Hitler's forgotten victims to be remembered at Buchenwald
By Richard Murphy
BUCHENWALD, Germany, April 3 (Reuter) - Half a million gypsies murdered by Nazi Germany, long neglected by history, will receive belated recognition this month when a memorial in their honour is unveiled at the former Buchenwald death camp. The bleak hillside camp on the outskirts of Weimar also hopes to lay to rest other lingering historical controversies when it commemorates the 50th anniversary of its liberation at ceremonies on April 8 and 9.
A new museum will pay tribute to all the estimated 51,000 people who died in Buchenwald, not just the communists singled out for glorification by the regime that ruled former East Germany until 1989.
It will also acknowledge another fact hushed up under communism -- that for five years after World War Two, Buchenwald remained in use as an internment camp run by Soviet occupation forces. Around 10,000 inmates, mostly Germans, died.
For Germany's small gypsy community, which likes to be known as the Sinti and Romany people, the erection of a new monument near one commemorating the 11,000 Jewish victims of Buchenwald is the culmination of a long struggle for recognition.
"For more than four decades, the holocaust on the Sinti and Romany people was excluded from historical recollection, in west Germany as well as in former east Germany," says Edgar Bamberger of the Sinti and Romany Documentation Centre in Heidelberg.
"It is therefore all the more important that, on the 50th anniversary of the liberation of Buchenwald, for the first time in Germany, a monument is being erected on the site of a former concentration camp to recall the suffering of the Sinti and Romany people under national socialism."
Like Jews, gypsies were branded racially inferior by the Nazis and earmarked for mass extermination. Prisoners at Buchenwald, which was built in 1937, were worked to death as slave labourers in the camp quarry or at outlying arms factories.
There were no gas chambers but thousands were shot, hanged or tortured to death by the camp's SS guards.
Within the perverse hierarchical system operated by the Nazis, gypsies belonged with Jews right at the bottom of the racial scale.
"We were at the bottom of the heap," says gypsy Franz Rosenbach. "You were not recognised as a person, you were a number."
Several hundred survivors from dozens of countries are expected to attend the commemoration ceremonies. "There are not much more than 100 survivors left in Germany," says Reinhold Lochmann, a German communist.
He and other survivors are keen to ensure that the successes of a Buchenwald resistance committee in saving the lives of prisoners and ultimately in liberating the camp should not go unrecognised.
Some conservative west German historians have challenged assertions that political prisoners, many of them communists, organised effective resistance to the brutal SS camp regime. But Florial Barrier, a retired French printer who now lives in Tours, says he was a member of a clandestine international prisoners' committee which secretly stockpiled weapons and tried to save individuals from death.
"International solidarity did exist," he says. "The organisation made sabotage possible, it took care of the sick, provided food and ultimately secured the liberation of the camp."
U.S. military archives support the prisoners' claim that they seized control of Buchenwald on April 11, 1945, taking around 125 SS men prisoner.
U.S. soldiers who arrived on April 13 reported finding the camp in the hands of a well organised committee of prisoners. "I took part in the liberation of Buchenwald," Barrier says. "This armed operation had been in preparation for years, at first thanks to the German prisoners, later with the participation of all other nationalities."
Robert Buechler, a Czech Jew imprisoned as a child in Buchenwald, recalls political prisoners sharing the food parcels which only they were allowed to receive with other inmates and believes they saved many lives, especially towards the end.
"I cannot prove it, but I am convinced that these political prisoners, the illegal movement here, contributed to the saving of around 600 children," he says.
For all survivors, returning to Buchenwald reopens bitter wounds which the passage of 50 years has done little to heal. Reinhold Lochmann's voice dwindles to a whisper as he describes scenes of unimaginable brutality which took place virtually daily on the camp parade ground.
One of his worst memories is of a prisoner being forced into a small wooden box, which was nailed shut. The screaming prisoner was then abandoned on the parade ground to starve to death.
"After two or three days, it was over," Lochmann recalls. But he is cheered when he remembers how some prisoners, rising above their barbaric conditions, were capable of acts of often life-saving kindness and generosity to their fellow men.
"Solidarity was vital for survival," he says. "If I had not found good friends and comrades in Buchenwald, I would have been driven to despair within the first few days." Robert Buechler, whose parents were murdered in Auschwitz, finds one bleak consolation as he surveys the desolate remains of Buchenwald.
"For me there is some satisfaction -- they wanted to kill us, but I am still here."
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