Special to Together.
An abbreviated version of this article will appear in the next issue of Together.

Edward R. Murrow at Buchenwald:

Remembering His Broadcast of April 15, 1945

by Fred Glueckstein

Edward R. Murrow was appointed Chief European correspondent for the Columbia Broadcasting System in 1937. Based on eyewitness reports beginning with Hitler’s seizure of Austria in 1938, Murrow’s daily radio broadcasts to America were heard by millions. A pensive and intelligent man who sought out and reported the truth, he was also an extremely courageous man, obtaining permission from the British Air Ministry to broadcast the German bombings from London’s rooftops and flying on more than 25 combat missions over Germany. In a distinguished journalistic career that covered both radio and television over four decades, Murrow made more than 5,000 broadcasts.

None were more important than the one on the liberation of Buchenwald on April 15, 1945.

Four days earlier on April 11, troops of Gen. George Patton’s Third Army had liberated Buchenwald. Edward R. Murrow visited the camp the next day and was taken around by some of the survivors. What Edward R. Murrow saw and heard that day was the most unimaginable and heart-wrenching experience of his life. Murrow had walked into a living hell; a place that was both shocking and incomprehensible.

Three years earlier on December 13, 1942, Murrow had reported on the Nazi’s mass murder of Jews in Poland. The information was based on eyewitness reports smuggled out of occupied Europe. Although Murrow was skeptical at first, the facts were undeniable. â€?It is a horror beyond what imagination can grasp,â€? he reported then. Now Murrow saw the Germans’ depravity first-hand. Shaken and grief-stricken, he returned afterwards to Gen. Patton’s Third Army command post to write his broadcast.

On his return to London to make his broadcast on Buchenwald, Murrow talked with one of his staff correspondents, Douglas Edwards, who recalled: “Ed was pale, unsmiling and chain smoking. The smell of death was still on his uniform.â€? While others filed their stories about Buchenwald, it took Murrow three days to broadcast the story. Murrow said he needed time to “acquire detachment.â€?

On Sunday, April 15, 1945, Murrow was in Studio B-4 at the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) in London to broadcast his eyewitness account of Buchenwald. On that memorable day, sixty-one years ago, Murrow began his broadcast to America with his famous signature opening –

This is London.

During the last week, I have driven more than a few hundred miles through Germany, most of it in the Third Amy Sector – Wiesbaden, Frankfurt, Weimar, Jena and beyond . . . . Permit me to tell you what you would have seen, and heard, had you been with me on Thursday. It will not be pleasant listening. If you are at lunch, or if you have no appetite to hear what Germans have done, now is a good time to switch off the radio for I propose to tell you of Buchenwald.
It is on a small hill about four miles outside Weimar, and it was one of the largest concentration camps in Germany, and it was built to last . . . . We drove on, reached the main gate. The prisoners crowded up behind the wire. We entered.

And now, let me tell this in the first person, for I was the least important person there, as you shall hear. There surged around me an evil-smelling horde. Men and boys reached out to touch me; they were in rags and the remnants of uniform. Death had already marked many of them, but they were smiling with their eyes. I looked over that mass of men to the green fields where well-fed Germans were ploughing. . . .

When I entered [one of the barracks], men crowded around, tried to lift me to their shoulders. They were too weak. Many of them could not get out of bed. I was told that this building had once stabled eighty horses. There were twelve hundred men in it, five to a bunk. The stink was beyond all description . . . .

I asked how many men had died in that building during the last month. They called the doctor; we inspected his records. There were only names in the little black book, nothing more – nothing of who these men were, what they had done, or hoped. Behind the names of those who had died there was a cross. I counted them. They totaled 242. Two hundred and forty-two out of twelve hundred in one month.

As I walked down to the end of the barracks, there was applause from the men too weak to get out of bed. It sounded like the hand clapping of babies. The doctor’s name was Paul Heller. He had been there since 1938.

As we walked out into the courtyard, a man fell dead. Two others – they must have been over sixty – were crawling toward the latrine. I saw it but will not describe it.

In another part of the camp they showed me the children, hundreds of them. Some were only six. One rolled up his sleeve, showed me his number. It was tattooed on his arm. D-6030, it was. The others showed me their numbers; they will carry them till they die.

