Buchenwald liberation myths: 1945 – 2013

During the visit of Barack Obama, Benjamin Netanyahu, Shimon Peres and Yisrael Meir Lau to Yad Vashem on March 22, 2013, Lau, the former chief Ashkenazi Rabbi of Israel, thanked the president for his liberation from Buchenwald on April 11, 1945 by U.S. Army soldiers of General George Patton’s Third Army. While in Rabbi Lau’s 2011 autobiography, Out of the Depths: The Story of a Child of Buchenwald Who Returned Home At Last, he identifies the soldiers of the Sixth Armored Division as his liberators, he didn’t mention them in his recent speech at Israel’s Holocaust Memorial.

Unfortunately, Rabbi Lau, who was seven years old on the historic day that the first large concentration camp (21,000 prisoners) was freed on the Western Front, was again disseminating bubbe meises about this pivotal event of World War II. Twenty years ago, the rabbi had a cameo in the notorious PBS film “Liberators: Fighting on Two Fronts in World War II,” which tendentiously claimed that African-American GIs freed Buchenwald and Dachau.

Moreover, during the last two decades, Rabbi Lau held several press conferences in which he unconscionably repeated the discredited myth of the African-American liberators of Buchenwald. In early July 1997, I was engaged in discussions with the chief rabbi, through Israeli Consul General in New York Colette Avital, to bring him as my family’s guest to Washington in September 1997 to meet the veterans of General Patton’s crack Sixth Armored Division, who were holding their annual reunion in the nation’s capital and who were being honored at the U.S. Holocaust Museum for the liberation of Buchenwald. My father, Barney Schulte, who died in 1989, fought with the Sixth Armored between November 1944 and May 1945.

But then in mid-July 1997, Chief Rabbi Lau and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar conducted a press conference in Jerusalem, in which they re-propagated the myth of the black GI liberators of Buchenwald. After reading Rabbi Lau’s revivified distortions in the New York Post, my mother, sister and I immediately rescinded the invitation, and I wrote about his latest myth-making in The Jewish Press and Jerusalem Post.

Furthermore, in an April 17, 2011 interview with Ynetnews., Rabbi Lau spoke about another visit to Israel by Abdul-Jabbar (subsequently cancelled), and he again repeated the falsehood about his African-American liberators. Abdul-Jabbar was one of the biggest boosters of “Liberators,” and during the last two decades he has egregiously continued to promulgate the lie that black GIs freed Buchenwald and Dachau, including in an interview on June 20, 2011 with ESPN’s TrueHoop blog.

Last month at Yad Vashem, speaking directly to President Obama, Rabbi Lau dispensed two other Buchenwald liberation myths. First, he claimed that Leo Hymas, whom he had met at a Holocaust museum in Seattle in 2012, is a Buchenwald liberator. In fact, Hymas fought with the 97th Infantry Division, which played no role in the liberation of Buchenwald, though it did liberate the Flossenburg concentration camp on April 23, 1945.

Secondly, Rabbi Lau stated that U.S. Army chaplain Herschel Schacter had entered Buchenwald on liberation day. In fact, Rabbi Schacter arrived at the camp at least four days after liberation, where he would remain for two months heroically helping to rebuild the physical and spiritual health of 4,000 Jewish survivors. Buchenwald also had 17,000 Christian survivors, who included the non-collaborating political, military, business and intellectual leaders from more than a dozen European countries conquered by the Wehrmacht.

Coincidentally, on March 21, 2013, the day before President Obama’s visit to Yad Vashem, the 95-year-old Rabbi Schacter died peacefully in a New York City hospice. Unfortunately, for three decades, Rabbi Schacter had disseminated falsehoods about his role in Buchenwald’s liberation.

In a speech at the International Liberators Conference in Washington in October 1981, Rabbi Schacter said that April 11, 1945 was the “most unforgettable day of my life,” because he had entered Buchenwald that afternoon. Rabbi Schacter also preposterously insisted that on liberation day he rushed through the barracks in the Little Camp (“Kleine Lager”) shouting in Yiddish: “Jews, you are free!”

At the same 1981 conference, which was sponsored by the newly-created U.S. Holocaust Memorial Council, whose first chairman was Buchenwald survivor Elie Wiesel, Leon Bass, an African-American GI who a decade later would star in the infamous “Liberators,” was a member of the official 26-person American delegation, and Bass was falsely presented to national and international audiences as a Buchenwald liberator.

The speeches at this misbegotten conference at the State Department headquarters were published in 1987 by the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Council as The Liberation of the Nazi Concentration Camps 1945: Eyewitness Accounts of the Liberators. While the book’s foreword claimed that most conference participants “were members of military units that first crashed the gates of Nazi concentration camps,” the American delegation had only a few combat veterans of the divisions that actually liberated the camps. Instead, it included Senators Rudy Boschwitz and John Danforth, Representatives Stephen Solarz and Clare Booth Luce, and six other current or former members of Congress, none of whom played any role in freeing a concentration camp.

Furthermore, the Sixth Armored Division did not “crash the gates” of Buchenwald. For five days before the liberation, the division’s soldiers were immobilized by a stop order from Supreme Allied Commander Dwight Eisenhower, as the Third Army had greatly outpaced the First and Seventh American armies operating on its flanks. When the renewed advance order was received by Third Army headquarters on April 10, 1945, Buchenwald was not specified as a target for either the Sixth Armored Division or Fourth Armored Division, the twin engines of the Third Army since its activation in Normandy on August 1, 1944. Indeed, while the Third Army marked time between April 5 and April 10, 1945, more than 20,000 Buchenwald prisoners were forcibly removed by SS guards on death marches.

Not surprisingly, The New York Times, in a front-page obituary on March 27, 2013, provided a fanciful account of Rabbi Schacter’s participation in Buchenwald’s liberation. The opening sentences are poetically fictitious: “The smoke was still rising as Rabbi Herschel Schacter rode through the gates of Buchenwald. It was April 11, 1945, and Gen. George S. Patton’s Third Army had liberated the concentration camp scarcely an hour before. Rabbi Schacter, who was attached to the Third Army’s VIII Corps, was the first Jewish chaplain to enter in its wake.”

First of all, on April 11, 1945, the Sixth Armored was attached to General Walton Walker’s XX Corps. The VIII Corps, commanded by General Troy Middleton, to which Leon Bass’ 183rd Combat Engineers Battalion was also attached, was no where near Buchenwald on liberation day.

Secondly, only six soldiers in the Sixth Armored Division – Frederic Keffer, Herbert Gottschalk, Harry Ward, James Hoyt, Edmund Coates, Charles Davidson – went inside Buchenwald on Wednesday, April 11, 1945. Around 5:00 P.M., Keffer, Gottschalk, Ward and Hoyt spent an hour at the newly-liberated camp, after being guided there by several Russian POW’s who had emerged from the camp after the SS guards had fled. An hour later, the Sixth Armored patrol sent the following radio message to a division intelligence officer: “Concentration camp 463752 [latitude/longitude coordinates] has some 21,000 political including German. Have been instructed to stay in place awaiting MG [military government officers].”

Later that evening, Davidson and Coates, military-government officers in the Sixth Armored Division, entered Buchenwald and sent a radio message to division headquarters just before midnight that the former prisoners had only “1 day food.” These messages were discovered in the National Archives in December 1992 and January 1993, when I was doing research for what would be the first of many articles about the genuine American liberators of Buchenwald, Dachau and Mauthausen. Despite claims to the contrary, no journalists or photographers were present at Buchenwald on liberation day.

