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3. The visit to the Buchenwald camp by German civilians

3a. An excerpt from Jorge Semprun, L’écriture ou la vie

« Dans la cour du crématoire, en tout cas, un lieutenant américain s’adressait ce jour-là à quelques dizaines de femmes, d’adolescents des deux sexes, de vieillards allemands de la ville de Weimar. Les femmes portaient des robes de printemps aux couleurs vives. L'officier parlait d'une voix neutre, implacable. Il expliquait le fonctionnement du four crématoire, donnait les chiffres de la mortalité à Buchenwald. Il rappelait aux civils de Weimar qu'ils avaient vécu, indifférents ou complices, pendant plus de sept ans, sous les fumées du crématoire.

Votre jolie ville, leur disait-il, si propre, si pimpante, pleine de souvenirs culturels, cœur de l'Allemagne classique et éclairée, aura vécu dans la fumée des crématoires nazis, en toute conscience !

Les femmes- bon nombre d’entre elles, du moins – ne pouvaient retenir leurs larmes, implorant le pardon avec des gestes théâtraux. Certaines poussaient la complaisance jusqu’à manquer de se trouver mal. Les adolescents se muraient dans un silence désespéré. Les vieillards regardaient ailleurs, ne voulant visiblement rien entendre. »

Source: An excerpt from Jorge Semprun, L’écriture ou la vie, Folio, Gallimard, 1994 (pp.109-110).

Presentation 3a

This text written by Jorge Semprun describes the visit imposed on German civilians of the nearby town of Weimar after the liberation of Buchenwald by the American army. Lt Walter Rosenfeld, a German-born American soldier, was the guide for this visit. Here is what we learned about him by J. Semprun: “He was five years my senior, so he was 26. Despite his uniform and his American citizenship, he was German. I mean he was born in Germany in a Jewish family in Berlin, emigrated to the US in 1933, when Walter was 14. He had opted for the US citizenship to bear arms, to make war against Nazism…”

3b. A photograph by Margaret Bourke-White, visit of inhabitants of Weimar, Buchenwald

A photograph by Margaret Bourke-White, visit of inhabitants of Weimar, Buchenwald Click image to enlarge
Source: A photograph by Margaret Bourke-White, visit of inhabitants of Weimar, Buchenwald, April 1945 (Time-Life) in Mémoire des camps, Marval, 2001.

Presentation 3b

Margaret Bourke-White (1904-1971) took part as photographer in the battles of the Second World War. She followed the American troops in Italy and then in Germany. She took pictures of the Buchenwald liberation with piles of corpses, skeletal prisoners and crematoria. She collected the reactions of German civilians of Weimar when visiting the camp of Buchenwald, which was located near their town.


  1. With a dictionary of Internet, introduce in few lines the author of this text.
  2. With an encyclopedia of Internet, make a research on the history of Buchenwald camp and of Weimar town, next to the camp.
  3. What are the criticisms made by the American lieutenant to the people of Weimar?
  4. Describe the photograph and make a link with Jorge Semprun’s memories. What can you conclude?

Display teacher's view to find the answers.



  1. Jorge Semprun was born in Madrid in Spain. His family fled to France where he joined the communist resistance. Arrested in 1943, he was deported to Buchenwald. He participated in the uprising of prisoners shortly before the camp was liberated by American troops led by General Patton. The book by Jorge Semprun " L’écriture ou la vie " (Ed. Gallimard 1994), is a relationship and a reflection on his imprisonment of sixteen months in Buchenwald.
  2. From the 15th of July 1937, the SS built the camp of Buchenwald by 149 prisoners, among them are opponents of the regime, Jehovah’s Witnesses, homosexuals, criminals. At the end of 1938, more than 2500 men were locked in the Buchenwald camp among them, Jews were interned after the “Kristallnacht”. The war brought Soviet and Polish prisoners (7000 to 9000 were murdered there). Fifty personalities, including Leon Blum, were prisoners in there. German communists formed, in 1943, an illegal organization and prepared an uprising as the camp’s liberation drew near. At the end of the war, the camp was filled of prisoners evacuated from other camps among them a thousand of Jewish children coming from Auschwitz. On the 11th of April 1945, prisoners took possession of the camp few hours before American soldiers’ arrival; Jorge Semprun describes the reaction when they saw him: “They are in front of me, eyes round, and I suddenly see this look of horror: their horror…”
    From 1937 to 1945, 250 000 prisoners coming from all over Europe were interned in the Buchenwald camp. About 56 000 died there. When East’s camps were evacuated, tens of thousands of prisoners were crammed into appalling conditions. 13 000 persons died there at the beginning of 1945. Among the testimonials that were dedicated to Buchenwald, there were drawings of Boris Taslitzky that he made in there.
  3. The town of Weimar, which was built near the Buchenwald camp, was the capital of the duchy of Sawe-Weimar. It became, in the 18th century, the center of the German cultural life: Herder, Goethe and Schiller lived there. In 1919, the Constitution was proclaimed there, which created the German Republic called “Weimar”1.
  4. The American lieutenant blames the people of Weimar (a city that has essential role in cultural tradition and German politic) their indifference and passivity while they were living near the camp so they could not ignore the existence:
    “Your beautiful town, he told them, so clean and dainty, full of cultural memories, heart of classic and lit Germany, has lived in the smoke of the Nazi crematoria, in all conscience!”
  5. This photograph made by Margaret Bourke-White echoes the text by Jorge Semprun: women crying and looking away from the old man in the foreground. The photographer shows the visit which was imposed to the inhabitants of Weimar whose eyes did not cross the lens. Jorge Semprun described, more than 40 years later, the scene he witnessed and was photographed by Margaret Bourke-white that he knew the work.

1 Jorge Semprun, L’écriture ou la vie, Folio, Gallimard, 1994.It is the first sentence of the book.