Scrapbookpages Blog

October 13, 2010

The remarkable story of Ben Helfgott, a Buchenwald survivor

I have recently become fascinated with the story of the orphan boys at the Buchenwald concentration camp. There were 904 boys under the age of 17 in the main camp; most of whom were fatherless.  However, Ben Helfgott was not one of the 904 orphan boys in the Buchenwald main camp.

The orphan boys in the main camp were protected by the Communist prisoners, who prevented the SS staff from sending them to the sub-camps to work. Helfgott was not an orphan when he arrived at Buchenwald.

According to this website:

“Shortly after arriving in Buchenwald, Ben was separated from his father and sent to a sub-camp in Schlieben where anti-tank weapons were produced. Ben would never see his father again. He later learned that his father was shot on a death march while trying to escape.”

The 904 boys, who were rescued by American soldiers on April 11, 1945, had been saved by the Communist prisoners from being sent to the sub-camps.

I first heard of Ben Helfgott in a book entitled Holocaust Journey, written by Martin Gilbert several years ago. I remembered Helfgott’s name because he said something about the German people who were burned alive, near Theresienstadt, as they tried to escape from the angry Czechs who expelled them after the war. I was impressed that he could show sympathy for the German expellees who had suffered.  (The former Dachau concentration camp became a home for German refugees from Czechoslovakia for 17 years.)

The book, Holocaust Journey, is about a trip to several concentration camps, which was led by Martin Gilbert.  One of the camps on the trip was Treblinka.   I have just learned that Helfgott narrowly escaped from being sent to Treblinka himself.

I have highlighted the important points in a quote from this website which tells Ben Helfgott’s remarkable story:

Ben was almost 10 years old when his childhood abruptly ended with the Nazi invasion of Poland. He and his family were ordered to move into the Piotrkow ghetto by the 1st November 1939. It was the first ghetto in Poland. Three years later, on October 14, 1942, deportations from his hometown started – for seven days, the Jews in the ghetto were deported to Treblinka.

Of the 25,000 Jews in the ghetto in Piotrkow at the time only 2,500 remained. Ben managed to avoid deportation because of his work in the glass factory. During the deportation, his parents and his two younger sisters were in hiding with 3 different Polish families.

Each of them, however, encountered problems with the families that hid them and each eventually made their way back to the ghetto. Ben’s father arranged forged papers that listed the family as part of the 2,500 that could remain in a much reduced area of the ghetto. Informed that if they registered they would be legalized and receive food rations, Ben’s mother took his sister, Lusia, who was 8 years old, to register. It was a deception. His mother and sister were taken with 560 others to the synagogue and held there for two weeks, before being marched to the nearby Rakow forest and murdered.

Treblinka was one of the three Operation Reinhard camps which were set up as “death camps” after the Wannsee Conference on January 20, 1942 at which the genocide of the Jews was planned.  Ben Helfgott was born in 1929 and he would have been just 13 in 1942, but he was not included in the transport to Treblinka because he was working in a glass factory.  His parents and his sisters had to go into hiding and then get forged papers so that they could remain in the ghetto.

I am puzzled by this story.  Doesn’t genocide mean that everyone in a certain ethnic group is killed for no reason at all?  If 2,500 people in the ghetto were allowed to stay behind, and were not sent to Treblinka, was this genocide? If a 13-year-old boy could get such an important job in a glass factory, why couldn’t his parents have gotten a similar job?  Did Ben have small fingers, like the children that Oscar Schindler saved, because they were needed in his factory?

In reading more about the Piotrkow ghetto on the web, I learned that there were some other famous survivors of Buchenwald, who were from Piotrkow. They also had relatives who were sent to Treblinka and gassed.

You can read the story here of Rabbi Yisrael Meir Lau, who was an orphan child of 8 when he was liberated from Buchenwald.  Rabbi Lau published a book in which he wrote about how his father bribed a German officer, by giving him a gold watch, to allow his brother to stay in the ghetto, but after getting the watch, “the Nazi had turned his back on my father and laughed.”

His father knew what would happen.  Rabbi Lau wrote:

“We won’t be seeing Shmuel any more,” my father told me, with tears flowing from his eyes. Shmuel was sent to Treblinka that night.

So it seems that there was a selection in the Piotrkow ghetto in which some of the able-bodied Jews were sent to Treblinka to be gassed while children were allowed to live.  After the destruction of the Piotrkow ghetto in October 1942, Rabbi Moshe Chaim Lau, the father of  Rabbi Yisrael Meir Lau, was sent to Treblinka, but two of his younger children were allowed to live.

Remarkably the child who became Rabbi Lau was selected to work in the glass factory in the ghetto, instead of being sent to Treblinka; he wrote this in his book:

In the Piotrkow ghetto, I worked in the glass factory for eight hours a day nonstop, carrying huge bottles of drinking water for the workers in the factory, where the temperature was 140 degrees. For a whole year I did this, in snow, in storms, in heat, carrying heavy bottles into that blazing hot room. And then I was only five and a half years old.

Another famous survivor of the Piotrkow ghetto was Herman Rosenblat who wrote Angel at the Fence, a book that is now being turned into a novel because the main part of the story is fiction.  Herman was sent from the Piotrkow ghetto to Buchenwald where he stayed from December 2 to December 8, 1944 before being transferred to the Schlieben sub-camp, and then to a work camp in Czechoslovakia, where he was liberated.

Although their father, mother and one of their brothers were sent to Treblinka, Naftali and Meir Lau were not sent to Treblinka. Naftali worked for two years  in the Hortensja glass factory in Piotrkow and two months in the Hasag Werke in Czestochowa. Then he and his younger brother, Meir Lau (nicknamed Lulek), the sons of Rabbi Moshe Chaim Lau, were sent to the Buchenwald main camp, arriving on January 20, 1945.   They were liberated by American troops on April 11, 1945.