Germany – the 1930s

There were no charges brought, no court case, no defence team.

One day would bring a bang on the door, or a street arrest, and another person would be removed from their everyday lives without explanation and placed in a concentration camp.

No-one knew how long they would be imprisoned for, nor whether they would make it out alive.

The purpose of these camps, established from the start of National Socialist government in early 1933, was to help maintain and enforce the regime’s rule of terror.

In this, as many have noted, the camps were successful.


In the 1930s, when prisoners were released from concentration camps, they were forbidden to talk about their experiences. Their shorn heads, starved bodies, and cuts and bruises would have told their own stories, however. And people always talk, in whispers if necessary, and so the fear of these places and the regime was perpetuated – as intended.

By November 1938, when the ordinary men of our families were arrested and imprisoned (mainly) in Dachau, Sachsenhausen, and Buchenwald concentration camps, the guards would have been young men who had been brought up under National Socialism. They would probably recall no other world except that which legislated against Jews because of a happenstance of birth. Brought up under the Hitler Youth and then trained by the SS Deaths-Head Units, these guards had been taught systematically to rule by fear over a population for whom they had long been trained to feel no compassion.


Having lulled the world for a time during the 1936 Olympic Games, in 1937 the National Socialist government had Buchenwald constructed; at around the same time Sachsenhausen was also designed and built along similar lines. This new construction phase was a response to a perceived need for more prison space to help increase the pace of change in the ‘Third Reich’.

Buchenwald opened on 15th July 1937, and transports of prisoners from older camps arrived over the next few months. Many of the smaller camps were closed down as the larger new camps were opened up. Buchenwald was intended to hold 6,000 prisoners to start with, but was designed for ease of later expansion: “Boundless terror requires boundless camps” (Wachsmann, p. 99), as Himmler observed.

Buchenwald was situated on a mountain, around 5 miles from Weimar in central Germany. There were some quarries and a brickworks on the surrounding slopes. The whole area was initially forested – the name Buchenwald means ‘beech forest’. At this stage, the camp comprised around 100 hectares.

When the first batch of prisoners arrived in 1937, their first task was to construct the barracks. As the camp grew, more trees were felled, and more barrack buildings were erected by the prisoners.

By the time our fathers, grandfathers, and uncles were imprisoned here, the camps were the size of small towns – Buchenwald held 10,000 before the events of November 1938, and another 11,000 were added after those mass arrests of Jewish men. It also housed around 2,500 guards in 1938.

In the early days, many of the mundane routines of the camp were administered by the prisoners – they were put in charge of clothing, the barber shop, and the hospital, for example. This method of enforced collusion was intended to make prisoners feel complicit in the camp systems, and thus to feel guilty for the suffering around them. This form of mental torment was used extensively throughout the concentration camp system during the long years they operated – an aspect of the camps that will be familiar to readers of the work of  Primo Levi.

In general appearance, Buchenwald was much like Dachau – looking more like a military camp than a prison with cells – although there were also some cells in the camps. The camp was surrounded by barbed wire that had high-voltage current running through it; this border was guarded by soldiers in watch towers that were situated approximately every 200 yards along the camp perimeter. There was a strip of land known as both the ‘neutral zone’ and the ‘death strip’ that ran alongside the barbed-wire border. To step into this area was to be shot immediately and without warning.

There was a roll call area, used daily, and long low prisoner barrack huts – similar in exterior design to those we now know were in use at Kitchener camp in Britain, although in a very different context. Later, the barracks were extended upwards into two-storey buildings. There were sleeping areas at both ends of the huts and washing facilities in the centre.

There was a shortage of water in Buchenwald, and thus no proper latrines. Pits were dug, about four yards deep, with a railing around and a roof above: horrifically, the guards drowned men in these pits from time to time .

There was also little water available for washing through much of this period. It was only turned on for a few minutes morning and evening: at times, the men went weeks without water for washing.


The sheer numbers who arrived in November 1938 meant that conditions were immediately appalling: “One of the bloodiest and most horrible chapters in the history of Buchenwald,” was how two long-term prisoners later described this time (Wachsmann, p. 181).

The early arrivals among the ‘November Jews’ were forced into a basic barrack hut that had been built only a few weeks earlier – initially to accommodate the increasing numbers of Austrian Jews sent to the camps since the Anschluß. Next, at night, up to two thousand men were crammed into each of four new huts, hastily erected, with mud floors. There were no mattresses, no blankets, and they were packed in so tightly that they could not move. There was nowhere to store belongings, no soap, no water, and ill health and disease was soon a critical issue. One night, two of the barracks caved in under the pressure of the bodies within.

On arrival, the men’s heads were shorn, in a process repeated at regular intervals; from 1938 onwards they were also given uniforms of the now-familiar striped clothing. Numbers were sewn onto jackets and trousers, and by the late 1930s, prisoners were addressed by guards by their numbers instead of by their names.

The food in Buchenwald up to this point had been bland and many prisoners lost a lot of weight, but  families had been allowed to send small amounts of money with which prisoners could supplement their rations. There were cigarettes in the camp and these were used as a form of currency. However, so many had arrived in such large numbers in November 1938 that the camp systems broke down and food was only given out irregularly. The water shortages caused terrible dehydration among the men. Despite diarrhoea fast becoming a serious threat to health, and the latrine ditches overflowing, medical assistance was denied to all – even to those with serious infections, frozen limbs, and heart conditions.

For most of the pre-November 1938 prisoners, every day except Sunday was a day of hard labour and hours’ long roll calls spent standing in the square – especially if someone had made a mistake of some kind. Even the ill had to stand through this routine, propped up by friends if necessary. For the new arrivals, however, the camps were not initially set up to make use of their labour, and they were instead forced to endure long days of standing or sitting around in the freezing winter weather, or running on the roll call square with hours of punishment exercises and pointless, debilitating drills.

The guards physically assaulted the men, and verbal insults were routine: they even entered the barracks at night to attack the men, so no moment could be spent in peace or with any sense of security.

Theft was routine and endemic in Buchenwald: families back at home were threatened to send more money, which was taken by the camp guards. Ransoms had to be paid for release, and prisoners were also forced to work for the guards in their homes. The SS guards of Buchenwald were often to be seen in town in expensive clothes, and driving expensive new cars (Wachsmann, p. 184).

After only a few days here, the Jewish prisoners almost all had serious physical and psychological wounds. There was a high number of suicides, and Buchenwald generally had the highest number of deaths at this time among the three main camps deployed to house the ‘November Jews’: around 297 men died here during November and December 1938 alone.


Friedländer, Saul . 1998. Nazi Germany and the Jews: The years of persecution, 1933-39, Phoenix Giant.

Neurath, Paul Martin. 20015. The society of terror: Inside the Dachau and Buchenwald concentration camps, Paradigm.

Wachsmann, Nikolaus. 2016. KL: A history of the Nazi concentration camps, Little, Brown.


This brief account of Buchenwald provides a broader context for the events that began in November 1938 – to try to provide some understanding of what was endured by our fathers and our grandfathers, our uncles, and our cousins. Such research pages might help families understand why, at all costs, it became a priority to get these men out of Germany on their release – when a condition of their release was always that they must leave the country immediately.

Testimonies about Buchenwald and the other camps made by the ‘November Jews’ – by men such as our relatives – were brought out of ‘Greater Germany’ by Alfred Wiener and his colleagues.

These may be viewed online at the Wiener Library website: http://wienerlibrarycollections.co.uk/novemberpogrom/home


For an overview of the wider concentration camp system throughout the war years, see the following CIA document on ‘German Concentration Camps’: