How news of D-Day reached the Nazi death camps
News of the Allied invasion of Normandy quickly spread across Europe, fuelling hope even among those languishing in Nazi concentration camps.
Jacques Moalic, then 21 and later to become an AFP journalist, was one of the detainees in Buchenwald at the time.
For the 50th anniversary of the landing, in June 1994, he wrote this first-hand account of how the news filtered through to Buchenwald and other camps:
BUCHENWALD CONCENTRATION CAMP – The sun was already setting when the work group “Bau drei” (“building three”), comprised of around 30 mainly French deportees, returned on foot to the camp.
We had barely passed through the forged iron gate when another French deportee came, his face ecstatic, and murmured to us: “They have landed. It’s official. The Germans have confirmed it”.
It had been just an ordinary day, as we banked up the railway which came from Weimar. It proved an impossible task as every time a train passed through, the ballast was crushed, and we had to start all over again.
In the race back to Block 34 of the concentration camp we questioned comrades who had returned earlier.
“Where? How?” At the same time we restrained the excitement and joy and the instruction was: “Keep calm, cool, careful. The SS will become nervous”.
On the corner of the hut hung a loud speaker. It blasted out the orders of the SS and twice a day gave out statements from the Wehrmacht’s top command.
At 1230, an anonymous voice had announced: “The Anglo-Americans have attempted to get a foothold in Normandy… counter attacks are underway.”
The voice cited the names of the locations involved: Saint-Lo, Caen… “What day is it?” someone asked. “Tuesday, Tuesday June 6″.
Immediately, despite the instruction to keep calm, the same refrain issued from everyone’s lips: “We’ll be home by Christmas.” Those who doubted were “defeatists”.
Illusions and dreams filled our heads like a drug. Amid their joy they could not know it, but, in reality, many of those in camps that day would never know liberation.
- Extreme caution -
On that evening of June 6, 1944, Buchenwald inmates were the privileged ones.
In other concentration camps in Germany and beyond the information only filtered through to prisoners via clandestine and dangerous channels.
Where the deportees were organised, in camps like Birkenau in Nazi-occupied Poland, a hard core of prisoners managed to break the isolation by making makeshift radios.
At the Dora concentration camp, where V2 missiles were made, prisoner Jean-Michel said that three French and a Czech inmate employed in the camp clinic managed to hear the BBC, which reported the landing had succeeded from around eight in the morning.
With extreme caution, prisoners took advantage of their work to listen to the news on SS officers’ radios.
Thus, on the morning of June 6 at the Dachau camp, workers in the officer’s mess learned of the landing and spread the news.
At the women’s camp in Ravensbruck, Frenchwoman Helene Fredin recalled: “Our group went to work, when our foreman, a Polish detainee, whispered to us: ‘the English have landed. Above all don’t celebrate’.”
Brigitte Friang gives her own personal account from inside the camp.
Friang says a “beautiful Ukrainian woman,” a fellow prisoner in charge of the barracks, appeared.
“In her funny French she called for silence. ‘Ladies,’ she declared, ‘the Allies have landed in France.’ We all leapt to our feet and fell into each others’ arms.”
- Rumours in the dark -
Less lucky were prisoners assigned to exterior “kommando” units, such as those which handled explosives or dug tunnels for underground V2 missile factories, and who faced harsher conditions and perished at alarming rates.
They treated news of the D-Day landings like just another rumour.
Joseph Jourden, a Breton at the Dora camp, says he heard it from a kapo named Tony. “He told us the Americans had landed, but no more. He didn’t know when or where.”