Forgotten Voicesnby George WatsonnHow Buchenwald Lived OnnWhen I visited Buchenwald concentrationncamp, near Weimar,nin 1988, in what turned out to be thenlast year of German partition, the SovietnUnion’s use of the camp for five yearsnafter World War II was hardly to be spokennof inside what, with memorablenirony, was still called the GermannDemocratic Republic; my research onnthis forgotten episode had to be donenon the other side of the barbed wire, innWest Beriin (see “Buchenwald’s SecondnLife,” Chronicles, July 1989). By a happynchance that article appeared only a fewnweeks before the Wall came down innEurope. But it is now clear that it wasnbased on inadequate sources. My researchnhad failed to discover any survivorsnfrom former Nazi camps maintainednby the Soviets between 1945 andn1950—there was no one, it seemed, tonbe interviewed—and I was forced to dependnon a few sparse documentarynsources.nNow, with the Wall down, the past isnspeaking and the forgotten voices arenbeing heard. In the summer of 1991 ansurvivor of Soviet Sachsenhausen, a majornNazi camp near Berlin, publishednrecollections of his arrest as a teenager innMay 1946 and his detention in Torgau,nBautzen, Sachsenhausen, and Waldheim,nas well as inside the Soviet Unionnitself. His name is Benno Priess, and hisnlittle book, Innocent in the NKVDnDeath-camps, which includes photographsnand the testimonies of severalnfellow prisoners, is self-published andnobtainable only from the author. Mr.nPriess, being a youthful victim, is still innhis 60’s, and he has a harrowing tale tontell. The book does not displace anythingnin my 1989 article, but it amplifiesnthe detail and allows for a fuller picturenof how the Soviet secret service and itsnEast German allies used the Nazi campnsystem to destroy, without public trial,nanyone they thought likely to be a nuisance.nThe resemblances between Nazi andnSoviet practices, as always, are telling:nso telling that it is a question whether, innthose grim postwar years of 1945-50, thenSoviets were imitating the Nazis in theirnextermination methods or merely reclaimingna technique of mass murdernthey had imparted to their Nazi alliesnduring the joint occupation of Polandnin 1939-41. The Soviets had alreadynused trains, and most characteristicallyncattle trucks, to empty eastern Polandnof its Polish population in and after thenspring of 1940; shortly thereafter thenNazis, who are known to have takennpride in their far longer experience innsuch matters, began a mass deportationnby similar methods of dissidents andnJews. Benno Priess describes beingncrowded into his train, soon after thenwar, at the rate of forty to a wagon. Thencamp regime, when he arrived, was on anstarvation diet and deliberately degrading.n”A bullet is too good for you,” anRussian guard once told him. “You willndie slowly.” Gut off since their arrestnfrom all contact with the outer world,nprisoners had no possibility of tellingntheir families whether they were stillnalive, though many of them were notnyet 18 years old, and it was not untiln1949, or after four years of captivity, thatnthey were allowed to send out their firstnletters. They were limited to 12 linesneach, and even then they were not allowednto tell their relatives where theynwere; each letter, being censored, wasnheaded by no more than a postcode.nWhen an armed guard called at Priess’nhome and took him away at the age ofn18, ostensibly for questioning, it was thenlast his parents heard of him for fournyears.nOne of Priess’ revelations is that hisnfellow Germans, the Communist officialsnwho eventually replaced the Russians,nwere harsher than the Russiansnthemselves as camp guards. Under EastnGerman administration brutality increasednand the death rate in the campsnrose, while the hospitals filled and overflowednwith prisoners dying of starvationnand tuberculosis. Finally, in Marchn1950, there was a prisoners’ revolt at thencamp in Bautzen, in Saxony. Prisonersnshouted out of windows, “We want thenGerman Red Gross, we are starving, helpnus,” and the local population was rousednby their cries. The German guards respondednby beating their prisoners, annight that lived in memory as Hubert-nNight.nRelease came as late as January 1954,nalmost a year after Stalin’s death andnnearly four years after the Soviets andntheir German allies had closed down thenold Nazi camp system of Buchenwaldnand Sachsenhausen and reverted, on thenwhole, to a more conventional prisonnnnsystem. In that month, Priess recalls, henwas taken out of his cell and put in anroom that quickly filled with other prisoners.nThe overseer suddenly seemednpolite, and they rightly guessed that freedomnwas at hand. Next day they werengiven civilian clothes and taken by bus tona variety of railroad stations, so that thenlocal population would notice nothingnexceptional. On the train Priess, still onlyn26 years old, had thoughts only of anhome and of parents he had not seennfor nearly a decade. He could hardly believenhe had survived a system at leastnas deadly as the Nazi camp system itnhad superseded. In Leipzig he sent antelegram to his parents announcing hisnreturn; and there, on his arrival at thenstation, they stood with his sister andnmany of his friends and acquaintances,nand he embraced them in tears.nThough artlessly presented and onlynprivately published, this is a book thatndoes not deserve to be ignored. It is thenfullest account there is by a survivor ofnthe postwar Soviet extermination programnin Eastern Germany: an episodennow so thoroughly forgotten, even innGermany, that it still has the power tonastonish and appall. Even in West Germany,nafter all, in the long years of partition,nit was considered indecorous tonmention the matter: partly because itnmight prejudice German unification,nand partly because postwar Germansnwere rightly sensitive to the charge ofnseeking to shift the blame from theirnown past. That led to a silence, or nearnsilence, on the matter of Soviet crimes.nIt is now hard to believe that the veryninstallations of the Nazi terror machine—itsncamps, its vast barbed-wirenenclosures, its barracks, and its incinerators—couldnhave been used for fivenyears by one of the allied powers forntheir original purpose, and with only occasionalnprotests from the West. Onencan be sure it would have been far otherwisenif the British had maintainednBelsen as a killing-field for five years, ornthe Americans Dachau. Soviet censorship,nwith a little help from others,nworked. Tens of thousands of prisoners,nmany of them not yet 18 years old,nthough tried for no criminal offense,nwere allowed to die in the heart of Europenin time of peace and for offensesnthey were never allowed to learn.nGeorge Watson is a fellownof St. ]ohn’s College,nCambridge.nOCTOBER 1992/n