By Roderick Miller
Nine Channel Islanders were imprisoned in Buchenwald Concentration Camp (Konzentrationslager Buchenwald, KZ Buchenwald, KL Buchenwald), which was located 6 miles north of Weimar, Germany. Buchenwald was established in July 1937 for the purposes of ‘cleansing the German people’ of political dissidents, Jews, Sinti and Romani, as well as so-called ‘social deviants’ such as homosexuals, homeless people and Jehovah’s Witnesses. By 1942-1943, Buchenwald had become a main camp and transit camp. It was the largest concentration camp in the German Reich with a total of over 280,000 total prisoners from all over Europe, more than 64,000 of whom died either as a direct result of conditions or execution.
Buchenwald was never intended as an extermination camp in the sense of Auschwitz-Birkenau or Treblinka. Imprisonment at Buchenwald was originally intended as punishment and to provide forced labour for the Reich. By the end of the war, however, as the allies began overrunning Nazi-occupied territory, the Nazis chose to move prisoners in occupied territory into the German Reich rather than let them fall into allied custody. This resulted, by the end of 1944, in massive overcrowding in the camps in the Reich, with the result that the camps were rampant with malnutrition and a variety of communicable diseases. Most of the people whose emaciated bodies are to be seen in the US Army photographs actually died of malnutrition and disease — not from gassing or some other form of execution, as is still widely believed.
John Finkelstein was the first Channel Island resident to arrive in Buchenwald and was incarcerated there the longest. Unlike all of the other islanders in Buchenwald, Finkelstein had not been convicted of any crime by the Nazis. At the time of the occupation of the Channel Islands, he was a Romanian citizen and was thus deported in February 1943, along with several thousand other islanders, to an internment camp at Laufen, Germany. Over the coming weeks he was transferred to a series of camps, ending up in Buchenwald on 29 March 1943 for the simple reason that, despite being Protestant by faith, the Nazis considered him a Jew.
In December 1942, Reichsführer Heinrich Himmler issued a decree calling for suspected resistors in Nazi custody to be rounded up and imprisoned within the borders of the German Reich, as a protective measure and to increase the amount of available forced labourers. It was first implemented in June 1943 and was code-named Aktion Meerschaum (‘Operation Seafoam’). Eight Channel Islanders were taken out of prisons in France and deported to Buchenwald as a direct result of this operation.
Anthony Faramus, incarcerated in Compiègne Internment Camp, and William Symes, imprisoned in Fort de Romainville outside of Paris, both arrived in Buchenwald on 24 January 1944. Alfred Baker, Gerald Bird, Harry Du Bois, Stanley Green, and James Quick were all taken from prisons in France and imprisoned in Buchenwald on 20 August 1944. The last islander to arrive in Buchenwald was Brian O’Meara, who was transferred from Darmstadt Prison on 6 February 1945.
All of the Channel Islanders incarcerated in Buchenwald personally experienced, in varying degrees, the suffering for which the camp is notorious: forced labour on minimal rations, beatings, diseases, and personally witnessing many deaths. As a rule, those who were there at the latest time period would have seen the worst, as the conditions in the camp declined until the liberation.
The Buchenwald inmates wore standard Nazi concentration camp clothing, usually of the standard blue and grey striped ‘zebra stripe’ cotton canvas material, and were required to wear a red triangle (meaning ‘political prisoner’) on their jackets with the block letter ‘E’ on it, short for Engländer. John Finkelstein was probably the only prisoner who did not wear the red triangle, being likely required instead, as a Jew, to wear a blue triangle (meaning foreign forced labourer) superimposed over a yellow triangle, forming a Star of David.
