This Week in Haaretz 1945 / A Disturbing Report From Churchill's Delegation to Buchenwald

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On April 19, 1945, eight days after the Buchenwald concentration camp was liberated by Allied forces, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill stood before parliament and delivered an urgent request.

"I received this morning an unofficial statement from General Eisenhower indicating that new discoveries, particular in Weimar, are far more serious than what has been revealed up to now," he said. "Eisenhower urges me to send a group of MPs to his headquarters immediately, so that they can see these atrocities with their own eyes. I have decided that a parliamentary delegation comprised of eight members of the House of Commons and two members of the House of Lords should depart immediately... The goal of this visit is to discover the truth."

Winston Churchill.

Members of the Buchenwald delegation were selected from a large group of volunteers who offered their services that day. And they had to hurry - direct evidence was disappearing by the hour. Under orders from Allied soldiers, German residents in the area had already started to clean the camp of its filth and festering disease, and to bury the dead one by one; Eisenhower issued commands for the burial procedures. The few huts fit for human use were being converted by Allied workers into field hospitals, to treat the tens of thousands of mortally ill camp prisoners.

The British delegation departed the next day, aboard Dakota military aircraft. On Saturday morning, April 21, they passed through Buchenwald's gates.

The delegation's report was prepared within a week. On April 27, 1945 a thin volume was published, selling for two pence to anyone interested. A copy is preserved today in the Haaretz archive. Delegation members clarify in the preface that they arrived at Buchenwald without an intention to conduct a legal inquiry of Nazi war crimes, a process "that would have lasted weeks, even months." Instead, they came to "discover the truth," they wrote, quoting Churchill - so long as real human traces remained evident in the camp.

Though conditions at Buchenwald had surely improved immeasurably in the week after the Allies liberated it, evidence was still abundant. "The stench of decay and disease still enveloped the camp," delegation members reported. American soldiers told the British visitors about what had taken place in one of the camp's "better" huts: Female prisoners were forced to sleep there with the few prisoners who received special privileges - which included 20-minute visits to this slave-labor brothel. The women were promised better conditions, but in most cases they were executed. When the camp was liberated, 15 women were still alive in the hovel.

The report described the former inmates as wandering around like exhausted skeletons. Those in slightly better health showed their scars and wounds to the British visitors, and described the beatings they had suffered.

"One half-naked skeleton, who wandered on crutches, writhing in pain in the corridor stopped when he saw us, straightened up, smiled and saluted," they wrote.

The British parliamentarians visited wooden huts that had no floors, where victims were packed in. Some showed the visitors the boards on which they slept: "Even in their extremely emaciated state, they could sleep on the planks only by lying on their sides, without moving."

The delegation members witnessed similar conditions in the Nazi health clinics. "Excrement from dysentery sufferers dripped through the planks," they wrote. They visited gas chambers, and rooms whose ceilings had nooses for hanging prisoners. There were piles of corpses, still dressed in blue and white striped uniforms; these victims had starved to death. The visitors were informed of torture experiments carried out in the medical labs, and met one survivor, a Polish Jew, who had been castrated.

"They told us that most of those who had undergone operations were dead; and they made it clear that the policy of exterminating Jews had long replaced that of sterilizing and castrating them," the report stated.

The parliamentarians heard about Frau Koch, the wife of the camp's commander, who would collect objects made from human skin. A British scientist who accompanied the MPs examined a lamp shade that had belonged to the Nazi woman and verified these claims.

The visitors also reported seeing small signs of restitution and recovery. A Hitler doll had been placed next to the camp's gate, as though it had been killed symbolically - with a caption in German that read, "Hitler must die so that Germany can live."

"Preparing this report, we have committed ourselves to writing with restraint and objectivity, and to refrain from personal responses or emotional comments," the delegates concluded. However, they declared, "we are of the unanimous opinion that a policy of starvation and inhuman brutalization was enforced at Buchenwald for a prolonged period of time. Such camps symbolize the lowest nadir ever reached by humanity. The memory of what we saw and heard at Buchenwald will haunt us for many years." (Lital Levin )

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