Incidentally, the New York Times was also the primary publicist for the discredited “Liberators,” publishing between October 1991 and December 1992, a dozen gushingly false articles about the film or the eponymous companion book from Harcourt Brace Jovanovich. The newspaper began peddling the lie of the black liberators of Buchenwald in April 1985, on the 40th anniversary of the liberation of the concentration camps located in Germany. In the spring of 1988, during Jesse Jackson’s unsuccessful bid for the Democratic Presidential nomination, Jackson and The New York Times shamelessly expanded this African-American liberators myth to Dachau.

On April 13, 1945, a small contingent of soldiers from the 80th Infantry, another sterling Third Army division, entered Buchenwald, and this unit’s arrival finally alerted the American Army to the deplorable health of thousands of the survivors. Since 150 former prisoners were dying each day after liberation, the U.S. Army’s 120th EvacuationHospital was rushed to Buchenwald on April 15, 1945, and within a week, the unit’s doctors and nurses had miraculously reduced the daily death rate to 30 per day.

Rabbi Schacter probably arrived at Buchenwald four or five days after liberation. According to a camp newsletter that was published daily by the survivors beginning on April 15, 1945, the first Friday night Sabbath service was conducted by Rabbi Schacter on April 20, 1945. This crucial fact comes from the introduction to The Buchenwald Report, a 350-page history of the concentration camp written in German by hundreds of survivors during the month after their liberation. This pioneering document in Holocaust historiography, which was not translated and published in English until 1995, has multiple accounts of liberation, and all agree with the scenario and timeline presented in the Sixth Armored Division’s records and in the divisional history, The Super Sixth, written by Professor George Hofmann in 1975.

Moreover, two very brief Associated Press articles, “Prison Camp Is Overrun: 20,000 Political Captives are Found at Buchenwald,” published in The New York Times on April 13, 1945, and “900 Slain Near Weimar,” printed in the same paper the following day, confirm the U.S. Army’s lack of interest in freeing concentration camps before Buchenwald was accidentally overrun. As the earlier AP article revealingly states: [80th] divisional officers threw a guard about the prison camp and said the prisoners would be kept there until they were checked and disposition of their cases was decided.” The second AP article quoted the Sixth Armored’s Charles Davidson on what he had learned on his visit to Buchenwald on liberation night.

Rabbi Schacter isn’t the only prominent American to lie about what day he reached a liberated Buchenwald. On April 15, 1945, CBS reporter Edward R. Murrow, one of America’s most prominent journalists of the 20th century, made a famous radio broadcast about Buchenwald, in which he, five times, falsely told listeners that he had visited the camp on Thursday, April 12, 1945, the day after liberation.

Incontrovertible evidence that no journalist toured Buchenwald until four days after liberation is contained in an April 15, 1945 letter from General Patton to General Eisenhower, which described the conditions in Buchenwald as “much worse” than in Ohrdruf, a Buchenwald subcamp. Patton also informed Eisenhower that the previous night, he had called General Bradley, the officer directly above him in the American chain of command, to recommend that he “send selected individuals from the upper strata of the press” to see Buchenwald. They included Murrow and Margaret Bourke-White, a leading photojournalist for Life magazine.


On April 12, 1945, Eisenhower, Patton and Bradley had toured Ohrdruf, where they were shown the mutilated bodies of dozens of prisoners who had been massacred by the SS guards on April 2, 1945, before the remaining 12,000 inmates were forcibly removed on a death march to the main camp at Buchenwald. While President Obama has repeatedly boasted about his great-uncle’s role in the liberation of Ohrdruf, even during his visit to Buchenwald in June 2009, only a handful of former prisoners were found in or around Ohrdruf by the Third Army’s Fourth Armored and 89th Infantry divisions when they overran the camp on April 4, 1945. To speak of the “liberation” of Ohrdruf is to provide an Orwellian gloss to the English language.

During the second half of April 1945, General Eisenhower transformed Buchenwald into the world’s first Holocaust museum, arranging visits the to the liberated camp by American members of Congress, British parliamentarians, United Nations War Crimes Commission members and American publishers and religious leaders. Buchenwald became one of the biggest news stories of the war, even rivaling in coverage the death of President Franklin D. Roosevelt on April 12, 1945.

