• Navigation:
  • Start
  • »
  • »
  • »


Between 1937 and 1940 approximately 2000 prisoners were cremated in the Weimar civil crematorium. The local authority, the municipal cemetary bureau was responsible for shipping the urns of ashes to families in the district under their control including to the camp for dead prisoners from the camp.

The law at the time required that the family of the deceased must give prior consent to the cremation of a family member. In breach of this law the camp commandant provided the consent to the bureau. The agreement between the camp commandant and the bureau to do this had been reached before any bodies were cremated in an order from the Chief Burgomaster in a reponse to a letter from the camp commandant:

"As concerns the letter of 7/29/1937 I hereby consent to the petition of the camp commander to carry out the cremation of the corpses in question for a lump-sum fee of 20 RM.

I request that the camp command headquarters be informed of this and be instructed that the certificate required according to Article Three Item Two of the Reich Law governing cremation be submitted at the time of the tarnsport of the corpse. For the sake of simplicity I am enclosing a number of forms. Item One of the form is to be completed by the command headquarters of the concentration camp. Item Two by the respective registrar. Item Four by the police authority of the place of death. For the purposes of buriel, officials of the concentration camp may collect the remains upon submission of a receipt to the cemetary custodian."

On April 1, 1939 a Special Registry Office "Weimar II " was opened in Buchenwald. Here with the aid of a municipal registry official the private affairs of the SS members were processed snd certificates issued for deaths taking place in the camp. A copy of the death records were delivered to the Weimar Registry Office annually. Once mass executions got under way in the Autumn of 1941 the SS had only a percentage of the deaths formally processed and from 1943 on the deaths of Russians, Poles and Jews were generally no longer reported to the registry office.

In place of family members the commandant released the inmates bodies for cremation both formally by signing the necessary documents for the Weimar Municipal Crematorium (until 1940) as well as by actually transporting the bodies.

The crematorium department and Registry office each formed sub departments of Department I of the Camp Administration: The Camp command headquarters.

From mid 1940 the camp began cremating the dead prisoners in its own crematorium.

In the summer of 1942 the SS had the crematorium expanded and installed two triple muffle Topf ovens. These were exactly the same type of oven that was used in crematoria II and III in Birkenau.  The ovens were found intact when the camp was liberated. As can be seen the corpse delivery trolley is the same design as the ones used in Auschwitz/ Birkenau and still on show in crematorium I in Auschwitz. 

The bodies of prisoners were cremated until March 1945. In February 1945 the SS failed to receive the fuel for the crematorium and the bodies piled up. With Himmlers approval "emergency burials" began in March and mass graves were dug on the South slope of the Ettersburg.

Only in very few cases were the bodies of prisoners released to families before cremation so that the family could bury them. One case was the Protestant minister Paul Schneider in the summer of 1939. Leonhard Steinwender recalls:

"Only in exceptional circumstances were corpses laid out and commemorated with flowers for propoganda purposes. Otherwise the dead inmate "crossed the grate" as it was termed in the camp jargon. Every inmate was cremated and this principle also applied to clergymen despite an urgent petition from Cardinal Bertram of Breslau."

After 1943 urns of prisoner ashes were only available for the mortal remains of deceased Reich Germans and a small number of foregign inmates (Norwegians, Danes).

Beginning as early as 1943 the SS had the ashes of most of the dead dumped as refuse.

Source: Buchenwald Gedenkstatte: Buchenwald Concentration Camp 1937-1945. Wallstein 2004



Section VIII Health Conditions.

"On the orders of the Reich SS leader, every prisoner who died had to be burned. Often the numbers of dead were so large that difficulties arose in storing them. Until a special morgue was constructed the bodies of the dead lay in piles in various rooms of the camp, some in the toilets. At first there were often those among them who were not yet completely dead. They were carried off by the corpse- carrying detail, which early on consisted of jews, later of Poles. Of course any sort of pious handling of the dead never came into question. At any hour of the day one could hear the call over the loudspeakers "Corpse carriers to the gate!"