An elderly man standing beside me said, “The children, enemies of the state.â€? I could see their ribs through their thin shirts. The old man said, “I am Professor Charles Richer of the Sorbonne.â€? The children clung to my hands and stared. Men kept coming up to speak to me and to touch me, professors from Poland, doctors from Vienna, men from all Europe. Men from the countries that made America.

We went to the hospital; it was full. The doctor told me that two hundred had died the day before. I asked the cause of death; he shrugged and said, “Tuberculosis, starvation, fatigue, and there are many who have no desire to live. It is very difficult.â€? Dr. Heller pulled back the blankets from a man’s feet to show me how swollen they were. The man was dead. Most of the patients could not move. . . .

I asked to see the kitchen; it was clean. The German in charge had been a Communist, had been at Buchenwald for nine years, had a picture of his daughter in Hamburg. He hadn’t seen her for twelve years, and if I got to Hamburg, would I look her up? He showed me the daily ration – one piece of brown bread about as thick as your thumb, on top of it a piece of margarine as big as three sticks of chewing gum. That, and a little stew, was what they received every twenty-four hours. He had a chart on the wall; very complicated it was. There were little red tabs scattered through it. He said that was to indicate each ten men who died. He had to account for the rations, and he added, “We’re very efficient here.â€?

We went again to the courtyard, and as we walked we talked. The two doctors, the Frenchman and the Czech, agreed that about six thousand had died during March. Kersheimer, the German, added that back in the winter of 1939, when the Poles began to arrive without winter clothing, they died at the rate of approximately nine hundred a day. Five different men asserted that Buchenwald was the best concentration camp in Germany; they had some experience with the others.

Dr. Heller, the Czech, asked if I would care to see the crematorium. He said it wouldn’t be very interesting because the Germans had run out of coke some days ago and had taken to dumping the bodies into a great hole nearby. Professor Richer said perhaps I would care to see the small courtyard. I said yes. He turned and told the children to stay behind. . . . We proceeded to the small courtyard. The wall was about eight feet high; it adjoined what had been a stable or garage. We entered it.

It was floored with concrete. There were two rows of bodies stacked up like cordwood. They were thin and very white. Some of the bodies were terribly bruised, though there seemed to be little flesh to bruise. Some had been shot through the head, but they bled but little. All except two were naked. I tried to count them as best I could and arrived at the conclusion that all that was mortal of more than five hundred men and boys lay there in two neat piles.

There was a German trailer which must have contained another fifty, but it wasn’t possible to count them. The clothing was piled in a heap against the wall. It appeared that most of the men and boys had died of starvation; they had not been executed. But the manner of death seemed unimportant. Murder had been done at Buchenwald. God alone knows how many men and boys have died there during the last twelve years. Thursday I was told that there were more than twenty thousand in the camp? There had been as many as sixty thousand. Where are they now?

I pray you to believe what I have said about Buchenwald. I have reported what I saw and heard, but only part of it. For most of it I have no words. Dead men are plentiful in war, but the living dead, more than twenty thousand of them in one camp. And the country round about was pleasing to the eye, and the Germans were well fed and well dressed . . . .

If I’ve offended you by this rather mild account of Buchenwald, I am not in the least sorry. . . .

D.G. Bridson of the BBC was there with Murrow during the historic broadcast. “I never saw him so cut by anything,â€? remembered Bridson, “he was really sort of trembling. Yes, literally . . . . He was shaking with rage by the time he finished it.â€?

Edward R. Murrow’s broadcast of his account at Buchenwald sent reverberations throughout America and Britain. As documented in Joseph E. Persico’s excellent biography Edward R. Murrow: An American Original (1988), The London Express printed the full text on the front page of its newspaper. The BBC had him re-broadcast the story for its domestic service.
Murrow thought the broadcast a failure.

Years later, Murrow told Ben Gross, a radio columnist of The New York Daily News that seeing all the children’s shoes in the heap of clothes had unnerved him. “I could have described three pairs of those shoes . . . but hundreds of them. Well, I just couldn’t.â€? However, critics judged Murrow’s broadcast “Liberation of Buchenwaldâ€? one of the best in the annals of radio reporting.

Buchenwald was undoubtedly on his mind when the war ended on May 8, 1945. Reporting on the celebration in London, he noticed that not everyone joined in the revelry. “Some people appear not to be part of the celebration . . . .â€? Murrow reported. “Tonight, walking through familiar side streets in London, trying to realize what has happened, one’s mind takes refuge in the past. The war that was seems more real than the peace that has come.â€?