After Buchenwald I Found the Truth
I GREW up in Grenoble, France, in the 1930’s. My German-language teacher, a Frenchman, was a fanatic Nazi. At school he would always insist that German would “become useful” some day. However, the majority of our teachers, veterans of World War I, were worried about the rise of Nazism in Germany. I too felt concerned as it became more and more evident that war was approaching.
In 1940, at the beginning of World War II, I lost a beloved uncle in the heavy fighting on the river Somme. I became very bitter but was too young to enlist in the French Army. Three years later, though, during the occupation of France by the Germans, I was given the opportunity to use my skills as a draftsman for the French Resistance. I excelled in copying signatures and also worked at faking German rubber stamps. I got so much satisfaction from fighting the occupying enemy forces in this way that the Communist opinions of my associates were of little importance to me at the time.
On November 11, 1943, the local Resistance called for a demonstration in commemoration of the World War I armistice. But French mobile guards had blockaded access to the bridge leading to the war memorial, and they encouraged us to go back home. Our procession decided instead to march on to another war monument inside the town. But we forgot one thing. The monument was a mere stone’s throw from the Gestapo offices.
Our group was quickly surrounded by armed soldiers, who lined us up against a wall. When the soldiers moved us, they found several revolvers on the ground. As no one wanted to confess to owning them, the soldiers released only the women and the youths 16 years of age and younger. Thus, at the age of 18, I was imprisoned, along with 450 other prisoners. A few days later, we were transferred to a transit camp near Compiègne, in northern France.
En Route to Germany
On January 17, 1944, I had my first—but unfortunately not last—contact with German soldiers whose helmets were decorated with a swastika on the left and the initials SS (Schutzstaffel) on the right. They gathered hundreds of prisoners, and we had to walk to the Compiègne station. We were literally kicked into railway boxcars. In my boxcar alone, there were 125 prisoners. For three days and two nights, we had nothing to eat or drink. Within a few hours, the weaker ones had already collapsed and were trampled on. Two days later we arrived at Buchenwald, near Weimar, deep inside Germany.
After being disinfected and having my head shaved, I was given the registration number 41,101 and classified as a “Communist Terrorist.” During a quarantine period, I met the Dominican priest Michel Riquet, who was to become famous after the war for his sermons in Notre Dame Cathedral, Paris. Along with other young men of my age, I asked him why God allowed such horrors. He replied: “You have to go through much suffering to deserve to go to heaven.”
The occupants of all 61 blocks had to get up at about four thirty in the morning. We came out stripped to the waist and often had to break the ice to wash. Whether in good health or bad, everyone had to comply. Next came the bread distribution—from 7 to 11 ounces [200-300 gm] per day of tasteless bread, with a sliver of margarine and something vaguely resembling jam. At 5:30 a.m., everyone was rounded up for roll call. What a terrible experience it was to carry out on our backs those who had died during the night! The acrid smell of smoke as the corpses burned reminded us of our companions. We were overcome with feelings of revulsion, despair, and hatred, for we knew that we could well end up the same way.
My work at the BAU II Kommando consisted of digging trenches for no purpose. No sooner was the seven-foot-deep [2 m] trench dug than we had to fill it in again just as carefully. Work started at 6:00 a.m., with a half hour break at midday, after which we continued working until 7:00 p.m. Evening roll call often seemed never-ending. Whenever there were heavy German losses on the Russian front, it could last till midnight.
A Different Group
Any who tried to escape from the camp could easily be recognized because all of us had an uneven hairstyle. Our hair was cut with a strip shaved or clipped very short down the middle or at the sides. Some prisoners, though, had an ordinary haircut. Who were they? The head of our block satisfied our curiosity. “They are Bibelforscher (Bible Students),” he said. “But what were Bible Students doing in a concentration camp?” I wondered. “They are here because they worship Jehovah,” I was informed. Jehovah! That was the first time I had ever heard the name of God.
I eventually got to know a little more about the Bible Students. They were mostly Germans. Some of them had been in concentration camps since the mid-1930’s for refusing to obey Hitler. They could have gone free, but they refused to capitulate. The SS used them as their personal barbers, and they were given special tasks requiring trustworthy personnel, such as work in administrative posts. What intrigued us most was their serenity, a complete lack of hatred or spirit of protest and revenge. I could not understand it. Unfortunately, I did not know enough German to converse with them at the time.
The Train of Death
As the Allies advanced, prisoners were sent to camps farther inland, but these were becoming terribly overcrowded. On the morning of April 6, 1945, the SS took 5,000 of us, and forced us onto the road to Weimar for a six-mile [9 km] walk. Those who could not keep up the pace were cold-bloodedly shot in the neck. When we finally reached Weimar station, we climbed into open freight cars, and the train left. For 20 days it rambled along from one railway station to another across Germany and then on into Czechoslovakia.
One morning, part of our train was shunted off onto a siding. Soldiers unlimbered machine guns, opened a freight car’s doors, and massacred all the Russian prisoners inside. The reason? A dozen prisoners had killed their guards and escaped during the night. Even today I can still see the blood trickling through the floor of the car onto the track.
Finally, the train arrived at Dachau, where two days later we were freed by the American Army. During the whole 20-day trip, the only sustenance we had was a few raw potatoes and some water. There were 5,000 of us when we started, but only 800 had survived. Many others died days later. As for me, I had spent the majority of the trip sitting on a corpse.
A New Step
After my liberation nothing seemed more natural than actively to support the French Communist Party, since I had associated closely with many of its members—including prominent ones—in Buchenwald. I became assistant cell secretary in Grenoble and was encouraged to go through a training course for executives in Paris.
However, I was soon disappointed. On November 11, 1945, we were invited to take part in a parade in Paris. The camarade in charge of our group received a certain sum of money for our accommodations, but he did not seem willing to use it in our behalf. We were obliged to remind him of the principles of honesty and friendship that were supposed to unite us. I also came to realize that the many prominent men I had known simply did not have the solution to the world’s problems. Moreover, for the most part, they were atheists, and I believed in God.
I later moved to Lyons, where I continued to work as a draftsman. In 1954, I was visited by two of Jehovah’s Witnesses, and I subscribed to the Awake! magazine. Two days later, a man came to visit me with one of the women who had knocked on my door. My wife and I suddenly realized that we were both interested in spiritual things.
During the discussions that followed, I remembered the Bibelforscher in Buchenwald who were so true to their faith. Only then did I realize that these Bibelforscher and Jehovah’s Witnesses were one and the same people. Thanks to a Bible study, my wife and I took our stand for Jehovah and were baptized in April 1955.
My memories are as fresh as if it all happened yesterday. I do not regret my past ordeals. They have strengthened me and helped me to see that this world’s governments have little to offer. Although personal experiences can only help others to a certain degree, I would be happy if mine could just help young people today see through the sham of this world and consequently seek good, upright values in true Christianity, as taught by Jesus.
Today, suffering and injustice are a part of everyday life. Like the Bibelforscher in the concentration camps, I too am looking forward to a better world to come, where brotherly love and justice will prevail instead of violence and fanatical idealism. In the meantime, I am trying to serve God and Christ as best I can as an elder in the Christian congregation, along with my wife, children, and grandchildren. (Psalm 112:7, 8)—As related by René Séglat.
[Pictures on page 28]
Above: Roll call in the camp
Left: Entrance gate to Buchenwald. The inscription reads: “To everyone what he deserves”
[Pictures on page 29]
Above: Crematorium at Buchenwald
Left: Sixteen prisoners to each tier