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Buchenwald 'living hell,' says French writer

By Marcel Conversy
Buchenwald 'living hell,' says French writer
Photograph of prisoners at Buchenwald concentration camp taken on April 16, 1945, five days after liberation of the camp by U.S. troops of the 80th Division. Elie Wiesel is in the second row from the bottom, seventh from the left, next to the bunk post. Photo via National Archives

PARIS, May 3, 1945 (UP) - I have returned to the world of free and decent men from the living hell of Buchenwald.

For 15 months, life for me was gnawing hunger, torture, slow death. Thousands died around me, because they refused to bow either the knee or the spirit to Hitler's Reich.

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Why didn't I die? Because I was determined to live. And because I learned always to say "yes" while saying "no" in my heart.

But I never expected to live in the world of free men again.

Sept. 15, 1943, I was arrested by the gestapo for spreading the news in my home town, Thonon, of Italy's capitulation.

I was taken first to an internment camp at Compeigne and on Jan. 17 came the order for my deportation to Germany.

I was one of 120 men packed in a single freight car. We were given a tiny piece of bread, a scrap of sausage and nothing to drink. The doors were locked from the outside and the only sanitation was a single bucket. We could neither sit or lie down.

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Someone had concealed a knife with which he cut an aperture in the walls of the car for air which enabled all of us to breathe. But it was not enough to save all of us.

The journey endured 48 hours. Men collapsed and died of thirst and suffocation.

We were dumped out at Weimar where began the long, slow march to Buchenwald.

Sick or elderly prisoners who couldn't keep up were attacked by SS police dogs or were clubbed to death by guards. One-fifth of the total number of prisoners died in the freight cars or during the march.

At the death camp we were made to take a shower. Our heads were shaved and we were medically examined. Then we received a striped prison jacket without buttons, a pair of trousers, a shirt, thin underpants and wooden-soled clogs.

We were held one month in quarantine awaiting assignment to the "big camp," where all occupants were subjected to endless hard labor, or to the "small camp" for weak and ailing prisoners, known as the "camp of death" because few ever emerged. I was sent to the latter.

Always a light eater I traded a piece of bread with a Russian prisoner for an old bag. I made a covering for my loins and an additional undershirt with it.

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We slept six together on a bunk measuring six feet by five.

There were three types of labor: First, in the subterranean factories. We scarcely ever saw anyone return from them. Second, near the camp, building an ultra-modern war factory. Third, in the forests where those who simply refused to die were sent to caut and haul wood in the sub-zero weather.

The Nazis wanted them to die a slow death by cold, hunger and torture. I have seen them let men with frozen limbs die lingeringly rather than put an end to their misery by shooting.

Disease swept whole prison blocks. More than once hunger-crazed prisoners murdered neighbors for their food.

Russian prisoners in particular settled scores with Russians they suspected of collaboration.

Block 61 was reserved for suffers from dysentery who already had their death numbers stamped on their legs to save work after they were corpses.

They were left all night, naked. In the morning the German guards hosed them with icy water. They died like flies but more and more took their places.

Three crematorium had six furnaces which worked continuously, and bodies were carried to them in electric elevators.

There were torture chambers from whose scientifically perfected horrors no one ever returned. And there was block 46 where German surgeons and scientists experimented with prisoners' organs. They used Jews in particular for vivisection.

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Last Aug. 24 after nearby factories were bombed and destroyed the prisoners set up their first secret resistance committee, comprised of five Russians, five Germans, three French, three Czechs, three Poles and one representative of other nations.

The committee succeeded in secretly manufacturing arms. On the day the Americans arrived and liberated us there were 800 rifles in the camp. The prisoners themselves captured 60 SS guards who had been left behind when the Nazis fled.

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