Scrapbookpages Blog

March 11, 2013

The young boys who were saved by the prisoners at Buchenwald

Filed under: Buchenwald, Germany, Holocaust, World War II — Tags: , , — furtherglory @ 4:35 pm

Just when I thought I was all blogged out, they pull me back in.  Today, I received an e-mail from a reader of my blog who alerted me to yet another book about the young boys, who were saved from certain death by the Communist Resistance Fighters at Buchenwald.  The book is entitled The Buchenwald Child: Truth, Fiction and Propaganda; it was written by William John Niven and published in 2009.  You can read parts of it on Amazon.com here.

Curiously, the book by William John Niven mentions that 905 boys were saved by the prisoners at Buchenwald.  Other books use the number 904.  Apparently, Niven added one more boy to the number of boys who were saved because other books do not include Stefan Zweig among the saved boys.

Ken Waltzer has been working on a book about the boys of Buchenwald since 2007; you can read about his book here.

Here is the description of Niven’s book, given by Amazon.com:

At the notorious Buchenwald concentration camp, communist prisoners organized resistance against the SS and even planned an uprising. They helped rescue a three-year-old Jewish boy, Stefan Jerzy Zweig, from certain death in the gas chambers. After the war, his story became a focus for the German Democratic Republic’s celebration of its resistance to the Nazis. Now Bill Niven tells the true story of Stefan Zweig: what actually happened to him in Buchenwald, how he was protected, and at what price. He explores the (mis)representation of Zweig’s rescue in East Germany and what this reveals about that country’s understanding of its Nazi past. Finally he looks at the telling of the Zweig rescue story since German unification: a story told in the GDR to praise communists has become a story used to condemn them. Bill Niven is Professor of Contemporary German History at the Nottingham Trent University, UK.

Gas chambers (plural) at Buchenwald?  Yes, of course; every Nazi camp had gas chambers.  Where do you think the Nazis disinfected the clothing of the prisoners?  In a Gaskammer, of course. You can read about the alleged Buchenwald homicidal gas chamber on my website here.

I previously blogged about the boys at Buchenwald here and here. I also blogged about another boy at Buchenwald here.

Why is there so much interest in the young boys at Buchenwald?  The Buchenwald camp was the first camp to be liberated by American soldiers.  When the Americans arrived on April 11, 1945, they found that the camp had been taken over by the Communist prisoners.  America immediately started a propaganda campaign about the atrocities committed in Buchenwald.  Yet, there had to be some explanation in the press regarding how and why 904 young boys had not been killed. You can read about the liberation of Buchenwald on my website here.

This quote, regarding the boys at Buchenwald, is from an article which you can read in full here:

They were mostly Jewish children and youths from Poland, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Rumania, and Lithuania, who were brought in 1944-45 to Buchenwald, some with fathers or brothers, most as orphans. Most were teenagers but one-sixth were 12 years old and under.  The two youngest boys were four years old.  Some had been in German factory labor camps in Poland until mid- or late 1944.  Some had been in Auschwitz and its satellite camps and were taken to Buchenwald to slave in its sub-camps in 1944 or were evacuated in early 1945, arriving in bad shape in open coal cars in the frigid air. […]

The story is little known. Veteran prisoners decided to protect the youths, drawing on the influence won by the German Communists and their allies in the internal camp self-administration.  First they did what they could to keep the youths from being sent to the outer sub-camps, where slave labor was killing. Second, they clustered the youths in children’s barracks under tight discipline and control to minimize their contact with SS guards, especially blocks 8, 23, and 66.  Third, they used their influence to provide access to occasional additional food and warm clothing. They used tough discipline to keep starving youths from scavenging food freely in the camp or stealing food from one another. They distributed Red Cross packages sent to other prisoners to the children. […]

Among the boys was little Lulek, Israel Meir Lau, 8 years old, from Piotrkow, Poland, who was protected in block 8 along with several hundred others. He later became chief rabbi of Israel and today heads Yad Vashem in Jerusalem. Among the older boys was Eliezer Wiesel, 16 years-old from Sighet, Rumania, who was in block 66 with hundreds of boys under adult mentorship. He later became a Nobel Peace Prize winner.

