Child survivors of Buchenwald from Block 66
This morning, I read a very nice article here about the “Boys of Buchenwald” who were saved in Block 66 by Antonin Kalina, a Communist prisoner in the camp. The photo above shows some of the boys, who are wearing clothes made for them out of German uniforms. Could the man in the back row be Antonin Kalina? The boy in the center of the front row is 4-year-old Janek Szlajfaztajn (Joseph Schleifstein).
This quote is from the end of the article, which was written by Brad Rothchild:
After the war, Kalina returned to his home in Czechoslovakia and lived out the remainder of his life in obscurity. His boys began new lives in Israel, the United States, Australia and Europe; but they always remembered the Czech communist who risked his life in order to save theirs. Over the past few years, the surviving boys, along with the historian Kenneth Waltzer, have initiated a process to have Kalina recognized as Righteous Among the Nations by Yad Vashem. Providing testimonies and bearing witness for perhaps the final time, these survivors have been working to ensure that their rescuer receives the recognition that he deserves. As the decision drew near, exhaustive efforts were made on Kalina’s behalf in Israel by former Buchenwald boy and current member of the International Buchenwald Committee, Naftali Furst, and his life partner Tova Wagman.
This month, nearly 70 years after the end of the Holocaust and over 20 years since Antonin Kalina’s death, Yad Vashem granted him this honor. While there is no surviving member of the Kalina family to accept the medal that goes along with it, this honor is shared by the surviving boys of block 66, their children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren. May his memory be a blessing for them all.
There are a few details in Rothchild’s article which I believe are incorrect. He writes that Kalina “risked his life” in order to save the boys in Barrack 66. This implies that the SS men at Buchenwald were trying to get their hands on these young boys, to kill them, but Kalina intervened and managed to save their lives, risking his own life in the process.
Rothchild wrote that “Thanks to Kalina’s efforts, unlike the other prisoners in Buchenwald, the boys of block 66 did not have to leave their barrack for roll call — instead of assembling with the rest of the camp twice a day no matter the conditions outside, the boys stayed inside.”
This contradicts what the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum says here about Janek Sziafaztain, which I am quoting:
Josef (Janek) Szlajfaztajn (later Joseph Schleifstein) is the son of Izrael and Esther Schleifstein. He was born on March 7, 1941 in Sandomierz, Poland during the German occupation. The family remained in Sandomierz through its existence as a ghetto, from June 1942 through January 1943. After the liquidation of the ghetto the family was moved to Czestochowa, where Israel and Esther were presumably put to work in one of the HASAG factory camps. During this period Joseph was placed in hiding in the area. Israel was sent to work for the Letzium Work Camp in the Radom District working for a firm called Ralnik from October 1942 till September 1943. He worked in Makashin, near Sandomierz, from September till December 1943; in a HASAG ammunition factory in Kielc from December 1943 to approximately November 1944; and for a short time in Czestochowa. In January 1945, when the HASAG camps were closed and their operations transferred to Germany, the Schleifsteins were deported to Germany. Esther was sent to the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp. Izrael and Josef were taken to Buchenwald and arrived on January 20, 1945. Izrael successfully passed the selection process by concealing Josef in a large sack in which he carried his leather-working tools. The child could not remain concealed for long in the camp, but his life was spared, in part because the Germans valued Israel’s craftsmanship and in part because they took a liking to the child. The SS guards came to treat Joseph as a camp mascot, and even had him appear at roll calls wearing a child-sized striped uniform.
It could be that little 4-year-old Josef was the only one of the Buchenwald Boys who appeared at roll calls, since the SS guards treated him as the “camp mascot.” However, this shows that the SS men at Buchenwald were not trying to kill the young boys in Block 66, as was implied in Rothchild’s article.
