When I visited Buchenwald concentration camp, near Weimar, in 1988, in what turned out to be the last year of German partition, the Soviet Union’s use of the camp for five years after World War II was hardly to be spoken of inside what, with memorable irony, was still called the German Democratic Republic; my research on this forgotten episode had to be done on the other side of the barbed wire, in West Berlin (see “Buchenwald’s Second Life,” Chronicles, July 1989). By a happy chance that article appeared only a few weeks before the Wall came down in Europe. But it is now clear that it was based on inadequate sources. My research had failed to discover any survivors from former Nazi camps maintained by the Soviets between 1945 and 1950—there was no one, it seemed, to be interviewed—and I was forced to depend on a few sparse documentary sources.
Now, with the Wall down, the past is speaking and the forgotten voices are being heard. In the summer of 1991 a survivor of Soviet Sachsenhausen, a major Nazi camp near Berlin, published recollections of his arrest as a teenager in May 1946 and his detention in Torgau, Bautzen, Sachsenhausen, and Waldheim, as well as inside the Soviet Union itself. His name is Benno Priess, and his little book, Innocent in the NKVD Death-camps, which includes photographs and the testimonies of several fellow prisoners, is self-published and obtainable only from the author. Mr. Priess, being a youthful victim, is still in his 60’s, and he has a harrowing tale to tell. The book does not displace anything in my 1989 article, but it amplifies the detail and allows for a fuller picture of how the Soviet secret service and its East German allies used the Nazi camp system to destroy, without public trial, anyone they thought likely to be a nuisance.
The resemblances between Nazi and Soviet practices, as always, are telling: so telling that it is a question whether, in those grim postwar years of 1945-50, the Soviets were imitating the Nazis in their extermination methods or merely reclaiming a technique of mass murder they had imparted to their Nazi allies during the joint occupation of Poland in 1939-41. The Soviets had already used trains, and most characteristically cattle trucks, to empty eastern Poland of its Polish population in and after the spring of 1940; shortly thereafter the Nazis, who are known to have taken pride in their far longer experience in such matters, began a mass deportation by similar methods of dissidents and Jews. Benno Priess describes being crowded into his train, soon after the war, at the rate of forty to a wagon. The camp regime, when he arrived, was on a starvation diet and deliberately degrading. “A bullet is too good for you,” a Russian guard once told him. “You will die slowly.” Gut off since their arrest from all contact with the outer world, prisoners had no possibility of telling their families whether they were still alive, though many of them were not yet 18 years old, and it was not until 1949, or after four years of captivity, that they were allowed to send out their first letters. They were limited to 12 lines each, and even then they were not allowed to tell their relatives where they were; each letter, being censored, was headed by no more than a postcode. When an armed guard called at Priess’ home and took him away at the age of 18, ostensibly for questioning, it was the last his parents heard of him for four years.
One of Priess’ revelations is that his fellow Germans, the Communist officials who eventually replaced the Russians, were harsher than the Russians themselves as camp guards. Under East German administration brutality increased and the death rate in the camps rose, while the hospitals filled and overflowed with prisoners dying of starvation and tuberculosis. Finally, in March 1950, there was a prisoners’ revolt at the camp in Bautzen, in Saxony. Prisoners shouted out of windows, “We want the German Red Gross, we are starving, help us,” and the local population was roused by their cries. The German guards responded by beating their prisoners, a night that lived in memory as Hubert-Night.
Release came as late as January 1954, almost a year after Stalin’s death and nearly four years after the Soviets and their German allies had closed down the old Nazi camp system of Buchenwald and Sachsenhausen and reverted, on the whole, to a more conventional prison system. In that month, Priess recalls, he was taken out of his cell and put in a room that quickly filled with other prisoners. The overseer suddenly seemed polite, and they rightly guessed that freedom was at hand. Next day they were given civilian clothes and taken by bus to a variety of railroad stations, so that the local population would notice nothing exceptional. On the train Priess, still only 26 years old, had thoughts only of a home and of parents he had not seen for nearly a decade. He could hardly believe he had survived a system at least as deadly as the Nazi camp system it had superseded. In Leipzig he sent a telegram to his parents announcing his return; and there, on his arrival at the station, they stood with his sister and many of his friends and acquaintances, and he embraced them in tears.
Though artlessly presented and only privately published, this is a book that does not deserve to be ignored. It is the fullest account there is by a survivor of the postwar Soviet extermination program in Eastern Germany: an episode now so thoroughly forgotten, even in Germany, that it still has the power to astonish and appall. Even in West Germany, after all, in the long years of partition, it was considered indecorous to mention the matter: partly because it might prejudice German unification, and partly because postwar Germans were rightly sensitive to the charge of seeking to shift the blame from their own past. That led to a silence, or near silence, on the matter of Soviet crimes. It is now hard to believe that the very installations of the Nazi terror machine—its camps, its vast barbed-wire enclosures, its barracks, and its incinerators—could have been used for five years by one of the allied powers for their original purpose, and with only occasional protests from the West. One can be sure it would have been far otherwise if the British had maintained Belsen as a killing-field for five years, or the Americans Dachau. Soviet censorship, with a little help from others, worked. Tens of thousands of prisoners, many of them not yet 18 years old, though tried for no criminal offense, were allowed to die in the heart of Europe in time of peace and for offenses they were never allowed to learn.