Using the Search Inside feature on Amazon.com, I copied the following quotes from the book by Niven:

From Page 23:

Cracow and Biezanow

Stefan [Zweig] was born in the Cracow ghetto on 28 January 1941 to Zacharias and Helena Zweig; he had an eight-year-old sister at the time of this birth. Barely a month later, in order to avoid deportation, the Zweig family took refuse in the village of Wola Duchacka.  Here Zacharias successfully applied for the right of this family to live in the Cracow ghetto, where he worked to the Jewish Community.  In 1942, the Nazis began the construction of the Plaszow concentration and labor camp; deportation this camp would certainly have meant the separation of parents from their children, and Zacharias resolved to keep his family together by staying in the ghetto.  Even when sent to do forced labor in the Biezanow concentration camp in late 1942, Zacharias was able to maintain contact with Helena and his children.  On 13 March 1943, the Nazis began the third major “resettlement” action within the Cracow ghetto.  Fearing this would lead to the liquidation of their families in Cracow, a number of Biezanow inmates, including Zacharias, pleaded with Biezanow’s SS commandant, Mueller, for help.  Mueller, after negotiations with Amon Goeth, who was in charge of the resettlement action, secured permission to enter the ghetto and gather together the families of the inmates of Biezanow and “Julag-1.”  But before they could leave the ghetto, all these family members were subjected to an inspection.  To hide Stefan from the probing eyes of Goeth, Helena hid him in a sack.  But she was unable to conceal her daughter.  Goeth tore Sylvia away from her mother and ordered her to return to the ghetto.  But Sylvia secretly rejoined the group at the gate before it left the ghetto and was taken to “Julag-1” with the other members of her family.  From there, Zacharias and his family were sent to Biezanow.  Here, new problems arose.  Stefan was too young to be allowed to stay there.

From Page 24  The Protection of Stefan Jerzy Zweig

Zacharias first hid Stefan, then persuaded a Pole living in the area to take Stefan in.  Some Poles reported such illicit acts of concealment to the Nazis, and several times Poles who had taken Stefan in became afraid and abandoned him, leaving him lying next to the camp wire.

This psychological torture went on for some months, until the Nazis scaled down their search for hidden children and it became conceivable to bring young children into Biezanow.  When Zacharias had run out of money to pay for Stefan’s protection, he gook him back into the camp.  Still, the SS did occasionally go through the prisoners’ blocks looking for children.  Sometimes this happened without warning, and on such occasions Stefan had to be hidden.  Thus a member of the work detail responsible for removing the garbage sometimes hid Stefan among the refuse and took him out of the camp to safety; Zacharias later would retrieve him from the garbage dump.  On other occasions, Zacharias entrusted Stefan to the care of the Polish women outside the camp — to whom he once had to throw the child over the barbed-wire fence.  By Stefan was so well-trained that his father only needed to mention the word “SS” for him to remain completely silent.

Plaszow and Skarzysko Kamienna

On 15 November 1943, the Biezanow camp was dissolved, and the Zweig family was forced to move to Plaszow, where men and women were separated: Sylvia went with her mother, Stefan with Zacharias.  The SS began to take children and older prisoners out of the camp and shoot them on a nearby hill.  When a doctor in the camp by the name of Gross came to the women’s barracks to register the remaining children, Helena, who knew Gross personally and knew too that he had certain obligations toward the Zweigs, begged him to try to prevent any further separation of mothers from their children.  Gross subsequently promised Zacharias he would do what he could to help all threatened children.  He informed Zacharias of an impending transport to Skarzysko Kamienna, assuring him that Skarzysko was a labor camp, not a death camp.  Zacharias resolved to join the transport with his family.  Gross promised to ensure that nothing would happen to the children as they left the camp — thereby returning a favor to Zacharias, who had helped him in the past.  On his way out of Plaszow, Zacharias once more hid Stefan, this time wrapping him inside his raincoat, which he then carried over his shoulder; as he passed Amon Goeth and other SS men at the gates of the camp, he struck a posture of deference. Gross followed the transport at  a distance, and appeared to keep his word.  Zacharias and his family arrived safely in Skarzysko.  […]

