Buchenwald and Auschwitz - what's the difference?
Both Buchenwald and Auschwitz were called concentration camps (Konzentrationslager) by the Nazis and both were called extermination camps (Vernichtungslager) by the Allies during the war and in the immediate aftermath.
Jews were sent to both Buchenwald and Auschwitz, but both camps had non-Jewish prisoners as well. Both camps had SS soldiers as guards and administrators, and both were under the jurisdiction of the Inspectorate in Oranienburg. Both Buchenwald and Auschwitz were within the 1939 borders of Germany, which was then known as Grossdeutschland. Auschwitz is now in Poland, but it was in Grossdeutschland when the camp was opened in June 1940.
Neither Buchenwald, nor Auschwitz, was "liberated." The prisoners at Buchenwald were free at 3:15 p.m. on April 11, 1945 after the Communist prisoners took control of the camp and the SS guards escaped into the woods. The first American soldiers in General Patton's Third Army arrived at Buchenwald around two hours later that same day.
The SS guards abandoned Auschwitz on January 18, 1945 and marched the prisoners to the German border where they were put on trains and taken to other camps. Those who chose not to join the march stayed at Auschwitz where they were free to leave, but most of the prisoners decided to wait for the Soviet Army to find the camp on January 27, 1945.
Buchenwald had a main camp and around 100 sub-camps; Auschwitz consisted of three separate camps, called Auschwitz, Birkenau and Monowitz, and 40 sub-camps. In June 2007, the United Nations officially changed the collective name of the three Auschwitz camps to Auschwitz-Birkenau, German Nazi Concentration and Extermination Camp (1940-1945) because the Poles were tired of hearing Auschwitz being described as a "Polish death camp."
Both Buchenwald and Auschwitz had factories where the prisoners worked and these factories were considered to be essential to the German war effort. The factories at both Buchenwald and Auschwitz were bombed by the Allies.
Both Buchenwald and Auschwitz had child survivors. There were 900 children under the age of 18 at Buchenwald and 600 child survivors in the abandoned Auschwitz camp.
According to testimony at the Nuremberg International Military Tribunal, both Buchenwald and Auschwitz had gas chambers. Both Buchenwald and Auschwitz also had typhus epidemics which accounted for the lives of thousands of the prisoners.
After Auschwitz was opened in 1940, some of the prisoners from Buchenwald were transferred there. When Auschwitz was abandoned in January 1945, some of the prisoners were transported to Buchenwald.
Both Buchenwald and Auschwitz were in the Soviet zone after World War II ended, and Museums were set up at both camps by the Soviets.
So what's the difference between Buchenwald and Auschwitz?
The difference is that today the Auschwitz II camp, aka Birkenau, has been designated a "death camp" by the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, while Buchenwald is now officially called a concentration camp. When Jewish prisoners arrived at Birkenau, beginning in February 1942, they went through a selection process in which those who were able to work were saved while the others were destined for the gas chamber. Today, no one claims that Buchenwald had a gas chamber, nor that there was a selection process for Jewish prisoners at Buchenwald.
The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum acknowleges that only six of the Nazi camps were "death camps": Auschwitz, Majdanek, Treblinka, Sobibor, Belzec, and Chelmno, all of which are in what is now Poland. Nevertheless, a few people still call all of the Nazi camps "death camps."
The Communist survivors of Buchenwald estimated 56,000 prisoners died at Buchenwald and the latest estimate of the deaths at Auschwitz-Birkenau is 1.1 million, of whom 90% were Jews.
No Jews were sent to any Nazi camp, solely because they were Jewish, until November 10, 1938 when 10,000 Jewish men were sent to Buchenwald following the pogrom in Germany, known as Kristallnacht. An equal number of Jewish men were sent on November 10, 1938 to Dachau and Sachsenhausen, the other two main concentration camps in Germany. They were released within a few weeks if they promised to leave Germany.
It was not until February 1942 that all the Jews in Germany and Poland were rounded up and sent to concentration camps in what is now Poland. Before that, persons who were considered to be the enemies of the German Reich were sent to concentration camps, regardless of their ethnicity, race or religion, including a few Jews.
In January 1941, Buchenwald was classified as a Class II camp where prisoners were less likely to be released than at Dachau and Sachsenhausen, which were Class I camps. The main Auschwitz camp was a Class I camp, mainly for political prisoners, and 1,500 non-Jewish prisoners were released, according to the Auschwitz Museum.