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Leon Merrick: Evacuation and Arrival at Buchenwald

First Person Podcast Series

In December 1944, as the Soviet army approached the slave labor camp in Poland where Leon Merrick was imprisoned, the Germans evacuated him to the Buchenwald concentration camp in Germany. Leon shares his recollections of the evacuation and his first day in Buchenwald.



LEON MERRICK: They hear a whistle blowing, we look up and people [are] going with lunch basket[s] from work. People, children going to school, and here we are locked up in the car. I am 16, 17, I am just locked up just because I'm a Jew, nothing else, I am not a criminal.

NARRATOR: Over 60 years after the Holocaust, hatred, antisemitism, and genocide still threaten our world. The life stories of Holocaust survivors transcend the decades and remind us of the constant need to be vigilant citizens and to stop injustice, prejudice, and hatred wherever and whenever they occur.

This podcast series presents excerpts of interviews with Holocaust survivors from the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum's public program First Person: Conversations with Holocaust Survivors.

In today's episode, Leon Merrick talks with host Bill Benson about his evacuation from a forced labor camp in Poland and his arrival at the Buchenwald concentration camp in 1944.

LEON MERRICK: So they put us in cattle cars. They were closed cattle cars. They just had a small window there, and they had barbed wire on the top. And I think they gave us, they put this bucket in the middle of the train, you know, for your needs. And then the train started chugging along. We didn't know where we're going. And then one guy lifts up the other one, and then we looked out through the window. We were reading German names. So we know we're going to Germany, but we didn't know exactly where we're going in Germany. You know?

In the meantime we hear a whistle blowing. We look up and people are going with lunch basket from work. People, children going to school, and here we're locked up in the car. I'm 16, 17, I'm just locked up, just because I'm a Jew, nothing else. I am not a criminal. You know? I didn't kill anybody. This was the only reason.

So anyway, after riding several days, the train stopped. The doors, they opened the doors, and I took a look, and you see the swastika flying from a flagpole and a big sign—“Concentration Camp Buchenwald”—and the familiar sign, “Work Makes You Free.” Okay?

So after waiting maybe five or ten minutes, who knows, I don't know how long, guards came out. They says, “Column of five, line up.” We walked in the main gate. They led us into a big hallway, maybe just like from one end to the other one. They had a big long table. “Everybody undress, everybody undress.”

So at that time I still had photographs, pictures from my family, before I left. I had it in my pocket. I had addresses from my relatives, after the war, we're gonna meet. And, you know, we didn't have an address book like we have here. Eastern Europe, a letter came, you saved the envelope. When it was time to write a letter, you looked for the envelope, and that's what it says.

Anyway, but once I took everything off, “Put it on the table.” But then I walked away, everything I could remember. I told you, I worked in the factory and the machines were running on oil. I had no change of clothing and my pants got dirty from the dirty oil. I managed to wash a couple of times, but I guess the oil didn't go all out from the… I couldn't clean 'em up.

I developed blisters underneath my, on my feet. And here I was all naked. And then they had a medical officer, a German, a tall fellow, black uniform. He looked at me [laughs]. You see, he points out, “What's that?”

So I just, I did the best German I could. I explained to him. I says, “I worked in a factory. I didn't have no change of clothing, and I guess this is from the dirty oil from the machine.” You know? He just shook his head, walked away. Walked away. All right? So next then…

BILL BENSON: So he could've sent you to your death?

LEON MERRICK: He could've sent me, yeah.


LEON MERRICK: And he just walked away. A tall fellow. He had this black…a red armband and a red swastika; black uniform too. But a death man's head on the cap. A tough guy. And he shook his head, I was lucky, and walked away.

And so then when this was finished, I remember they says, “Everybody walk downstairs.” So we walked downstairs, and they must've had about maybe 10 or 20 guys. But see, they were inmates just like I was, but they already have a job in the camp. I said Buchenwald—the camp had 58,000 people, just, you know, they were there. There were Jews and non-Jews and German and Communists and Jehovah Witnesses, and who knows what. Anybody who the Germans thought is no good, they put 'em in this concentration camp: 58,000 people.

They marched us downstairs, and then they clipped us. They shaved our heads, and under the arm, everyplace. And then when this was finished, next room. They had a big drum set up. I could see the water is green, and we had to submerge. Don't forget, we were just shaved and all, and me and all these blisters I had, oh it was burning, whew. Anyhow but this would only take seconds, because there's a line there. Everybody had to jump in, out.

BILL BENSON: So this was a disinfectant.

LEON MERRICK: Disinfecting water, to get the lice off. We had lice on us. We didn't clean ourselves. So if you cleaned, it wasn't good enough. You had no change of clothing. No, we were all pretty loused up. And this was for that.

And then, next door, the door was ajar. Underneath we seen the showerheads. You know, at that time the showerheads, the first time I, when I was still in the ghetto, in 1942, I heard the rumor that the people they take 'em to the transfer, but really to gas 'em. They give 'em a piece of soap, they give 'em a towel. But when they go to the showers, instead of water, gas is coming out. But we couldn't believe it, a nation like Germany. You know? We just didn't believe it. Okay?

But here we go, we see all these showerheads. But there's no way, you cannot return. You're inside the camp. You're naked too. [Laughs.] You’re in concentration camp...

Anyway, finally I go into the nearest shower. And I remember three guys, two more; I was there and two more guys, and the water doesn't run yet, but we all were looking for a good spot, if the water starts running. You know? Because everybody was burning. [Laughs.]

And finally the water trickled out. Yeah, so we're happy, even with this misery, it's water, not gas. Okay? And after this was finished, we're walking to the next guy. He had a paper and pen. He asked me questions, uh.., “How old are you? What transport you came in?” Uh…“What is your profession?” I told him I'm a student. I was 16 years old. He writes it all down. Okay.

After he's written it down, we go to the next room, and they give me clothing. They gave me a jacket, a jacket.

Not the striped jacket, what you see, just a plain jacket. They gave me some pants. No underwear, no shirt, just they gave me a jacket, they gave me some pants. And I go to the next guy and he has these wooden clogs. I don't know if you guys know what clogs are. They were like wooden shoes. And he had them in his hands, and they looked like, no, they're not the same size. And I said, “Sir, they're not the same size.” [He said], “I said it's the same size. Next.” So I'm just going to the next guy.

NARRATOR: You have been listening to First Person: Conversations with Holocaust Survivors, a podcast series of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. Every Wednesday at 1 p.m. from March through August, Holocaust survivors share their stories during First Person programs held at the Museum in Washington, DC. We would appreciate your feedback on this series.