This quote is from Rothchild’s article:
Kalina, a political prisoner, had risen to a position of influence in the communist underground, which ran the day-to-day operations of the camp on behalf of the Nazi SS at Buchenwald. When the boys arrived at Buchenwald, Kalina knew that something must be done to protect them — as a true believer, Kalina saw in the boys the hope for a brighter future. He and his fellow prisoners decided to place the youths in a special barrack, far away from the main part of the camp, deep in the filthy quarantine area where the SS was loath to go. This barrack, number 66 in the “little camp” at Buchenwald, became known as the “kinderblock,” or children’s block. Antonin Kalina was the block elder. In this capacity, he went to extraordinary lengths to ensure the survival of the boys held there.
In all of the Nazi concentration camps, there was a quarantine section where all new prisoners were kept for a few weeks so as to prevent the spread of disease. The quarantine camp at Buchenwald was called the “Little Camp.”
Every block (barrack) in all the Nazi concentration camps had a block elder, who lived in a tiny room in the barrack, and supervised the inmates. The block elder was a Kapo (captain), a prisoner who assisted the Nazis in running the camp. This was the system in all the camps, not just at Buchenwald.
Buchenwald was one of the main camps for political prisoners, who were mainly captured Resistance fighters, aka illegal combatants. It was not a “death camp” for Jews, although there were Jewish prisoners, especially after Auschwitz was evacuated and the surviving prisoners were brought to Germany.
Rothchild wrote about the “death march” to Buchenwald, but actually the Auschwitz prisoners were only marched as far as the German border, and then put on trains to be taken to camps in Germany. (Elie Wiesel tells about this in his book Night.)
When the Buchenwald camp was originally opened in 1937, the Nazis brought common criminals, from the Sachsenhausen camp near Berlin, to run the camp internally. But after the first Commandant, Karl Otto Koch, was relieved of his duties and sent to Majdanek, the new Commandant, Hermann Pister, allowed the Communists to take over the running of the camp.
The following quote is from Robert Abzug in his book Inside the Vicious Heart:
Meanwhile, in all this upheaval, the new commandant Hermann Pister allowed a German Communist prisoner group, some of them original inmates of the camp, to wrest power from the ‘greens.’ [The greens were common criminals who wore green triangles.] The Communist prisoners reduced the amount of black marketeering and other common corruption, cut down the amount of wanton sadism on the part of prisoner trustees (or Kapos), and made plans for the ultimate takeover of the camp in case of Nazi defeat. But in other ways the Communists merely shifted the ground of corruption to the assignment of work details, food, medical care, and ultimately life. From their takeover until the end of the war, favored treatment was often received on the basis of political loyalties. The Nazis for their part, gained from the Communist regime a more predictable work force and a greater sense of order.
In other words, the Communists at Buchenwald decided who would live and who would die. It was not a question of which prisoners would be saved from the Nazis by the Communists. The Nazis were not trying to kill the orphan boys of Buchenwald.
General Patton visited the Buchenwald camp on April 15, 1945, after the camp was liberated by the Communist prisoners, shortly before the arrival of American troops on April 11, 1945.
In the following quote from his autobiography, General Patton explained his understanding of the Nazi system of killing prisoners at Buchenwald, as told to him by the former inmates:
One of the most horrible points about this place was that all these executions were carried out by slaves. There was a further devilish arrangement of making the various groups select those who had to die. Each racial group had a certain number of men who represented it. These men had to select those from their group who would be killed locally, or sent to camps like Ohrdruf, which were termed “elimination camps.”
Ohrdruf was a sub-camp of Buchenwald; it was a forced labor camp, not “an elimination camp” or a death camp. It had underground factories where prisoners were forced to work in the German war industry.
The orphan boys in Block 66 were saved, by the Communists, from being sent to a sub-camp. There were other young boys at Buchenwald, who were sent to the sub-camps to work. I previously blogged here about Ben Helfgott, who was not an orphan when he arrived at Buchenwald; he was sent from the Buchenwald main camp to a sub-camp, but he still managed to survive.