Struggle for survival

During the war, prisoners who worked as nurses or doctors in infirmaries faced terrible choices: medicine was scarce, so saving one inmate could mean sacrificing another. When making these choices, prisoners often thought of their own friends and comrades first. After the war, the Communist Helmut Thiemann, who had worked in the Buchenwald sick bay, explained that his priority had been to save fellow Communist prisoners. To do so, he deprived other inmates of medicine and even killed on SS orders.

061 – The German prisoner Helmut Thiemann on the Buchenwald sick bay

The SS doctors carried out murders and several [Communist Party] comrades, including me, had to participate as assistants. What’s more, I was not just helping. I was forced to eliminate people as well. I could have refused and to begin with I did object to doing it. But after the [Communist] party pointed out to me the importance of this task I had to see sense and act accordingly. […]

since our comrades were worth more than all the others

So, since our comrades were worth more than all the others, we had to go along part of the way with the SS, that is with the extermination of people who were sick and without hope of recovery. Although from a humane point of view it was difficult to carry out these things, we were thereby able to thwart every threat which emerged in the camp. Not for nothing were spying, denunciations and betrayal to a large extent made impossible.

It is not part of our ideology to eliminate sick people, but the conditions in Buchenwald were so frightful that, particularly during the later years, apart from the SS, BV [criminals] and foreign, reactionary nationalists, infectious diseases and epidemics became a threat to the camp. […] While, on the one hand, we established special wards only for our comrades from every nation, who received everything in the way of medicines that we had, on the other hand we had to be ruthless.

Source: K. Hartewig, “Wolf unter Wölfen?”, in U. Herbert et al. (eds), Die nationalsozialistischen Konzentrationslager (Göttingen, 1998), vol. 2, pp. 946–7

Translation: Lesley Sharpe and Jeremy Noakes