Groups want to expose the truth about Buchenwald

April 21, 1991|By New York Times News Service

BUCHENWALD, Germany -- An angry debate over the meaning of German history has erupted at the site of the former Nazi concentration camp here.

Few names conjure up such vivid visions of human cruelty as that of Buchenwald. Under Hitler, more than a quarter-million prisoners from three dozen countries were sent to work here as slave laborers. About 65,000 died.

Today Buchenwald is open to the public, a stark memorial to victims of evil. Historians, archivists and other professionals who work here are charged with documenting an unspeakable truth and presenting it to visitors honestly and fairly.

In that job, some local residents say, they have failed miserably.

"The museum up there is full of lies," said George Ghiletiuc, a human rights worker. "People who work there have dedicated their whole careers to hiding and distorting history. They must not be allowed to keep their jobs."

Buchenwald is in what was once East Germany, and administrators of the memorial have always been loyal Communists. Over the decades, they shaped exhibitions to suit the government's political needs.

Special displays, for example, glorify the deeds of German Communists who died here. But there are only a few scattered references to the suffering of Jews, and the thousands of Gypsies and homosexuals who were imprisoned here are passed over without comment.

Since the collapse of the East German government last year, citizen groups have been demanding that employees responsible for such distortions be removed from their posts.

The Thuringia state government, which administers the Buchenwald memorial, bowed to popular pressure recently and appointed a new director. Protesters took his appointment as a victory, but they are disappointed that he has not moved immediately to dismiss all his subordinates.

The new director, Ulrich Schneider, is a 36-year-old historian from western Germany who has specialized in the history of concentration camps, especially that of Buchenwald. The office where he now works, like all the offices in the administration building here, was once used by Nazi SS officers.

"There are two ways to react to working in such a place," Dr. Schneider said in an interview. "You can become overwhelmed with depression, because the human suffering that was inflicted here is so great that you can hardly assimilate it. Or you can consider it just a job and just another place to work.

"Both are excessive. I am trying to find a perspective that will allow me to work while still keeping me always aware of the suffering."

Buchenwald was not a death camp like Auschwitz, where many inmates were gassed within hours of their arrival. It was a labor camp where the Nazis practiced what became known as "extermination through work." Prisoners either worked at a nearby stone quarry or an adjoining arms plant, or were sent to one of 128 factories in other parts of Germany that relied on slave labor.

At Buchenwald, there were not only guards who beat prisoners to death whenever it pleased them, but doctors who conducted gruesome medical experiments on inmates, and officers who made lampshades out of the skin of victims.

Surveying the grounds from his office window, Dr. Schneider said he understands why many people are outraged at the lies that have shrouded Buchenwald for years. But he said he was not prepared to dismiss any of his new subordinates.

"I don't want to wipe away everything that has been done here over the last 40 years," he said. "I just want to add to it. The monuments to murdered Communists will not be removed, but monuments to other victims and groups of victims will be added."

In the nearby town of Weimar, a human rights advisory committee that works with city and regional officials met recently to discuss the situation at Buchenwald. Committee members, several of whom were active in the movement that brought down the Communist government in 1989, said they were not satisfied the hiring of a new director.

"We're happy that Dr. Schneider was hired, but the former

director, who was the worst kind of Communist functionary, has been kept on as his assistant," said a member, Eberhart Schultze.

"After all that has happened, the Communists are still allowed to be custodians of our history. We want them out, and we want honest people to replace them."

Former administrators of the Buchenwald memorial are being criticized not only for their incomplete portrayal of Nazi atrocities, but for refusing to acknowledge what happened at this site after the Nazi defeat in 1945.

From 1945 to 1950, the occupying Soviet army ran a detention camp of its own at Buchenwald. It was intended as a prison for those suspected of aiding the Nazis, but after a time it apparently evolved into a miniature version of the old camp.

Witnesses have said that many inmates were sent there without trial and that an unknown number died from overwork, exposure, disease and starvation.

Because of East Germany's close ties to the Soviet Union, the story of Special Camp 2, as it was known, was suppressed for decades. Administrators of the Buchenwald memorial refused to investigate, and there is no suggestion in exhibits that anyone other than Nazis practiced torture and killing here.

Dr. Schneider is planning a special exhibition to document the history of the Soviet camp.

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