David P. Boder Interviews Bernard Warsager; September 1, 1946; Tradate, Italy

Jewish men sent to Germany shortly after the conquest of Poland often did their slave labor in actual concentration camps. One of the most articulate accounts of survival at Buchenwald is provided by Bernard Warsager, a Polish Jew who spent five and one-half years in the German camp. The young artist, who had studied at the Warsaw Academy of Art, was drafted into the Polish army in 1939 at the age of twenty-three, only to have his unit surrounded by German forces in the early days of World War II. Warsager managed to escape and return to his home town of Tomaszów Mazowiecki, but not for long. There were many like him, and the Germans swept the newly occupied territories for young Poles to be sent to camps in Germany.

Buchenwald was probably the most efficiently organized and least brutal of the German concentration camps—the best of the worst, one might say—by the time Warsager arrived in October 1939. A major scandal the previous year involving corruption among the SS and the professional criminals that had constituted the camp elite had led to housecleaning and opportunities for the political prisoners to take control. Otherwise Warsager might not have lived to tell this story. (He seems to have perceived these changes most acutely in 1943, by which time an influx of foreign prisoners had changed the ethnic composition of the camp underground, but the crucial developments had occurred before his arrival at Buchenwald.) However, he is far from uncritical of the men with the red triangle who helped run Buchenwald, finding some as brutal and venal as the "greens." Equally surprising is his account of library resources and informal classes that made it possible for Buchenwald inmates to pursue intellectual interests, psychology in Warsager's case. More conventional is his description of work conditions in the camp that drove some prisoners to take their own lives—"murdered by suicide" in Warsager’s trenchant phrase. He attributes his own drive to go on to his faith in the future of Zionism.

Warsager and thousands of other prisoners from Poland were initially accommodated in a temporary "small camp" improvised with tents and barbed wire fences on the edge of Buchenwald's roll call square. Food and hygiene were far worse than in the main camp, and work in the stone quarry was even more brutal than usual. Prisoners who did not deliberately run through the sentry line to be "shot while trying to escape" almost inevitably fell sick with dysentery, but frostbite got Bernard sent to the infirmary for a second time. We may speculate that one reason he emerged alive, and with a successful throat operation thrown in for good measure, was SS admiration of sketches he made there. At the same time we should not lose sight of the proficiency of prisoner doctors who worked under anything but ideal conditions. Warsager may also have been one of the camp's skilled workers, for in most cases only they were exempted from the transfer of all Jews from German concentration camps to Poland in October 1942.

Bernard tried in vain to evade evacuation from Buchenwald during the last days of the war. He escaped from a death march, hid from the SS, and was liberated by American forces just when he thought he had reached the limits of his endurance. Following an abortive effort to pick up the pieces of his life in Poland, he led a group of fellow survivors through the British occupation zone of Germany, hoping to reach Palestine by way of Holland. Arrested at the border, they were subjected to what Warsager considered a renewal of the concentration camp experience. After three months he was released, moved to Italy, and joined a kibbutz housed in a castle at Tradate, halfway between Milan and Como, where he was interviewed. There he prepared for a new life in Palestine.

From FRESH WOUNDS: EARLY NARRATIVES OF HOLOCAUST SURVIVAL by Donald L. Niewyk. Copyright (c) 1998 by the University of North Carolina Press. Used by permission of the publisher. www.uncpress.unc.edu