Saved by the German Leftwing Underground, as Recounted by a Jewish Survivor
by John Ranz
From the Autumn 2015 special issue of Jewish Currents on the theme, “Honoring the Jewish Resistance.” Originally published in 1993.
THERE IS A LARGELY UNWRITTEN STORY, known to Buchenwald survivors like me, that needs to be told. It is the tale of the heroic role played by non-Jewish leftists in the German underground — mostly socialists and communists — in saving the lives of large numbers of Jewish children, and adults, too, at the Nazi concentration camp in Buchenwald.
Buchenwald was an unusual place for a rescue to occur, since it is located in the heart of Germany, in the province of Thuringia, near the city of Weimar. Yet this was one of the few camps where prisoners were able to form a sizable resistance against the Nazi camp authorities. Although exposed, denounced, and decimated several times, the underground was nevertheless able to revive itself, continue its organized activities, and influence the inner life and morality of the camp inmates.
Resistance was a double struggle, against the daily persecution and terror by the guards, and against the enemies within, prisoners who were common criminals. The Nazis gave these common criminals preferential treatment to induce them to torture and spy on the racial and political prisoners.
Among the thousands of political prisoners, mostly German, there were outstanding prewar communists and socialists, including Ernst Thaelmann, leader of the German Communist Party, and the world-renowned Léon Blum, leader of the French Socialist Party and former prime minister of France. There were also dozens of members of the parliaments of countries subjugated by the Nazis.
To defeat the camp’s common criminals was a major goal of the political prisoners. It was not easy, however, to remove them from their positions of relative power, and many lives were lost in that struggle. When the political prisoners, who had fought the Nazis, did gain the upper hand, they treated Jewish prisoners with compassion to the greatest possible extent, even though such treatment of Jews was forbidden by the Nazis. Jewish children were secretly given a share of the food that came from Swiss Red Cross packages. When clothing was distributed, Jewish children were “in.” A few well-known Jewish anti-fascists or communists were close to the underground leadership and acted as liaisons with the camp’s Jewish prisoners. A similar system of contacts was established by the underground with other nationalities. Among the Jewish prisoners who were part of the underground were Rudi Arndt (murdered in 1941), Eric Eisler (gassed in Auschwitz), and Emil Carlebach, who became a leading member of the Buchenwald survivors’ organization in his hometown of Frankfurt am Main.
In 1944-45, suffering constant defeats by the Red Army, the Nazis were forced to retreat from the USSR. After their momentous defeat at Stalingrad, they were routed in Poland and on the entire Eastern front. As the retreating German army was nearing the concentration camps in Polish territory, the Nazis ordered the removal of remaining camp prisoners. Any Jew found in camp after this order was to be shot.
FOR THE JEWISH PRISONERS, this posed a terrifying dilemma. Many of them felt unable to survive another evacuation deeper into Germany. Adults were desperately trying to hide in various places within the camp — some in the non-Jewish prisoner barracks, where perhaps they knew someone, others in holes under barracks floors. They removed the Jewish stars that immediately identified them in hope of perhaps being able to merge with prisoners of other nationalities in the ensuing chaos. The trouble was that they had nothing with which to replace these stars, such as the insignia marking them as French or Belgian, and this immediately gave them away.
In spite of such difficulties, the underground was unwilling to comply with the evacuation. They felt that the Americans were not very far away from Buchenwald, that it was perhaps a matter of sticking it out a little while longer. On the advice of the underground leaders and barracks seniors who were in direct contact with them, no one in the two barracks that housed mostly Jewish children reported to the gate, and approximately two thousand Jewish adults also hung back, with the help of non-Jewish prisoners. Other Jews mingled with non-Jewish prisoners and departed with the transports of their nationalities, in hope of being safer as non-Jews.
The underground played for time with delaying tactics while building up its resistance. The Jewish children were instructed to remove their Stars of David and remain alert. Acts of solidarity like these had a tremendously uplifting effect on Jewish prisoners by making them aware of “other” Germans besides the Nazis.
Among the German underground leaders who actively worked to save Jews by falsifying personal identification records in the camp office were Alfred Kuntz, executed by the Nazis in the Dora concentration camp, and Robert Sievert and Willi Seifert, both of whom survived and were later active in the government of East Germany. Of particular importance was Hans Eiden, the top prisoner official, who was directly responsible to the Nazis for all events within the camp and for the execution of their orders. He survived the war and died in Trier, West Germany in the 1950s. The only Buchenwald prisoner ever honored by Yad Vashem was Wilhelm Hamman, a German communist who was in charge of the children’s barracks (Block #8). He ordered the children not to answer when the SS guards came in and asked who was Jewish, then declared to the Nazi officer that there were no Jewish children on his block. Hamman, too, survived the war and died in 1950 in Gros Gerau, West Germany.
On the morning of April 11, 1945, the Nazi camp administration, including all the high officials, left Buchenwald, based upon their own information that the Allies were already in the vicinity. To cover up their flight as long as possible, they left the guards on the watchtowers. These guards represented the lowest echelon in the camp administration; many of them were Ukrainians, Latvians, and other East European collaborators. But they, too, soon grasped the situation and melted away. Observing the new situation, the underground seized the initiative, pulled out concealed weapons, and took over the camp. The nearly ten-day war of nerves between the Nazi camp leaders and the resisters of the underground was now over.
AT AROUND 2 P.M. that afternoon, a lone U.S. tank rolled into the camp. I stood there with other prisoners, staring at the G.I. who came out of it. There were 21,000 of us left in the camp on that day of liberation. Through Nazi terror during the last few days, around 38,000 had been forced to lave the camp and continue on death marches deeper into southern Germany. Among the liberated prisoners were close to 1,000 Jewish children, the largest such group alive among the remnants of the 1.5 million in prewar Europe. One of the children saved that day became the chief rabbi of Tel Aviv, Israel Lau; another was the Nobel Peace Prize winner and world-renowned author, Elie Wiesel; a third was Mordecai Strigler, who became editor of the Yiddish Forverts and Yidisher Kemfer. Many of these young people, perhaps most of them, would soon be fighting in the war for Israeli independence.
I witnessed and lived through the events described above. The children of Buchenwald and other Jews survived there because the prisoner underground resisted the Nazi evacuation order, compliance with which would have meant certain death for most of the Jews. They survived because underground leaders were driven by ideals of socialism and humanism. From these ideals, they drew the strength needed to resist Nazism and save other human beings. Indeed, they would not have been in Buchenwald in the first place had they not been staunch anti-Nazi activists.
In those museums erected to remember the Holocaust, the leftwing prisoners’ underground should be honored, not just as individuals but also as a collective. Historical credit is long overdue.
John Ranz was a survivor of Buchenwald who founded The Generation After/Holocaust Survivors Association in the U.S. and was a regular writer for Jewish Currents. He was author of Inhumanity: Death March to Buchenwald and The Last Jews of Bendzin (2007).