Prisoners and US army soldiers stand behind the gate of Buchenwald concentration camp, which reads "Jedem das seine" (To each his just deserts). Photo: Eric Schwab/AFP/Getty
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Buchenwald in 1945: Richard Crossman tells the story of a holocaust survivor

In this article first published on 23 June 1945, the future Labour minister and New Statesman editor Richard Crossman recounts the experiences of “K”, a survivor of the Buchenwald concentration camp.

In the spring of 1945, Richard Crossman was one of the first British officers to enter the Dachau concentration camp. Having served in various British army roles during the Second World War, he was then elected to Parliament at the end of the conflict. He represented Coventry East as a Labour MP until shortly before his death in 1974, and was Secretary of State for Social Services in the Harold Wilson government of the late 1960s. He had been a contributor to the New Statesman since the late 1930s, and had a brief stint as editor between 1970 and 1972. Here, for Holocaust Memorial Day, we republish an article Crossman wrote for the magazine in the summer of 1945, telling the story of “K”, a survivor of the Buchenwald concentration camp.

I was desperately busy on the morning when the interrogator brought K into my office. To get rid of them I asked them both to dinner, conscious that I was almost certainly in for a wasted evening. We had seen too many “Concentration camp prisoners” – pathetic, broken creatures – most of them homeless and stateless. When one had heard their story through, there always came the moment when one had to explain that we could not provide them with visas for England or the States: they must return to a Displaced Persons’ Centre and wait.

But the moment we met in the Mess it was obvious that K was different. Fair-haired, slim, about 34, with neat, gold-rimmed glasses and a pleasant Austrian accent, he looked as though his borrowed grey flannel suit belonged to him. In spite of eight years in Buchenwald, he had been able to discard, along with the grotesque grey-and-white prisoner’s clothes, the prisoner’s mentality. K was not only liberated: he was free.

We started dinner at seven and finished at 3.30 a.m. We talked Buchenwald; and what follows is only a fragment of what K had to tell.

As a young Austrian Catholic, K had a rough time at first. When he got there in 1938 Buchenwald was composed of criminals, who held all the key positions under the S.S.; some 2,000 German Communists–the cream of the Party; Jews; gypsies and homosexuals. Each group was distinguished by its own badge, green for criminals, red for politicals, yellow for Jews, and pink for homosexuals. As a political, K was grouped with the Communists, who did not see any particular reason why they should help an Austrian “crypto-Fascist.”

Somehow K managed to come to terms with three or four Communist intellectuals. “We had one thing in common — a will to survive. Mine was based on religion, theirs on Marxism. All of us realised there was one thing we could not afford — pity. I remember getting up early one morning to have ten minutes alone. I was sleeping in a three-tiered bunk less than three feet wide with four men on each tier. Privacy was a little difficult. I walked outside the barrack and there were rambler roses in full bloom festooned up the wall. It was five o’clock and dawn was breaking. I wasn’t looking where I was going and I saw a body swinging from the gutter and bumping the roses. It was a gypsy who had hung himself by his braces. And do you know, there was a cigarette end drooping from the corner of his mouth.

“Yes, one lived by the will to survive. You remember the winter of 1940? It was our worst winter because they allowed us no parcels. We were beaten if we went to bed in anything except our underclothes. One day we stood for 19 hours on end at attention on the Parade Ground because one prisoner was missing. I saw 19 people fall dead. The S.S. counted and re-counted — and the funny thing was that in the end the silly swine found that no one was missing.

“I had done well. As an intellectual I had no special skill which would give me a soft job in the jeweller's workshop or the book-binder’s or the shop where the model viking ships were made for the S.S. to give as Christmas presents. I was due for a job in the quarries until a Communist offered me a job in the smithy a hundred yards away. I knew nothing about it, but there was a fire there, and he told me to stand beside it and pull bolts out of a rusty bar and put them back again. I could see the Jews in the quarry through the windows.

“One day I looked up and saw a Jew crawling on hands and knees towards the smithy. I watched him. It took him over an hour to do the hundred yards. I knew what was coming. Finally I heard the scratching on the door. I moved involuntarily to the door and opened it a foot. I saw him lying there outside. His nails were bleeding. The next thing I knew, I was lying on the floor by the fire and my comrade was standing over me saying, ‘You bloody fool,’ We picked up the body on our way home from work and carried it back to the camp.

“You ask me how I, as a Catholic, can tell you that. Because we had to reserve our pity for useful things — for helping the comrades when we could really help. I learnt some hard lessons. I hated the Communists’ contempt for the upper-class prisoners. But mostly it was justified. There were high-grade Civil Servants, important business men and dignitaries there. In the camp we were all on the level, all dressed the same. Most people’s morale is supported by the corset of their social prestige and rank and status. Strip those corsets off and they sag. They lose all self-respect and the proletariat look at them with contempt. You want examples? Well, the S.S. gave us a brothel in 1942, fourteen girls from another camp. The secret Camp Committee decided to put it out of bounds for all politicals, but some of the upper-class people paid their two marks and soon they were writing for the girls and stealing in order to give them presents. It was the same with the 200 Polish bots. That was the sort of thing which made the proletarian say that the bourgeoisie has no self-respect when you take off their corsets.

