Günter Pappenheim

Born 1925 in Schmalkalden, Germany

Günter Pappenheim comes from a Jewish family. His father Ludwig was a Social Democrat and active opponent of National Socialism. He paid for his resistance with his life in 1934, and the Pappenheim family was ostracised as a result. Günter Pappenheim and his siblings refused to join the Hitler Youth and rejected indoctrination at school, so they were constantly harassed.

In 1940, Günter Pappenheim began training as a metalworker in Schmalkalden. He befriended the French forced labourers also working at the company. On 14 July 1943, Bastille Day, he played the Marseillaise for them on his accordion. German members of the workforce denounced him for it. He was arrested and abused by the police for his supposed ‘subversive attitude’ and was then sent to Buchenwald.

After the liberation on 11 April 1945, Günter Pappenheim swore the Oath of Buchenwald along with tens of thousands of other former prisoners. Back in his home town he soon became politically active. He joined the Socialist Unity Party of Germany in 1946 and later studied social science at the Higher Party School of the CPSU in Moscow. He has been a member of the Lagerarbeitsgemeinschaft Buchenwald-Dora (Buchenwald-Dora Camp Association) since 1990 and its chairman since 2005. Günter Pappenheim has been awarded the rank of Commander in the French Legion of Honour and the Order of Merit of the Free State of Thuringia. The city of Weimar made him an honorary citizen in March 2021.

Günter Pappenheim passed away on 31 March 2021 in Zeuthen.

I am Günter Pappenheim, and at the age of 96 I am the last surviving former German political prisoner from the Buchenwald concentration camp.

I am no longer in good health, and my strength is waning with age.

I grew up in a progressive Social Democratic family. My father was a well-known and popular local politician in Schmalkalden. The fascists murdered him in 1934 in the Neusustrum concentration camp. My mother and siblings were ostracised by the so-called “Volksgemeinschaft” (“people’s community”), we were threatened, harassed, and persecuted. I was arrested by the Gestapo, denounced by a colleague because I had played the Marseillaise on my accordion for French prisoners of war and forced labourers on their national holiday. The Gestapo interrogated and mistreated me. They locked me in the Suhl prison, and I was sent from there to a labour camp and finally to the Buchenwald concentration camp as a so-called “protective custody prisoner”. I am one of the survivors. This fact is tied to a responsibility to do everything possible to prevent such crimes from happening again.

I have gratefully received many honours over the past years. The President of the French Republic appointed me a Commander in the Legion of Honour, the Free State of Thuringia awarded me its Order of Merit, and I am an honorary citizen of the city of Weimar.

I have always felt especially honoured when, in my encounters with young people, I was able to spark an interest in my experiences and those of my companions in the fight against Germany’s fascist terror.

Even at an advanced age, it is my heartfelt desire to ensure that contextual historical knowledge is always passed on so that we can understand our past and prevent unspeakable crimes from being repeated in the present and future.

This deep conviction is held by all of my comrades who survived the SS camps.

I

I was at my workplace in the mechanical workshop on 11 April 1945 when I heard the words over the loudspeaker: “[...] Comrades, we are free! [...]”. I rushed out to the roll call square, where I saw armed prisoners. I sensed how the fear receded, how the tension of the last days eased. I stepped out of the camp through the main gate for a moment – yes, we were free.

As prisoner number 22514, I was occasionally assigned to work outside the camp and was therefore allowed to pass through the gate with a special identification card.

Never before had I felt the way I did on this day in April 1945. I was freer than I had ever been in my life.

With this in mind, I went back into the camp and returned to my comrades in Block 45, Wing A. I was the youngest one there. Eduard Marschall, Heinz Grosse, Walter Wolf, Fritz Pollak, and Karl Feuerer had taken me into their community of solidarity. We knew that we could rely on one another. The solidarity I experienced had a lifelong effect on me.

The prisoners’ camp committee had taken over management of the camp in the meantime. Life among the liberated prisoners was extraordinarily disciplined until the American military took over the camp on 13 April.

One of the most powerful moments for me was when we commemorated the dead on the evening of 19 April 1945. I was overwhelmed seeing the blocks of liberated prisoners file to the roll call square. The survivors stood there, their gaze directed at the wooden obelisk inscribed with the letters “K.L.B.” – for “Konzentrationslager Buchenwald” – and the number of victims known at the time: 51,000. This is where the metal memorial plaque is located today.

We stood on the roll call square, commemorated the dead and heard the “declaration” in Russian, Polish, German, French, Czech and English, which led to the “Oath of Buchenwald”:

“[...] Thus we swear before all the world, on this roll call square, on this site of fascist horror: We will take up the fight until the last culprit stands before the judges of the people. Our watchword is the destruction of Nazism from its roots. Our goal is to build a new world of peace and freedom. We owe this to our murdered comrades and their families. As a sign of your willingness to fight, raise your hand for the oath and repeat after me: We swear! [...]”

I still remember the sound. It was not a muted sound, it was decisive and vibrant, full of courage.

I have always said that, for me and many of my comrades, this oath became the compass by which we lived our lives.

