On Friday 11th April 1945, American forces liberated the concentration camp, Buchenwald in Weimar Germany. In an attempt to hide the horror, the Gestapo telephoned the camp and ordered the commanders to destroy all evidence of the camp (and the inmates) with explosives. They did not know that the guards had already fled and that the person answering the telephone and who assured them that it had already been done was, in fact, a prisoner.
Buchenwald turned out to be second only to Auschwitz in terms of cruelty and horror. Among the camp’s most gruesome characters was Ilse Koch, wife of the camp commandant, who was infamous for her sadism. She often beat prisoners with a riding crop, and collected lampshades, book covers, and gloves made from the skin of camp victims.
One of those saved by the Americans was Elie Wiesel, who would go on to win the Nobel Peace Prize in 1986 for his work in fighting violence, repression and racism. Initially haunted by his experience, Wiesel refused to talk about the death camps for many years. However, he eventually put pen to paper and his work is now considered amongst the most important in Holocaust literature, ranking alongside Promo Levi’s If this is a Man and Anne Frank’s The Diary of a Young Girl.
He saw education as the antidote to the ignorance that creates racial hatred saying “No human race is superior; no religious faith is inferior. All collective judgments are wrong. Only racists make them” – Elie Wiesel, Night (1960)
Post-16 students from Minsthorpe actually visited the death camps as part of the Lessons from Auschwitz project. Learning about this terrible act was clearly moving with one student describing “The hair, the piles and piles of hair, shoes, suitcases, toothbrushes, paintbrushes, pots and pans, toys and other day-to-day items that the Jews had brought to Auschwitz. They believed that they were going to a better place. Nothing could have ever have prepared us for that, it was heart-breaking”.
As Wiesel said, to forget the dead would be like killing them again…