James Quick, Freddy Baker, Stanley Green and myself… slept out in the little larger [sic, lager or barrack] with only a blanket each for cover and the earth for our bed… We started our day’s work at five in the morning… we were joined by an SS Patrol… who loved to set his dog on us. My leg was always swollen and very painful through the bullet I inherited from the SS getting on the train. I had to conceal it from the SS in the camp because they did not want cripples. They just disappeared. —Harry Dubois, 11 March 1965
…Buchenwald was much worse, with very little food. Here I had bad dysentery, which made me very weak, so bad that I could not walk very well and coming back from a commando one evening I slipped and fell and was shot at by a guard: luckily he missed me by a few inches. On another occasion I was not quick enough after being shouted at by a young SS guard who hit me in the mouth with the butt end of a rifle and broke 5 of my teeth off down to the gums. –Stanley Green, 29 April 1965
Jimmy Quick and I one day watched a truck, like a porter’s truck, being wheeled down to the bottom part of the camp with 5 or 6 bodies on [it] moaning & groaning, not bodies really, skeletons after slaving in the factories for a period of time, coming back to the camp to die. The Nazi up with his stick and whacked them, telling them to be quiet. The crematorium couldn’t cope with the dead, although it was blazing day & night, so what they done was, way outside the camp they dug a hole & slung them in by the hundreds, covered them up & that was it. —Alfred Baker, 23 January 1967
The first islander to leave Buchenwald was William Symes, whose release to Biberach Internment Camp on 11 November 1944 was negotiated by the British government. Gerald Bird was transferred on 28 November to Stalag Luft III camp. Charles Faramus, also possibly as part of British government negotiations, was supposed to have been transferred Laufen Internment Camp on 8 December but stated that he was taken to Mauthausen Concentration Camp instead. John Finkelstein was one of 2000 Jews who were loaded on cattle wagons on 5 April 1945 and taken on a train journey of many days that ended in Theresienstadt Ghetto, where they were soon liberated by Soviet troops. Also in early April 1945, Brian O’Meara was conscripted with others into a forced march out of the Ghetto, where they ‘walked and walked, members who fell at the wayside had their brains shot out by the SS guards’. He was soon liberated by members of the US Army Tank Corps.
By mid-1944 there was already an organised system of resistance in Buchenwald that had managed to even smuggle and conceal weapons in the concentration camp. As US Army forces approached the camp, prisoners were able to force the remaining 125 SS guards to surrender, preventing a battle from taking place in the camp. The US Army entered the prisoner-liberated camp on 11 April 1945. Channel Islanders Freddy Baker, Harry Du Bois, Stan Green and Jimmy Quick were liberated in Buchenwald and assisted the US troops in explaining how the camp was run.
31 members of the Buchenwald Nazi staff were indicted for war crimes in the 1947 Buchenwald Trial. 11 of them were sentenced to death and executed between 1948 and 1951. From 1945 to 1950, the Soviets used the camp to imprison Nazis as well as people the Soviets suspected of being dissidents.
The Buchenwald Memorial, on the site of the original concentration camp, is a major memorial site in Germany with a museum and regular guided tours in English (see link below).
Although all of the Channel Islanders imprisoned in Buchenwald survived the war, they had lost a third or more their body weight and would suffer from a variety of chronic physical disabilities and post-traumatic stress disorders for the rest of their lives.
Carr, Gilly; Sanders, Paul; Willmot Louise: Protest, Defiance and Resistance in the Channel Islands: German Occupation, 1940-1945, Bloomsbury Academic, London & New York, 2014.
Buchenwald Memorial (publisher): Buchenwald Concentration Camp 1937-1945: A Guide to the Permanent Historical Exhibition, Wallstein Verlag, 2004.
Hackett, David A.: The Buchenwald Report, Basic Books, 1997.
Megargee, Geoffrey P. (editor): Encyclopedia of Camps and Ghettos, 1933–1945, Vol. 1 , Part A. United States Holocaust Memorial Museum , Indiana University Press, Bloomington and Indianapolis, 2009, pp. 291-295.
The National Archives (TNA), Foreign Office (FO):
TNA FO 950/943 (Baker)
TNA FO HNP/1696 (Bird)
TNA FO 950/1777 (Du Bois)
TNA FO HNP/1381, HNP/1901 (Faramus)
TNA FO 950/1563 (Finkelstein)
TNA FO HNP/2085 (Green)
TNA FO HNP/3637 (O’Meara)
TNA FO HNP/2766 (Quick)
TNA FO HNP/1193 (Symes)