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27 January 2015updated 27 Sep 2015 3:52am

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.

By Richard Crossman

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.”

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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.

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“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.