Recent Obituaries
In Memoriam Archive

Saw Death Camp Twice: As Prisoner and as Liberator

Frank Wesley ’50

Psychologist, author, professor, and musician, Frank Wesley led an outsized life punctuated by remarkable coincidences. Perhaps most notably, he was imprisoned by the Nazis at the Buchenwald concentration camp, escaped to the U.S., then returned seven years later to liberate the same camp where he was once a prisoner.

A sense of wonder governed Frank’s life, evidenced by his enthusiasm for music, nature, ideas, animals, and especially young people. He was an engaging lecturer and enjoyed a teaching career that spanned more than 50 years. 

Born Franz Wolfsohn in Breslau to a prosperous Jewish couple, Frank grew up on a farm in Silesia. As the Nazis rose to power, he watched as windows of synagogues and Jewish shops were shattered under a barrage of projectiles flung by Nazi troops in what would be known as Kristallnacht—the Night of Broken Glass. He considered making a run for the border, but those who were caught were hanged at a special gallows reserved for traitors. Violence reigned in the streets until Minister of Propaganda Joseph Goebbels called for an end to the pogrom that he had instigated and announced that the Jews would be evacuated from the cities for “special protection.” 

In 1937, when Frank was 20 years old, he was arrested in the middle of the night. He was the first one in the truck that drove over bumpy roads to Buchenwald. Crowning its big iron gates were the words, Jedem das Seine (“Everyone gets what he deserves”). The camp’s policy was extermination through labor. Between 1937 and 1945, an estimated 56,000 prisoners perished there from starvation, sickness, medical experimentation, fatigue, and execution.

“It was a big space with bright lights all over,” he remembered. “There were 10 or 20 people that were shaving hair. I learned to show no emotion. It was important to be useful and not a threat. These were survival skills.”

His first weeks in the camp he was chained to hundreds of other men, trudging endlessly to and from the quarry, hauling rocks by hand to build the autobahn from Dresden to Berlin. Prisoners were given half a pound of bread each weekday and thin, salty soup on weekends, when the water was turned off. Unaccustomed to manual labor, he struggled under the inhuman working conditions. “If our stones weren’t large enough, we were attacked and beaten by the SS officers,” he remembered. “I saw men shoved into the pile where we were dropping our stones—buried alive in the rubble because they were too weak to move.” 

Prior to the implementation of the Final Solution, inmates were sometimes allowed to leave the camp temporarily. Shortly after Christmas, Frank and his father were miraculously given a three-day pass. “It was the happiest day of my life,” he said. “I decided at that moment never to be angry again.”

Escaping Germany, however, was not easily done. The authorities had confiscated everything he owned and the rigors of Buchenwald had left him horribly malnourished (he lost 40 pounds in the camp). Nonetheless, Frank managed to slip across the border with Belgium, where he obtained a U.S. visa.

Arriving stateside, Frank worked a series of jobs over the next several years, including a stint in the Portland shipyards. He gained his U.S. citizenship and enlisted with the Army in 1944 to defeat Hitler. Frank joined the 21st Infantry Division of the Baltimore National Guard and was shipped to the European front. In an astonishing twist of fate, he was assigned as a liaison to the troops being sent to liberate Buchenwald, the very camp he had suffered in seven years before. 

When the troops marched through the iron gates on April 11, 1945, they witnessed the gruesome sight of corpses heaped in rows. “The Nazis had run out of petrol, so there was no way to dispose of the bodies,” Frank said. “They were piled five high and three deep all around. Some were even still alive, but there was nothing we could do.”

Frank entered Reed in 1947 as one of only five psychology majors. Undaunted by his status as an older student (he was 29), he dove into college life and made many friends. After graduating from Reed, he earned a doctorate in psychology from Washington State and began a long teaching career. He was a full professor at Portland State University and volunteered at the school’s “Storefront University,” a project designed to promote education for residents of Portland’s ghettoes during the 1960s. 

Frank wrote books on child development, sex-role behavior, and the history of the Holocaust. He was an avid beekeeper, planted hundreds of trees, and mastered a thriving garden. In his 70s, he took up the saxophone and loved to play jazz; he could often be spotted strolling up and down Portland’s Hawthorne neighborhood. In 2015, filmmaker David Bee made a documentary about him titled Frank’s Song

He continued to live in the moment, full of compassion and forgiveness, always choosing happiness over anger.

His former wife, Mary Rose, and children Claire and Walter survive Frank.

Appeared in Reed magazine: December 2016

comments powered by Disqus