”
Despite the controversy, the 50th anniversary helped to put events into perspective.
An exhibition on the camp installed in 1937 was given an historical face lift. In the days before German reunification, visitors to the Buchenwald concentration camp learned only about the struggles of Communists against Germany’s facist regime, even though less then 20 percent of the prisoners were Communists.
A new exhibit, which describes the horrendous conditions in which some 235,000 prisoners from more than 35 countries toiled as slave laborers, gives visitors a better perspective of what happened there.
More than 56,000 prisoners died, most of them Jews, many while working in the underground munitions factory at the nearby Mittelbau-Dora camp.
Of the 2,000 Jews who survived Buchenwald, half of them were children. Nobel Peace Prize winner Elie Wiesel was one of the children liberated 50 years ago.
At the ceremony Sunday near Weimar, Buchenwald survivors recalled how the SS murdered inmates by injecting poisons into their hearts, drowned prisoners in latrines and worked them to death at the nearby stone quarry.
Buchenwald was liberated April 11, 1945, by the U.S. Army under the command of Gen. George Patton. The general ordered 1,000 residents of Weimar to see what had been occurring within a few miles of their homes. The citizens reportedly were forced to look at body parts and bones in the camp crematorium.
Rabbi Yisrael Meir Lau, now Israel’s chief Ashkenazi rabbi, was then prisoner No. 11704. He was 7 years old when Patton’s army entered the camp.
Although he was not the key speaker at Sunday’s ceremony in nearby Weimar, Lau’s speech before a packed audience of hundreds was the most emotionally gripping.
Noting the coming of Passover, the child survivor compared the camp’s liberation to Moses’ liberation of the Jews form Egypt.
Lau also recalled a hug he received upon liberation from an American rabbi with the U.S. forces.
“He asked me how old I was and I said, “I’m older than you,’” Lau told the attentive audience, which included Ignatz Bubis, the head of the German Jewish community.
“You laugh like a child,” Lau recalled telling the rabbi. “I don’t laugh. Tell me who is older.”
Lau also told of a U.S. soldier who, with one hand, held his small, emaciated body high in the air.
“He lifted me up and said to the people of Weimar, `Look at your enemy,’” Lau said.
Bernhard Vogel, president of the German state of Thuringia, opened the ceremony, saying he feels ashamed when he thinks of what occurred in Germany’s name.
Before Sunday’s ceremonies, a memorial to the Gypsies was erected, with Gypsy leaders calling for their minority to be awarded the status of a recognized minority, such as the Danish or Serbian minorities, in Germany.