About two dozen American veterans joined thousands of concentration camp survivors on the square at Buchenwald on Sunday to re-enact the most dreaded part of the day: roll call.
It was there that prisoners were selected to be shot, caned and publicly tortured for offenses such as wearing an extra bit of cloth to ward off the cold. If anyone was missing, the whole camp had to stand there, sometimes for days, in freezing rain and snow.The commemoration was in a cold wind like the one that swept across the hill on April 11, 1945, when American GIs entered the camp the Nazi SS guards had abandoned.
Echoes of the Cold War that soon followed were also felt.
Hundreds of young communists and leftists disrupted the ceremony, waving hammer-and-sickle banners, trying to shout down speakers and handing out pamphlets giving the communist version of the camp's liberation.
The first prisoners the Nazis sent to Buchenwald were communists. Later, Russian POWs, Poles, Gypsies, and Jews were sent to the camp to be starved, tortured and worked to death. About 56,000 people died.
As the Americans approached toward the end of the war, most of the camp's 5,000 guards panicked and fled. Prisoners grabbed the left-behind guns, captured about 70 remaining guards and hoisted a white flag on the watchtower. There were 21,000 alive when the Americans arrived.
After the war, Buchenwald became part of communist East Germany. During that time, official propaganda maintained that the camp's communist underground had risen in revolt against the entire SS force and liberated themselves. No mention of the American role was contained in museum exhibits until after German reunification in 1990.
Camp survivor Pierre Durand, who had addressed a communist rally at the camp a few days after liberation, spoke again Sunday, addressing the crowd as "comrades," while also giving credit to the part played by the Allies in freeing Buchenwald.
"With weapons in our hands we greeted the American army and handed over the SS men we had captured," said Durand, a Frenchman.