Corpses of prisoners were burned in the crematoriums in Weimar and Jena until 1940. In theory the corpse was to lie in a coffin wearing a shroud with his name and number. Often they were simply thrown naked into primitive crates-in pairs if they were thin enough. On the way to the crematorium a hearse from Buchenwald concentration camp once lost a coffin in front of a coffee house in the middle of Weimar; the coffin sprang open and two emaciated corpses fell out. In winter 1940-1941 the camp acquired a motorized crematorium that could be loaned out whenever needed. The number of corpses was so great and the crematoriums capacity so small that bodies were literally stuffed into it. At times body parts failed to burn and fell out into the roll call square, a gruesome affair. Buchenwalds own permanent crematorium was being built during this time and was finished in 1941. The facility consisted of a large morgue, an autopsy room two ovens with an enormous chimney and some rooms for service personnel. The wholke thing was in a spacious courtyard and was surrounded by a high wall.

An autopsy had to be perfomed on every corpse and an official report made of the findings. The prisoner assigned to this task in the early years were a former baker and a pimp, then a former carpenter. They were of course hardly suited to these enormous tasks even if they had had the desire and the sense of responsibility. The autopsy reports were simply fabricated. when it was necessary the SS too was often kept in the dark. A real autopsy was only made on special request or if the pathology section or a Berlin authoirty demanded tissue samples.

The pathology department was created in 1940. The autopsy room in the crematorium was under its control. It prepared all sorts of pathological specimens which were sent either to Berlin or to the SS Medical Academy in Prague for teaching purposes or were displayed in the departments own exhibit case. The Buchenwald collection gradually became very wide ranging. The department had gained scientific significance insofar as the specialists employed there presented training courses in medicine, physiology and biology for a circle of interested comrades. The medical students among the Norwegians brought here in 1944 were able systematically to continue training there.

The last year up to fall 1944 the autopsy room was directed by a Czech Premonstratensian monk. He had been spared from transfer to Dachau again and again becuase of his extraordinarily humane qualities and his radiant good natured personality. Using a wooden platform set up over the stairs to the crematorium basement he had repeatadly celebrated mass especially on Catholic high holy days for a few of the faithful, an activity that carried with it the danger of a death sentence for all participants."

"The ovens were always operated by professional criminals. When the burnings did not take place daily but as per regulations only twice a week enormous mountains of corpses sometimes formed. The crematorium was heated with coke. Often the "unholy flames" rose day and night over Buchenwald, up to a yard high out of the chimney. The prisoners faced this drama with both horror and apathy. All sorts of jokes about the crematorium were made in the roll call square. Depending on the curve of the smoke plume, for example, inmates joked about what category of prisoners were being burned. "You will go on the grill" or "up the chimney" were constant expressions in the camp. The roll call officer would often call over the loudspeaker to the professional criminals who were working in the oven room and were not taking part in the roll call. "Lets have the birds in the crematorium take a peek outside"Then these fellows would grab corpses and hold them up to the windows. The mood in which the final act of mourning for thousands took place is well characterized in this example

Relatives requests for prisoners ashes were handled with the same lack of reverence. One of the professional criminals grabbed a handful of ashes from the great pile threw them in a box and sent them to the post office. The political department was informed the infirmary (camp doctor) issued a certificate of authenticity for the remains and the Registrars office issued a death certificate. If the person in question was not a Russian, a Pole or a non German Jew some SS member in the political department wrote a sympathy letter that always read the same:

Dear Frau (name)! Your husband (name) died in the hospital here. I express to you my deepest sympathy at this loss. (name) was delivered to the hospital on (date) with signs of severe exhaustion and complained about difficulties in breathing and chest pains. Despite the best medications and dedicated treatment it unfortunately not possible to save the patients life. The deceased did not express any last wishes.

The Camp Commandant.

In the final months theer was a great shortage of coal. When the number of corpses becmae too large and the rats that ate them threatened to sporead disease in the camp, the SS, with Himmlers permission switched to emergency burials in mass graves located at the Bismarck Tower. To a very limited extent cremation continued mostly of Germans, becuase you could not expect them to lie togethor with Jews in a common grave, as the sergeant in charge of the crematorium thoughtfully expressed it.

IN the last years the crematorium also served as a place of execution. Again and again people were brought from outside the camp or prisoners were called to the gate, taken directly to the crematorium, and there, always in the presence of the camp doctor and a representative of the camp adminsitration, they were strangled with a rope while hanging from a hook mounted on the wall."


Source: Hackett, David A (translator). The Buchenwald Report. Westview Press 1995.



See also: