“‘We didn’t know! We didn’t know!’ I first heard these words on a sunny afternoon in mid-April, 1945. They were repeated so often during the weeks to come, and all of us heard them with such monotonous frequency, that we came to regard them as a kind of national chant for Germany.”
The conditions found in Buchenwald became synonymous with the National Socialist crimes. They showed the American soldiers what they had been fighting for, and the German public what it had been refusing to acknowledge.
Ohrdruf, a subcamp of Buchenwald, was the first concentration camp on German soil to be liberated by Western Allied troops: members of the 89th Infantry Division of the Third U.S. Army reached the site on 4 April 1945. Eight days later, the supreme commander of the Allied forces, General Dwight D. Eisenhower, toured the Ohrdruf camp. He issued the order that the German public be confronted with the camps and the world public be informed of the conditions there.
On 16 April 1945, the U.S. Army took one thousand citizens of Weimar on a tour of the liberated Buchenwald concentration camp. Equipped with a camera, the Signal Corps photographer Walter Chichersky documented their trip on foot from the Weimar main station to the ovens of the Buchenwald crematorium.
News correspondents from all over the world visited the camp and made verbal and visual records of the conditions there. Throughout the rest of April and well into May, they were joined by a seemingly endless stream of delegations from the International Red Cross, the American Congress, the British parliament, and American publishing companies, as well as individual public figures.
As the situation of the inmates in Buchenwald gradually stabilized over the course of the weeks that followed, numerous American soldiers visited the camp. On so-called “soldier tours of Buchenwald”, former inmates showed them scenes of the crimes committed. Once the sick persons had been moved to the former SS caserns in order to provide them better medical care, the empty wooden bunk beds were labelled as a means of elucidating the inmates’ living conditions. Since many of the crimes were no longer visible in the camp, the soldiers photographed these English inscriptions.