“How were we organised inside the camp? When the S.S. got rid of Comandant Koch — the one whose wife liked men with tattoos, selected them for her pleasure and then had them skinned to use the tattooed breast-skins as parchment for lampshades — the new Commandant was easier to deal with. The Communists got themselves into all the key positions which had been held by the criminals. There was a Communist Block Leader in charge of each block; Communists ran the hospital, the canteen, the kitchen, and, most important of all, the Labour Office which decided on the movement of prisoners from camp to camp and the composition of the work commandos. The S.S. had to leave most of this work to the German inmates, especially when the camp grew in size and thousands of foreigners were brought in. The choice was whether the criminals should have this power or the politicals. Of course, anyone who had it had power of life and death, yes, of life and death. As more and more foreigners came in, the Communists naturally tended to select foreign Communists to head up the barracks. They had an iron discipline They did many hard things but they saved the camp from total extermination.

“It was funny to see the S.S. power ebbing away. Partly it was just fatty degeneration. The S.S. men were shirking military service and were making a good thing out of the camp. They got corrupted by power, emotionally exhausted by beating and killing, and they knew they were losing the war. You won’t believe it, but on the day of liberation the Communists and the Russian soldiers were walking about in brand-new S.S. boots and wind-jackets and many of the S.S. had only shoes. And all the time the S.S. were torturing or beating us to death.

“I got a job as secretary to the doctor in charge of the typhus experimental station. I worked in closely with the Communists in the key jobs in the hospital. We were in a strong position because the ordinary S.S. were terrified of coming near either of our buildings for fear of infection. The two doctors were the only staff provided, and we worked on them pretty successful. In my section a great deal of experimental work was carried out on the inmates. We produced one good anti-typhus serum, but we reserved that for the inmates and sent one out to the S.S. divisions at the front consisting mostly of water.

“It was through our positions in the hospital and experimental stations that we were able to save many people from execution. A party of some fifty British for instance were brought in one day, mostly parachutists from the Maquis. Their morale was OK. They formed a national group like the Russians, and got in contact with the German comrades. One day we got wind that they were all to be executed in a week’s time. I talked it over with a Communist in the hospital and we agreed that we might be able to save four. So they held a meeting and selected the four. The rest knew they were for it.

“The most difficult problem was the British C.O. because he was so well known in the camp. The only way to save him was to substitute him for a dying man in the hospital and let him take the dying man’s papers. Unfortunately, the only foreign language he knew was French, and he was very tall. And there were no Frenchman in the hospital. By luck a transport of Frenchmen arrived two or three days before the execution date, many of them down with typhus. But there was only one who would do.

“I shall never forget that time. The Communist who had agreed to do the job kept on saying to me, ‘One little injection will do the trick. If your man is worth saving we can’t be squeamish.’ But the Englishman and I decided we couldn’t murder the man and we hung on till the Frenchman really was dying and the injection would be OK. That was the day before the execution day. 

“After the execution we both got the feeling that perhaps the man hadn’t been dying after all, and that we really had polished him off. So we’ve got the address of the Frenchman’s wife and were trying to find her to explain what happened and to offer her compensation.

“Anyway, it all went off all right. After a week in hospital, posing as the dead Frenchman, the Englishman was moved out to a camp where he was less well known. We kept contact with him until liberation. You’re surprised that one had scruples about little things like waiting for a man to be really dying before injecting him. But it was those little things which were the faith that kept me going. The Communists, of course, didn’t mind about them. For them the end justified the means and there’s doubt it was Communist discipline which saved the camp. In the end we had enough arms in the camp to take over before the Americans arrived.

“It’s a queer thing, but in Buchenwald we didn’t waste much time hating the S.S. They beat us, they butchered us, they exploited us; but our hatred (and our love, too) was reserved for the comrades inside. It was the stool-pigeons and the informers and the men who let us down whom we really hated. The S.S. was just an Act of God. You didn’t hate it, you just accepted it as the established order; or, if you were clever, you worked hard on it and corrupted it to make life bearable.

“I can see that you still wonder why one troubled to survive. Of course, a lot didn’t, especially the non-politicals. But a Concentration Camp is just another form of human existence. After the first shock one accepts it, just as one accepts the front line or the slum. And if you decide to survive and adapt yourself, you live just as fully in Buchenwald as anywhere else: though the chances of death are a good deal higher.

