Interview Commentary

Otto Feuer was one of the relatively small numbers of Jews who spent twelve years—the entire span of the "Thousand Year Reich"—under Nazi rule and survived. Feuer was born in Vienna, shortly after the start of World War I. His family then moved to Hamburg where he was studying law when the Nazis came to power on January 30, 1933. When the Nazis imposed restrictions on Jews in higher education, he was forced to give up his studies. He supported himself by giving chess lessons, but in October 1938 Feuer and his family, along with other Jews of Polish origin (Feuer's father had been born in Poland), were expelled from Germany to Poland. This expulsion was the prelude to the infamous Kristallnacht (literally "Crystal night," also known as the "Night of Broken Glass") pogrom of November 9th and 10th, 1938: Herschel Grynszpan (the son of one of these displaced Jewish families, who was at the time living in Paris) sought a means to arouse public opinion in the West regarding Nazi crimes against the Jews. He entered the German embassy in Paris on November 9th and murdered Ernst vom Rath, an embassy official. The Nazis used this murder as a pretext to launch the Kristallnacht pogrom.

In the summer of 1939, Feuer and members of his family received permission to reenter Germany in order to emigrate to the United States. Although his two brothers were able to do so, Feuer was not as fortunate. On September 9th, 1939, just after the outbreak of World War II, he was arrested and spent the next six years in captivity, first in prison and then in Sachsenhausen concentration camp, followed by incarceration in Dachau and finally in Buchenwald from June 1941 until its liberation on April 11, 1945.

Buchenwald's original inmates were German criminals who wore a green triangle. Political prisoners who wore a red triangle soon followed. In the bitter competition between the "greens" and the "reds" for control of the prisoner administration of the camp, the "reds" emerged victorious. They then had to wage an unrelenting struggle against their vicious and often corrupt SS overlords. Feuer endured nightmarish, horrific experiences in the camps, some of which he relates. He testifies as well to the moral compromises prisoners had to make to stay alive, the obstacles to resistance in the camps, the depravity of Buchenwald SS physicians, and the exploitation of women in the camp's brothel.

One of the most sordid, although until recently unexplored, chapters in the history of the camps was the use of female concentration camp inmates to provide sexual services to non-Jewish male forced laborers who could buy a quarter of an hour with a prostitute from the pittance they were given for their work. Some 300-400 women, most from the Ravensbrück concentration camp, were forced into prostitution in ten camps, including Buchenwald. Most were German women imprisoned for "antisocial" behavior. Feuer's interview provides pertinent details on the operation of the Buchenwald brothel. The program was devised by Heinrich Himmler as a way to incentivize production for forced laborers and prevent homosexual relations among them. Separate brothels were established in the camps for SS guards. The women who endured sexual slavery in the camps emerged deeply scarred and traumatized by their experiences.

Despite the obstacles to resistance in Buchenwald, the prisoner underground could claim several successes, some of which are described by Feuer, such as the establishment of a lice control program to ward off the spread of typhus, and saving the lives of some sick prisoners. Just prior to the liberation of Buchenwald on April 11, 1945, the armed underground actually gained control of the camp. When American forces entered the facility, they found some 21,000 prisoners, among them Feuer, and several hundred children who had been saved by the prisoner resistance. Elie Wiesel and Moshe Lau, the future chief Ashkenazic rabbi of Israel, were among the children.

Feuer's comments regarding prisoner behavior following the liberation are of significant interest, as are those about the assistance provided to the former inmates by American troops and his encounters with German civilians. Feuer could not bear to remain in Germany after all that he been through. He decided to travel to Paris, where he had some distant relations and wait there until he could entry to the United States, where his two brothers were residing. Since he had been born in Vienna and years earlier had registered for a visa, he was attempting to gain entry to this country under the Austrian quota.

Feuer is an obviously intelligent and capable individual. Following the liberation of Buchenwald, he was involved in the administration of the camp by its former inmates and served as a guide for Americans who came to visit the camp. He then found work for a time as a journalist and was interviewed by Boder in the Paris office of the American Joint Distribution Committee where he was an executive employee. He emerged from six years of anti-Semitic persecution and horrific experiences in the camps scarred but with his moral sensibilities intact and able to find productive employment and function well in human society. All this, as well as his desire to rebuild his life in America, testify to his life affirmation and the strength and resilience of the human spirit.

—Elliot Lefkovitz