Pavel Kohn survived a death march from Auschwitz and a wintertime train trip in open coal cars. He arrived at the Buchenwald concentration camp a frostbitten, exhausted 15-year-old Jewish orphan, his parents and older brother already dead in the Nazi Holocaust.
Kohn was among the lucky ones, rescued alive by American troops who freed the camp 60 years ago this Monday. Some 56,000 others - Jews, Soviet prisoners of war, non-Jewish political prisoners - perished at the camp on a wooded hill just outside the city of Weimar.
"It was close to a miracle that I was still alive," Kohn, a Prague native who now lives in southern Germany, told The Associated Press. "Although I was just a bit older than 15, nothing could surprise me anymore in terms of cruelty."
On Sunday, German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder and Nobel literature laureate Imre Kertesz from Hungary, who wrote a chilling novel about his time at Buchenwald, will join other camp survivors and dignitaries at Weimar's National Theater to mark the anniversary.
With the survivors often well into their 80s, it's likely to be the last major remembrance for many of them.
"The camp was packed, there was hunger, and the living conditions and hygiene were unbelievable," said Kohn, who planned to attend Sunday's ceremonies. "But they didn't have gas chambers, which were the big threat for emaciated inmates at Auschwitz."
More than any other Nazi camp, Buchenwald stands for the contrast between the Germany famed for its arts and culture and the nation that voted in 1933 for Adolf Hitler, started World War II and was responsible for killing 6 million Jews in the Holocaust.
Nowadays, Weimar would rather be known for Johann Wolfgang Goethe, Germany's most revered writer, who lived in the town and died there in 1832. Johann Sebastian Bach and classical playwright Friedrich Schiller also spent time in Weimar, attracted by the local dukes' patronage of the arts.
But it's also the place where politicians launched the ill-fated democratic Weimar Republic after Germany's defeat in World War I, which collapsed with the Nazis' rise to power.
Nazi prisoners began building the camp on the Ettersberg hill in the summer of 1937, clearing part of a forest where Goethe once walked and rested in search of inspiration.
The first inmates included criminals, homeless people, Jehovah's Witnesses and homosexuals. By late 1938, more than 10,000 Jews, mainly from Germany and Austria, had been brought to Buchenwald.
After Nazi Germany began World War II in 1939 by invading Poland, more and more inmates from German-occupied areas were brought to Buchenwald. Soviet prisoners began arriving in 1941; the Nazi SS running the camp built a special chair to shoot them in the back of the head.
While Buchenwald was not a death camp like Auschwitz and others that the Nazis built in Poland expressly for mass killing, it was just as much part of Hitler's effort to wipe out those deemed un-German. Starvation and disease claimed many lives. Other victims were worked to death, died in Nazi medical experiments or were shot.
While an estimated 240,000 prisoners were brought to Buchenwald, the SS enjoyed a zoo, a riding hall and a brothel. The camp commander's wife, Ilse Koch, had dead prisoners' skins turned into lampshades.
Kohn arrived on Feb. 10, 1945. In a twist of fate, he was sent to a camp section for young inmates where he was treated "almost humanely." Later, he got a high fever, but was treated at the camp infirmary.
When the Sixth Armored Division of the Third U.S. Army reached Buchenwald on April 11, Kohn was among some 21,000 gaunt and sick survivors the Americans liberated.
TONY CZUCZKA, Associated Press Writer