And I want to add that none of us who stood on the roll call square that day would have thought it possible that, 76 years after this oath, perpetrators would still be on trial in Germany.

It left a strong impression on me when people from Weimar were summoned by the Americans to come to the Ettersberg and see what had happened there. They had been indoctrinated to view us former prisoners as criminals. Most of them were shocked by what they were confronted with in the camp. Many said they hadn’t known anything about Buchenwald. But there were prisoner work details in Weimar. The prisoner transports that arrived at the freight yard could not have gone unnoticed. I heard people say that what they had seen surpassed what they could imagine.

That I believe. It was no different for those of us who were at the mercy of the SS.

I was already allowed to leave the camp on 22 April 1945. The journey home, to Schmalkalden, was arduous. I was weaker than I thought and collapsed in Arnstadt, where I was taken to the hospital. Once I had more or less recovered my strength, I continued on my way without knowing whether I would be reunited with my family. But then I found my mother and my sister at home. No one knew where my brother was. At the behest of the district administrator and Nazi Party district leader, he had been deported to the Weissenfels labour camp. He left the camp in April 1945 but was captured by the Americans and sent to a POW camp. The American commanders in Schmalkalden and Suhl promised to arrange for his release, but their efforts came to nothing. And then one day he showed up at home after all.

I quickly made contact with Social Democrats and particularly strove to encourage young people to help build a new, democratic Germany, a new world of peace and freedom. I met a few who were happy that they no longer had to despise me. We became comrades in arms, kindred spirits, and we enjoyed this new feeling of optimism.

II

Whenever I visit Buchenwald today with my wife on the anniversary of the liberation, I look forward to meeting people with whom I share so much. The time in Buchenwald is always something festive for me and mobilizes memories, for example of meetings with German comrades and the French ones I hold so dearly. The feelings are mixed, of course. On the one hand, I am happy to see my comrades, but on the other, I am aware that there are always fewer of us – after all, 76 years have passed since the liberation.

A programme of activities is usually arranged for us. I am particularly interested in meeting with young people. They need to learn what happened back then, and I have the impression that they really want to hear it from us. In discussions like this, I feel a sense of hope and also confidence that the experiences we share will fall on fertile ground and give rise to forces that are capable of fighting for a new world of peace and freedom. Some may think this is illusory, but changing the status quo is both necessary and possible.

The Lagerarbeitsgemeinschaft Buchenwald-Dora (Buchenwald-Dora Camp Association, short: LAG), a wonderful community, always meets during these days as well. Relatives of former prisoners are organized in the LAG, as are anti-fascists who actively campaign for the preservation of the anti-fascist legacy and for the Buchenwald oath to be put into practice.

Up until 2020, the association had organised ten meetings of descendants, which were met with great response in Germany and internationally, and received wonderful support and solidarity. The meeting in 2020 was supposed to be a highlight, but it could not take place on account of the coronavirus pandemic.

The cinema of the Buchenwald Memorial always overflowed during these meetings, and there were interesting programmes which always included a talk on a relevant historical topic. Guests from abroad participated in the meetings as well, and I looked forward to every single one with great excitement. A brochure was published for each meeting which recounted what took place at the event. The brochures have been very popular both nationally and internationally. This, too, shows that what we are doing is not antiquated or outdated.

The schedule during the liberation events is always very tight for us former prisoners. Even so, every single meeting of descendants was attended by fellow comrades as well as the president of the International Buchenwald-Dora Committee.

Commemoration on the former roll call square and at the bell tower are always important to me, too, because those present not only commemorate the victims, they are also a manifestation of the will to never forget anything or anyone.

I am always emotionally moved and enriched when I return home from Buchenwald – enriched in part by having exchanged ideas with my comrades and the fact that we still want the same thing in principle: to finally achieve a world of peace and freedom.

It will be urgently necessary to continue fighting for this in the future.

III

Since we can expect that there will be no more discussions with survivors in the foreseeable future, the memorials bear a great responsibility. They must help to spread the truth. Only the unadulterated truth guarantees that people can form their own viewpoints – the prerequisite for deliberate action for the benefit of humanity.

Our growing distance from the past should not lead anyone to trivialise what happened or even compare it to other historical events. Counteracting this will be the most important task of the memorials.

With their historical research and their education and public relations work, they will have to compensate for the absence of eyewitnesses.

The memorials should reach out to civic initiatives that are working in the spirit of the Oath of Buchenwald and generally striving to preserve the legacy of antifascist resistance in all of its diversity.

The memorials must create opportunities for the official commemoration of the liberation to take place with the participation of other interested individuals.

We have to assume that far-right political activities will not abate in the foreseeable future, and that society will have to resist more than just the beginnings. We must counter this by setting the following intention: “We want peace. We want a happy future in a world that is worth living in!” It is a good sign that young people are articulating this. It must be embraced and fostered by society – and by the memorials.

The wording of this text in German was authorised on 8 March 2021 by Günter Pappenheim in the presence of his wife Margot.

Gerhard Hoffmann

Find out more

Günter Pappenheim in the permanent exhibition at the Memorial, ‘Buchenwald: Ostracism and Violence 1937 to 1945’, [German]