Seattle Times 11.4.2005
U.S. veterans recall scene at Buchenwald liberation
By TONY CZUCZKA
The Associated Press
WEIMAR, Germany — Elderly survivors of the Buchenwald concentration camp laid flowers yesterday and observed a moment of silence for victims of the Nazis, 60 years after U.S. troops liberated the camp.
Flags from some 30 nations hung in a cold drizzle to symbolize the nations from which the camp's 240,000 prisoners came between 1937 and 1945. About 56,000 died — worked to death, shot or killed in medical experiments.
German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder and U.S. veterans came to the camp memorial outside Weimar for the commemoration, which kindled vivid memories for the survivors, most of them in their 70s and 80s
Georg Sterner, a Hungarian Jew, recalled looking out from Barracks No. 37 when the first U.S. tank crashed through the barbed-wire perimeter fence on the morning of April 11, 1945.
"We were hanging out of the windows," said Sterner, who was 17 then. "It came slowly, slowly. It stopped between the trees. It revved the engine ... made a lunge, and broke through."
Inside, shocked soldiers from the U.S. 3rd Army found 21,000 starving survivors and piles of corpses, some partially burned in the crematorium ovens as the Nazi SS and their helpers fled the camp.
"It was so incredible — stacks of bodies, the smell, the total shock and confusion, people walking around by the thousands," said Jerry Hontas, who arrived the next day as a 21-year-old Army medic.
"We were so shocked we couldn't talk to each other for days," said Hontas, of Boca Raton, Fla. "We had no concept of this kind of insane cruelty."
Yesterday, some survivors came in wheelchairs. Others wore replicas of their inmate uniforms and their old prisoner numbers.
Schroeder recalled that Weimar stands for Germany's classical cultural heritage — Johann Wolfgang Goethe, the most revered German author and playwright, had his home there — and said the Nazis had turned it into "coldness and cruelty."
"I bow before you, the victims and their families," he said at Weimar National Theater, addressing Buchenwald survivors in the audience.
Unlike Auschwitz, Buchenwald was not built for mass killing, but the camp was just as much part of the Nazis' effort to wipe out anyone deemed un-German.
Yesterday's ceremony was meant as a remembrance of victims of Nazi camps in Germany, which were successively freed as Allied troops advanced before the Nazi surrender in World War II in May 1945.