From Page 25

A 1956 brochure-cum-guidebook produced by the Museum for German History features a photograph of Zweig. The text stresses that while Buchenwald was the expression of murderous bestiality, its history also bore witness above all the the strength of the solidarity of the resistance fighters, who rose above fascist atrocities.  The guidebook states that an example of such fighters were the prisoners in the Storage Building, where comrades saved the three-year-old Stefan Zweig from death, hiding him between articles of clothing at risk of their own lives.  Strikingly, the story of Stefan’s rescue is positioned within the guidebook at the point where the narrative first turns away from telling the horrors of Buchenwald to consider more uplifting aspects.  Up to that point, the brochure largely features photographs and drawings of suffering and dead bodies. Suddenly, the reader is confronted with an image of a healthy-looking, relatively well-dressed boy wearing boots.  Stefan symbolizes survival, life and above all the triumph of solidarity over murder.  His rescue becomes a pivotal moment in a narrative of death and transcendence.  

A similar positioning of the Zweig rescue story was characteristic of its treatment in the museum at Buchenwald.  In the 1955 exhibition drafted by the MfDG, the same photograph of Stefan was shown as in the guidebook, together with Zacharias’s brief 1945 account of his son’s rescue as noted down by Stefan Heymann.  The reference to Zweig follows sections on mass murder and slave labor.  According to a 1958 draft for the new museum finally realized in 1964, there was to be a display board on women and children at Buchenwald, including Zacharias’s early postwar account of Stefan’s rescue.  It was to be situated between display boards on the mass murder of Soviets, Poles, and Jews, and on the murderous conditions at Buchenwald-Dora on the one hand, and murder of Thalmann and the prisoners’ uprising of April 1945 on the other.  Interestingly, the former Buchenwald prisoner Willi Seifert objected to the over-concentration on Zweig; a revised draft features more detail on other children saved by the communist resistance movement.
In the mid-1950s, a plaque commemorating Stefan’s rescue was mounted on the outside wall of the Storage Building.  It informs the visitor that “prisoners took care of the three-year-old Stefan Zweig, hiding him between sacks,” and that they risked their lives to save him from annihilation.  The Storage Building itself had only survived by demolition process described earlier because it was in used as a grain store by a supply firm.  In 1953, following attempts by Erfurt’s Regional Council to get permission to tear it down, the GDR’s Institute for the Maintenance of Monuments stepped in to insist on its preservation. Gradually, the idea took root that the Storage Building would be an ideal site for a new museum.  […]

But this report also mentions the protection of other children (for example, in Block 8) and cites the number of children still alive at the camp on liberation.  So while “the Boy” could be Stefan, he could also be representative of all of Buchenwald’s children.  If anything, the apparent age of “The Boy,” who looks to be nine or ten despite the fact that Cremer has fitted him out with an oversized, adult head, should discourage us from seeing him as absolutely identical to the three-year-old Stefan Zweig.

So was Stefan Zweig at Buchenwald or not? He was apparently not in the barracks where the other children were taken care of by the Communist prisoners.  He was in the Storage Building which was later turned into a Museum.

The large building on the left was the Storehouse at Buchenwald

The large building on the left was the Storehouse at Buchenwald; it is now a Museum

The photo above shows the Storehouse, the largest building in the Buchenwald camp, where the clothing and personal property of the inmates was kept. If a prisoner was released from the camp, his clothing was given back to him. The storehouse is now used to house the Buchenwald Museum.

In front of the storehouse was the camp laundry, which has been torn down. Goethe’s Oak was in front of the laundry building; the stump of the oak tree is shown in the photo above. The tree was killed in an Allied bombing raid on the camp on August 24, 1944 when a number of prisoners were also killed.  The surface of the stump is covered with small rocks left by visitors to the camp.

The one-story building to the right in the photo above is the disinfection building which is connected to the storehouse by an underground tunnel. Incoming prisoners were first brought to the disinfection building where their heads and entire bodies were shaved. Then they were completely submerged into a large tub of creosote to kill lice and bacteria. Then they had to go into the showers, after which they were sprayed with liquid disinfectant. All this was done in the effort to stop epidemics in the camp.

When I visited Buchenwald in 1999, I saw the Museum, which had been redone in 1995 after the fall of Communism in East Germany.  Since then, the Museum has been redone again.  I did not see anything about the boys of Buchenwald in the Museum in 1999.