How It Really Was at Buchenwald

Buchenwald film dpa picture alliance
A scene from the new film about Buchenwald concentration camp.
  • Why it matters

    Why it matters

    The book became an instant anti-fascist classic in the former East Germany when it was first published. But that version didn’t tell the whole story.

  • Facts


    • Bruno Apitz, the book’s author, spent eight years at Buchenwald concentration camp.
    • The book was earlier made into a 1963 film that starred Erwin Geschonneck and the young Armin Mueller-Stahl.
    • Of 56,000 people killed at Buchenwald, only 72 were German communists.
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The 1958 novel “Naked Among Wolves,” about life in the Buchenwald concentration camp, sold three million copies and was translated into more than 30 languages. But for years it was hardly known outside the former East Germany, where it was an anti-fascist classic and mandatory reading in school.

The author, Bruno Apitz, had to omit or tone down parts of the novel when it was first published. But a new version, with previously unrevealed details, was recently shown at prime time on German public TV.

It tells the heroic story of German communists in their struggle against the Nazis.

But the new version also details how a secret communist organization inside the camp worked to get special bread rations,  medicine or easier work – and even influenced death lists of prisoners marked for transport to extermination camps.

Ultimately, “Naked Among Wolves” is a human drama about a three-year-old Jewish boy from Poland, called Stefan, who is hidden from the SS by communist prisoners in the last weeks before the camp was liberated – even though it puts the illegal organization of prisoners in grave danger before their planned revolt.

Communist humanity triumphs over dogmatic party discipline: That was Mr. Apitz’s message and East German leaders used it as propaganda. Later, the myth seemed to be sensationally authenticated when the “real” Buchenwald child, Stefan Jerzy Zweig, turned up.

The new film is bound to provoke discussion – not because it breaks with history or political taboos, but because of its extreme violence.

The new TV film is directed by Philipp Kadelbach and produced by Nico Hofmann, in co-production with the public TV broadcaster, ARD. As in their controversial TV mini-series, “Our Mothers, Our Fathers,” which focused on five Berlin friends and their experiences under the Nazis, Mr. Kadelbach and Mr. Hofmann once again delve into Germany’s difficult past – although this time they feature German communists in their struggle against National Socialism.

Mr. Hofmann spoke during filming about the first TV production in decades to focus almost exclusively on the inner workings of a concentration camp. He had to get special permission to film location shots at the memorial site of Buchenwald, lending an important atmosphere of authenticity.

The film does provide an important insight because the historical debates about Buchenwald were particularly intense after the fall of East Germany. At last it was possible to talk about so-called “kapos” at the camp – the communist prisoner functionaries who were given privileges by the SS and created a brutal hierarchy in their fight for survival. Of 56,000 people killed at Buchenwald, only 72 were German communists.

What researchers have known since the 1990s will now finally be shared with the broader public.  The inner workings of the camp featured structures of power including special bread rations, secret medicine for comrades, and, above all, death lists that were quietly put together with the help of the secret communist camp organization.

Yet while the new film demystifies the communist resistance, it doesn’t completely denounce it either. The SS remains the deadly enemy – to be fought, but above all, to survive. Weapons are secretly collected for a revolt that is supposed to break out when approaching U.S. troops are close enough.

The dramatic constellation is based on the moral conflict at the heart of Mr. Apitz’ story: The young communist Pippig, played by Florian Stetter, wants to help the young boy Stefan. Comrades hide the boy in a stock room against the express orders of the communist leadership, which wants him transported to the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp. If the SS find the boy, they might also find the illegal camp organization at the same time.


Buchenwald picture alliance
Prisoners from Buchenwald concentration camp. Source: Picture Alliance


It is a race against time, which the film skillfully shows as a tense countdown, with the help of documentary footage of the approach of U.S. troops. Will the boy make it? Will the prisoners survive?

The new film is bound to provoke discussion – not because it breaks with history or political taboos, but because of its extreme violence. There are indeed brutal shootings and nauseating scenes of torture not usually seen on prime time public television.

It is annoying though, that the acting generally holds no surprises, including the eye-catching SS officers. Needless to say, the weakest character in the film fails predictably and in terrible fashion.

But the morally exceptional situation of the camp – which doesn’t lead to self-liberation, but to the flight of SS guards – is always apparent in the film. And when the camp senior, Krämer, played by Sylvester Groth, finally brings himself to announce via loudspeaker that lynch justice is forbidden, he proceeds to tear the SS office to pieces, as if in despairing protest at having to give this superhuman instruction after years of death and suffering.

This great scene of survival encapsulates the full horror of the camp.


Video: Buchenwald Concentration Camp liberation footage.

This article first appeared in Die Zeit. To contact the author: diezeit@zeit.de

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