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reed magazine logoMarch 2010

Both Sides of the Wire

Psychologist recalls imprisonment and liberation at Buchenwald

by Lucy Bellwood ’12


Frank Wesley

Frank Wesley ’50 saw the horrors of Buchenwald twice: first as prisoner, then as liberator.

Berlin, November 9, 1938. In the gathering gloom, Frank Wesley ’50 watched as the windows of synagogues and Jewish shops shattered under a barrage of projectiles flung by Nazi troops in the orchestrated riot that would later become known as Kristallnacht—the Night of Broken Glass.

He considered getting out. Making a run for the border. He even had a car ready. But he’d seen what became of those who were caught escaping: the 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.”

The nightmare of Nazi Germany seemed a world away from his childhood. Born in 1918 to a German-Jewish couple in the then-German province of Silesia, Frank had grown up in a beautiful farmhouse, enjoying the yield of cherries from the family’s orchard each summer. Now, at the age of 20, he found himself marching in step with his father and thousands of other Jews through the streets of Berlin, flares lighting their way, crowds cheering. The scene was eerily celebratory until they passed out of the civilians’ sight. Then the pace quickened and the beatings began. Even those bent and crippled with age were kicked and rushed to the shipping yard and packed into trains. The engines rumbled to life and carried them away towards the barbed wire fences of Buchenwald.

One of the most infamous and brutal of the Nazi prison camps, Buchenwald was notorious for its policy of “extermination through labor,” a program specifically designed to work its inmates to death. Behind its looming iron gates, crowned with the chilling words Jedem das Seine (“Everyone gets what he deserves”), an estimated 56,000 prisoners perished from starvation, sickness, medical experimentation, fatigue, and execution from 1937 to 1945.

Frank spent his first weeks in the camp 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 says. “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.”

In those days, prior to the implementation of the Final Solution, inmates were sometimes released from the camp after relatively brief sentences. Shortly after Christmas, Frank and his father were miraculously freed and given three days to get out of the country. “It was the happiest day of my life,” he says, carefully. “I decided at that moment never to be angry again.”

Leaving Germany, however, was easier said than done. The authorities had confiscated everything he owned. The rigors of Buchenwald had left him horribly malnourished. Standing at 5 feet 5 inches, Frank weighed only 105 pounds—too scrawny to qualify for an American visa. Fortunately, he was able to bribe his way across the border to Belgium and eventually escaped to the United States.

Arriving stateside, Frank worked a series of jobs over the next several years (including a spell in the Portland shipyards) before volunteering for the U.S. Army in 1944.


“I really thought that if we didn’t win the war with Hitler . . .” he trails off, spreading his arms expressively and giving a slight shrug. It’s a simple gesture, but it conveys all the desperation of such a dark time. The alternative to victory was too horrifying to imagine.

reed magazine logoMarch 2010