“Like normal people, we had our escapes. We were allowed to receive books. Heavens, how I read in the half-hour available! I shall never read so greedily again. We got the world news from the commandos who mixed with the Germans outside, and I think we were the best informed people in Germany. We used to send directives to comrades outside on propaganda. Then there was the cinema, we had it twice a week, mostly non-political stuff. The S.S. had a sense of humour. They put the screen in the room where the beating block was kept. We used to watch films of people eating and drinking and sitting in arm-chairs, with the beating block just there behind. But on the whole it helped.”

I shall never forget that dinner party. K with his neat gold-rimmed glasses, his boyish enjoyment of a good story, seemed not only to have survived Buchenwald, but to have developed out of it a new steely ironical philosophy. Perhaps, I thought, as I listened to him, the fraternity and internecine struggle of Buchenwald, the mixture of idealism and conspiracy, of self-sacrifice and self-assertion, are a microcosm of the moral and political struggle which will face us all in the post-war world.

Nicola Sturgeon. Photo: Getty
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For the first time in decades, there is genuine dissent in Scottish Nationalist ranks

The First Minister is facing pressure to talk less about independence - and bring on new talent in her party.

She so recently seemed all-powerful, licensed to reign for as long as she chose, with the authority to pursue the return of our national sovereignty. We would then have the ability to strike our own deals on our own terms, a smaller, smarter, leaner nation freed from the stifling constraints of partnership with a much larger neighbour. There was, she repeatedly told us, nothing to be afraid of.

Now, suddenly, she is the victim of her own miscalculation: having misread the public mood, having raced too far ahead of moderate opinion, she finds herself at bay. The voters have delivered a public humiliation, while an opposition party until recently lampooned as unelectable is on the march. There is, suddenly, talk of her departure sooner rather than later.

Yes, this is a tough time to be Nicola Sturgeon…

Let’s not overstate it. The position of Scotland’s First Minister is considerably more secure than that of the UK’s Prime Minister. Theresa May wants out as soon as is feasible; Sturgeon, one suspects, will have to be dragged from Bute House. Sturgeon retains enough respect among the public and support among her colleagues to plough on for now. Nevertheless, things are not what they were before the general election and are unlikely ever to return to that happy state.

It’s all because of Scexit, of course. Sturgeon’s unseemly sprint for the indy finishing line left enough Scottish voters feeling… what? Mistreated, taken for granted, rushed, patronised, bullied… so much so that they effectively used June 8 to deliver a second No vote. With the idea of another referendum hanging around like a bad headache, the electorate decided to stage an intervention. In just two years, Sturgeon lost 40 per cent of her Westminster seats and displaced half a million votes. One could almost argue that, by comparison, Theresa May did relatively well.

For the first time in decades, there is genuine dissent in Nationalist ranks. Tommy Sheppard, a former Labour Party official who is now an influential left-wing SNP MP, published an article immediately after the general election calling on the First Minister to ‘park’ a second referendum until the Brexit negotiations are complete. There are others who believe the party should rediscover its talent for the long game: accept the public mood is unlikely to change much before the 2021 devolved elections, at which point, even if the Nats remain the single largest party, Holyrood might find itself with a unionist majority; concentrate on improving the public services, show what might be done with all the powers of an independent nation, and wait patiently until the numbers change.

There are others – not many, but some – who would go further. They believe that Sturgeon should take responsibility for the election result, and should be looking to hand over to a new generation before 2021. The old guard has had its shot and its time: a party with veterans such as Sturgeon, John Swinney and Mike Russell in the key jobs looks too much like it did 20 years ago. Even the new Westminster leader, Ian Blackford, has been on the scene for donkey’s. There are more who believe that the iron grip the First Minister and her husband, SNP chief executive Peter Murrell, have on the party is unhealthy – that Murrell should carry the can for the loss of 21 MPs, and that he certainly would have done so if he weren’t married to the boss.

The most likely outcome, given what we know about the First Minister’s nature, is that she will choose something like the Sheppard route: talk less about independence for the next 18 months, see what the Brexit deal looks like, keep an eye on the polls and if they seem favourable go for a referendum in autumn 2019. The question is, can a wearied and increasingly cynical public be won round by then? Will people be willing to pile risk upon risk?

As the hot takes about Jeremy Corbyn’s surprise election performance continue to flood in, there has been a lot of attention given to the role played by young Britons. The issues of intergenerational unfairness, prolonged austerity and hard Brexit, coupled with Corbyn’s optimistic campaigning style, saw a sharp rise in turnout among that demographic. Here, Scotland has been ahead of the curve. In the 2014 referendum, the Yes campaign and its can-do spirit of positivity inspired huge enthusiasm among younger Scots. Indeed, only a large and slightly panicked defensive response from over-65s saved the union.

That brush with calamity seems to have been close enough for many people: many of the seats taken from the Nats by the Scottish Tories at the general election were rural, well-to-do and relatively elderly. The modern electorate is a fickle thing, but it remains rational. The Corbynites, amid their plans for total world domination and their ongoing festival of revenge, might bear that in mind.

Chris Deerin is the New Statesman's contributing editor (Scotland). 

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