The zoo at Buchenwald Concentration Camp

Bears were kept in zoo just outside camp, near east gate guard tower

House for the bears at Buchenwald

In 1938, as soon as the camp opened, Commandant Karl Otto Koch ordered the construction of a park area for the SS guards, just outside the camp fence. The park featured a birdhouse, a water basin, and a zoo for four bears and five monkeys. The bears were in full view of the prisoners, and there was also an elaborate falconry in another area outside the camp where the SS kept birds of prey. The former Jewish prime minister of France, Leon Blum, was kept as a prisoner in the falconer's house, until he was transferred to Dachau.

Photo of zoo taken after Buchenwald was liberated

The photo above was taken by an American soldier after the camp was liberated. It shows the gatehouse on the far right and on the left, you can see the house where the bears were kept.

"Water basin" in the SS park just outside the camp fence

Commandant Koch may have been a cruel, ostentatious embezzler, but he was soft-hearted when it came to animals. The camp guidebook contains the following order by Commandant Koch, concerning the animals at Buchenwald:

Commanders's Order No. 56 dated 8th September 1938 (Extract)

1. Buchenwald zoological gardens has been created in order to provide diversion and entertainment for the men in their leisure time and to show them the beauty and peculiarities of various animals which they will hardly be able to meet and observe in the wild.

But we must also expect the visitor to be reasonable and fond of animals enough to refrain from anything that might not be good for the animals, cause harm to them or even compromise their health and habits. (...) In the meantime, I again received reports saying that SS men have tied the deer's horns to the fence and cut them loose only after a long while. Furthermore, it has been found that deer have been lured to the fence and tinfoil put in the mouth. In the future, I will find out the perpetrators of such loutish acts and have them reported to the SS Commander in Chief in order to have them punished for cruelty to animals.

The Camp Commandant of Buchenwald Concentration Camp

signed by Koch


Note that "loutish" behavior by the SS guards was not tolerated. The German army was the best disciplined of all the armed forces fighting in World War II, and the elite SS troops were held to an even higher standard. Note that the Commandant is threatening to report them. He did not have the power to punish the guards or the prisoners without approval from headquarters in Oranienburg.

The camp inmates were not allowed to visit the zoo, but they could see the bears and monkeys through the fence, and there were plenty of other diversions for them. Buchenwald was the first German concentration camp to have a movie theater which showed full-length regular films to the inmates. There was an admission charge of 30 pfennings, later reduced to 20 pfennings; the prisoners could receive money from relatives outside the camp or earn money by working in the camp. After the liberation, the prisoners got to see their first American film on April 26, 1945.

According to The Buchenwald Report, the prisoners had a camp library with 13,811 books. They were also allowed to organize variety shows and concerts. Art work was encouraged as long as it was not "degenerate art," and some of the prisoner's paintings were shown in the Museum art gallery when I visited in 1999.

Like all the other Nazi concentration camps, Buchenwald had a camp orchestra made up of inmate musicians who wore red pants and green vests, representing the triangle colors of the two main groups in the camp: the Communists and the German criminals. The Communists also had their own orchestra which played Communist songs.

Another facility which was common to all the main concentration camps was the camp brothel for the inmates; there were 15 prostitutes in the brothel at Buchenwald when the American liberators arrived. The Jews were not allowed access to the brothel because this would have violated the Nuremberg Law of 1935 which forbade sexual relations between Jews and Aryans.


This page was last updated on December 16, 2007