Obama, Buchenwald, and the Children


Mr. Waltzer is professor of history and director of Jewish Studies at Michigan State University. He is currently completing a book tentatively titled, Telling the Story: The Rescue of Children and Youths at Buchenwald.

President Obama visited Buchenwald recently, following the path of his great uncle Charlie Payne, who was with General George Patton’s U.S. Third Army.  He connected Buchenwald with the larger story of the Nazi destruction of the Jews, accompanied by survivors Elie Wiesel and Betrand Herz, and the laid a wreath at the Buchenwald memorial. While he was there, Dr. Volkhard Knigge, director of the Buchenwald museum, highlighted the saving of children, who were kept alive in an organized effort in the camp until the Americans arrived.  When Patton’s army came to Buchenwald, April 11, 1945, American soldiers discovered 904 boys among the 21,000 male survivors.

Today, these Buchenwald boys are in their seventies and early eighties and live around the world, with large concentrations in the United States, Israel, Canada, Australia, France, and England. For many years, they were silent.  And for years, despite the spectacle of their discovery at liberation, few people asked who they were or how they were still alive to be liberated. 

But that was then. Who were they? 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.

How could they be helped to survive? Evidence in the Red Cross International Tracing Service archives as well as scores of memoirs, testimonies, and interviews by and with these former Buchenwald boys indicate that rescue was carried out by elements of the German Communist-led international underground, together with Polish-Jewish elements who worked closely with the underground. Key activists in the Czech and Hungarian underground national committees also played important roles.

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.

Fourth, the veteran activists even created makeshift clandestine schools in the barracks to control the boys and to lift their minds beyond the realities of everyday camp existence. Finally, fifth, in the last days, when Nazi leaders sought to march first the Jewish prisoners, then all, onto the roads, the activists changed the markings on the boys’ uniforms and interceded personally on their behalf. Many activists were with the boys until liberation and after. They can be seen shepherding the boys through the camp gate in several images taken on April 17 to the nearby SS barracks.

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. 

Those in the camp who acted to save the children clung to hope amidst despair and determined to do what they could – as the Allied armies advanced from the west and the east – to ensure that children and youths would endure. The youths represented hope, symbols of resilience and resistance to Nazi oppression.  They represented the futurel

Not all made it – some boys perished in the outer camps and a few hundred were led out in the final days – but, because veteran prisoners willed it, one of the great rescue efforts of the war and Holocaust occurred inside a concentration camp until the Americans came.

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Randll Reese Besch - 7/6/2009

A much better ending we all need to be aware of to a terrible time.