One truly historic development from these highly-publicized April 1945 Buchenwald tours came from Henry Jackson, who was a junior member of Congress when he visited the camp on April 22, 1945. A quarter-century later, Senator Jackson co-sponsored the Jackson-Vanik Amendment, which resulted in the immigration to Israel and America of several million Soviet Jews since the early 1970’s.

Finally, another discredited liberation myth, which was concocted in April 1945 by Buchenwald’s many Communist survivors, is that they smuggled in weapons and overpowered the camp’s SS guards before the arrival of Third Army soldiers. An April 24, 1945 report from two members of General Bradley’ 12th Army Group staff, First Lieutenant Edward A. Tenenbaum and Egon W. Fleck, described the conflicting accounts of what happened in mid-afternoon on liberation day:

“The Communist group claims that SS troops were still on guard in the watch towers around the camp, and that these were stormed by the prisoners. Others say that there was no actual fighting between inmates and the SS until the American troops had seized control of the area.”

The Communist survivors of Buchenwald called it their “self-liberation,” and it became one of the founding myths of East Germany, in whose territory between 1950 and 1990 Buchenwald was located. The last page of Elie Wiesel’s classic Holocaust novel, Night, disseminates the myth of a battle between the SS and the “resistance movement” on the morning of Buchenwald’s liberation day:

“At ten o’clock in the morning, the SS took positions throughout the camp and began to herd the last of us towards Appelplatz. The resistance movement decided at that point to act. Armed men appeared from everywhere. Burst of gunshots. Grenades exploding. We, the children, remained flat on the floor of the block. The battle did not last long. Around noon, everything was calm again. The SS had fled and the resistance had taken charge of the camp. At six o’clock that afternoon, the first American tank stood at the gates of Buchenwald.”

Nobel-peace-laureate Wiesel also played a leading role in the dissemination of the myth of the African-American liberators of Buchenwald.

Similarly, on April 14, 1985, The New York Times published a front-page article that featured the “self-liberation” fabrication:

“In April 1945, about 40 hours before soldiers of the American Third Army reached Buchenwald, several hundred camp inmates who were organized in a resistance group overwhelmed their guards and took control of the camp.”

In fact, on April 9 and April 10, 1945, the two days prior to Buchenwald’s liberation, 14,200 prisoners were removed from the camp on death marches. The remaining 21,000 prisoners would have suffered the same cruel fate if the camp’s prisoner leadership had not delayed this final evacuation until the Sixth Armored Division’s lead tanks approached Buchenwald around noon on April 11, 1945 and the SS guards frantically fled.

The Buchenwald Report provides a detailed account of liberation day:

“At 11:45 A.M. fighter bombers appeared over the camp. Shortly afterward the new camp alarm – ‘enemy tanks approaching’ – was put into use for the first and last time… At 12:10 P.M. the loathsome voice of an SS man was heard on the camp microphone for the last time. The roll call officer gave the historic command, ‘All SS men leave the camp immediately!’ The next few minutes passed in a high tension, as everyone feared the SS bandits would carry out a bloody atrocity against the prisoners. But all the cowardly dogs had already made a run for it

… For three hours, without interruption, the tanks, motorized artillery and motorized infantry rolled by the camp in an easterly direction. Himmler’s heroes, who for years had slaughtered defenseless prisoners, were incapable of putting up any sort of resistance to the Americans.”

As commemorations of Buchenwald’s liberation are being held in America, Europe and Israel, serious students of World War II and the Holocaust should be mindful of the many myths that have been created during the past 68 years – by the East German and American governments and many influential individuals – about this crucial event of the most destructive war in history.

About the Author
Mark Schulte has written, over the past two decades, about World War II and the liberation of the concentration camps for The Times of Israel, The New York Post, Jewish Press, Weekly Standard, New York Daily News and other publications