Georges Vanier

Canadian diplomat reports his experience

[After an inquiry some time back, I received a photocopy of the following letter from the Canadian Ambassador to France, Georges Vanier, written in April, 1945. It describes a tattooed-skin lampshade, and the death chambers and crematorium. The full Vanier Report, running some 50 pages, is also on the way, although it may take a month or more for it to reach me. When it does, I will provide it within the Buchenwald diplomatic archive. knm.]


27th April, 1945.

No. 548


Will you please refer to my telegram No. 299, dated 24th April, which relates to my visit to Buchenwald camp.

2. In company with eight members of the United States Congress, I left London for Weimar on Sunday morning, the 22nd. April. The names of the Congressmen, and of the States for which they sit, follow:

Marion T. BENNETT, Springfield, Illinois*
Gordon CANFIELD, Peterson, New Jersey
Henry M. JACKSON, Everett, Washington
Carter MANASCO, Jasper, Alabama
Albert RAINS, 5th District Alabama, Gadsden, Alabama
Francis E. WALTER, Easton, Pennsylvania
Earl WILSON, Huron, Indiana
Eugene WORLEY, Shannock, Texas

Half were Democrats, the others Republicans, but whatever their political differences may have been, they were of one mind and one will after the visit, about the necessity for taking any measures, however drastic, which might be required to prevent a recurrence of crimes against humanity.

3. My reasons for going to the camp were to enquire into and to obtain all available information on Canadians who had been interned there, and to make sure also that there were no others among the remaining 20,000 ex-prisoners.

4. We had luncheon in the plane and on arrival at Weimar drove direct to the camp where we spent some hours and were shown over by the American officers in charge. The camp of Buchenwald is situated near a former zoological garden, some five miles from Weimar, where Goethe and Schiller lived and died. The approach is by a road flanked on either side by beautiful trees - pines and chestnuts. It is an idyllic drive which makes the horrible contrast at the end of the journey all the more revolting. The camp was built in 1937 by political prisoners to accommodate themselves. In the first place it was designed to hold 8,000 but when liberation came on the 11th April there were almost 60,000 inhabitants.

5. The official figure given in the camp register of deaths during the months of January, February, March and the first ten days of April of this year, was 18,485. The condition of the internees was such that an average of 60 deaths occurred daily for a week or more following liberation. The number who died at Buchenwald altogether will never be established - well over 50,000, it may be over 100,000.

6. We visited the death chambers and saw the quadruple electric lifts on which bodies were raised to the ovens of the crematorium above. In the ovens, blackened forms of bodies still lay. We saw also the noise-making machine which drowned the screams of the unfortunate victims. We were told that the death quota for the camp was 80 a day. Facilities existed for the easy, continuous cremation of that many. This quota was often exceeded, however, which accounted apparently for the naked bodies, piled like so much cord wood, and on which lime was thrown. We saw some of these emaciated, bruised and blood-stained bodies.

7. In the improvised hospitals were hundreds of men, some with running sores, their bodies so devoid of flesh that they could not lie for long in one position. Some who were able to stand were little more than skin and bones. One marvelled how the knee and ankle joints held together.

8. We say several hundred children, most of them Polish Jews; some had been in prison camps for years. Those of ten and over worked as slave labourers on munitions. Not one, so far as I know, had any idea of where his parents were; in view of the barbarous treatment inflicted on Poles and Jews by the Germans, it is probable that all have been done to death.

9. A lampshade was found - and this I saw - made from tattooed human skin.

10. There is a famous oak tree at Buchenwald, beneath which Goethe wrote some of his poems. The German gaolers found nothing better than to make of it a gibbet for hanging men by the armpits with their hands tied behind their backs.

11. Shortly after liberation a memorial service was held to honour the dead. This, in part, is the declaration made by the living: "We are assembled here to honour our dead comrades - shot, hanged, trampled down, slain, choked, starved, drowned, poisoned, tortured. The thought that kept us alive, as we saw with helpless rage our comrades fall, was that the day of vengeance would come." Yes, indeed, the seeds of hate sown by the Germans throughout the world, and more especially in Europe, are such that generations must pass before the grim harvest of revenge will be checked.

12. One is forced to the conviction that those who did these horrible things saw nothing wrong in them; perhaps they were actually proud of their efficiency in producing death. These Germans are not as other humans, they are satanic. Though they have a veneer of Christianity, deep down they must still be barbarians - in saying this one is unfair to the barbarian because there is a scientific refinement about these horrors which barbarians, uncouth and wild, living in a primitve state, could not invent.

13. After visiting the camp with the Congressmen I went to the Records Office to obtain whatever information I could with regard to the Canadians who were reported as having been executed at the camp in September of last year. I was shown a list of French, British and Canadian nationals, upon which were the following names and information:-

9636 JOHN MACALISTER. Date of birth 9-7-1914. Guelph (Advocat)
8738 GUY SABOURIN. Date of birth 1-1-1923 Montreal (Officer)
9992 FRANK PICKERSGILL. Date of birth 28-5-1915 Winnipeg.

The list purported to be a record of the arrivals on the 27th August, 1944. The names were of men who had been doing special work, for example, the transmission of clandestine messages after having been parachuted, etc. They were known as the Robert Benoist group. I did not find any list which indicated that these men had been executed but I was told that the "X" opposite each of the above three names afforded proof of such execution. As a matter of fact the records are most incomplete, many of them were either taken away or destroyed before the camp was liberated. I was assured, however, by a Captain Simms, sent by S.O.E. to investigate, that there could be no doubt that these men had been executed. There were a few names (but not of Canadians) on the list, opposite which no "X" appeared and about which there is some doubt.

14. I found an ex-prisoner who was able to give me some information. His name is Richard Rendl, an Austrian, whose permanent address is Sobieskigasse 9, Vienna IX: present address - Buchenwald Camp. He saw the three Canadians arrive at the camp. They were hand-cuffed and in civilian clothes. They were given other civilian clothes later but not the usual grey striped clothes of other prisoners. Rendl was quite sure that the three had been executed. He did not remember the exact date. They had been in Block No. 17 which was called the Quarantine Block. It was normal for them to be housed there because they were new arrivals and all newcomers were taken there. He saw them quite often up to and including the evening before they were executed. They were always in good humour, apparently not suspecting for a moment that they would be killed.

15. Rendl reported that allied bombs fell in the camp towards the end of August (there was a factory nearby in which some of the prisoners worked). A few days later he heard Frank Pickersgill joking and wishing to wager a thousand pounds that they would all be home by Christmas.

[Balance of letter deals with the names of persons who might provide leads as to the fate of the Canadians, in sections 16 and 17. knm]

I have the honour to be,
Your obedient servant,
[s/ Georges Vanier]

* Vanier was in error. Congressman Marion T. Bennett was from Springfield, Missouri

The original plaintext version of this file is available via ftp.

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