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Liberated Prisoners at Buchenwald, Germany

Margaret Bourke-White (American, 1904-1971)

Liberated Prisoners at Buchenwald, Germany, 1945

  • Gelatin silver print
  • 10 5/8 x 10 5/8 in. (26.9 x 26.9 cm)
  • The Jewish Museum, New York
  • Purchase: Lillian Gordon Bequest, 2000-77
  • © Estate of Margaret Bourke-White/Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY

Not on view



Liberated Prisoners at Buchenwald, Germany


Liberated Prisoners at Buchenwald, Germany


The Buchenwald concentration camp was built in 1937 about five miles outside the German city of Weimar. It was one of the largest Nazi concentration camps. Although the camp's first inmates were mainly political prisoners, about ten thousand Jewish men were sent to the facility in November 1938, in the aftermath of Kristallnacht. From then through the end of the war, Buchenwald housed not only Jews and political prisoners but also Jehovah's Witnesses, Roma and Sinti, German military deserters, resistance fighters, and prisoners of war.

Buchenwald and its many smaller satellite camps were important sources of forced labor for the Nazis. Inmates worked on construction projects, in munitions plants, and in stone quarries. Periodically, the prisoners underwent "selection," in which those who were too sick or weak to work were killed by lethal injection or sent elsewhere to be gassed. Some prisoners were also subjected to medical experiments, which resulted in hundreds of deaths.


Before and during World War II, the Nazis set up an elaborate system of ghettos and camps across Germany and occupied Europe. Ghettos were created in urban areas to separate the Jews from the rest of the population and facilitate their deportation to camps. Concentration camps were used to detain Jews, political prisoners, and other perceived enemies. The Nazis built the first concentration camps, Dachau, in 1933; by the end of the war, there were thousands of camps.

Although concentration camps were not built for the purpose of mass murder, many prisoners were killed in the camps, while others died from starvation, disease, or the rigors of forced labor. The Nazis also built six death camps, or killing centers, specifically for the mass murder of Jews and Gypsies, primarily by poison gas. Most of those who arrived at the death camps were immediately sent to gas chambers to be killed. The remaining prisoners were kept alive temporarily to work in the camps.


As the American, British, French, Canadian, and Russian forces made inroads against the German army in late 1944 and 1945, the Allied troops came upon the Nazi concentration camps and death camps. Although reports of the Nazis atrocities had already been leaked to the Western press, many did not believe or fully understand the extent of the suffering. The liberating soldiers were shocked and sickened to find piles of corpses, gas chambers, human crematoria, mass graves, rooms full of victims' shoes and eyeglasses, and survivors as thin as skeletons. Although caring for the survivors was not their primary duty, these unwitting liberators did their best to provide comfort and basic supplies for the victims.