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Jan. 28, 2015

Kenneth Waltzer: Kinderblock 66

Jan. 28, 2015

Kenneth Waltzer is professor emeritus of history in James Madison College and the former director of MSU’s Jewish Studies Program. His research focuses on the rescue of children and youths at Buchenwald and on human behavior under extreme conditions in the Nazi camps. In recent years, he was historical consultant to Bigfoot Productions in making a feature length documentary film, “Kinderblock 66: Return to Buchenwald,” which draws on his ongoing research. The film has been shown in venues around the globe in Germany (at Buchenwald), the Czech Republic, Slovakia, England, Israel, the United States, Canada and Australia, and will be shown this week at the United Nations and forums in Africa, Asia and Europe connected with the U.N.’s commemoration of the liberation of Auschwitz.

When General George Patton’s U.S. Third Army liberated Buchenwald on April 11, 1945, American soldiers were astonished to find nearly 1,000 boys among the 21,000 surviving prisoners. Most were adolescents (including among them Elie Wiesel), but one-sixth were 12 years old and younger. The two youngest boys were 4 years old, and there were numerous 6 to 8 year olds, 10 year olds and 12 year olds.

Many of them had been at Auschwitz-Birkenau, at Buna or in several German factory labor camps in western Poland, where they were forced to engage in terrible child slave labor. For most, Buchenwald was the last stop in dark journeys of deportation from Nazi ghettos to death and labor camps in Poland, and now by death marches and open rail cars in winter to a Nazi camp in Germany near Weimar. Most were orphans. How were these youths still alive to be liberated?

The answer is that, inside the concentration camp, the German Communist-led international underground, which assisted the Nazis in running the self-administration achieve Nazi goals and specifications, also engaged in clandestine resistance, including protecting youths. Such youths were the raw materials with which to make new societies after the war. A group of veteran German and Czech Communist prisoners, aided by veteran Polish Jewish prisoners, moved newly arriving boys – from mid-1944 mostly Jewish boys – into clustered barracks under veteran mentors, marked them surreptitiously in the records “Not for work or transport” (to Buchenwald’s killing outer satellite camps) and did what they could to keep the youths disciplined and safe and their spirits positive. 

The largest such children’s barrack was kinderblock 66, where more than 900 youths were protected – although 100-150 were led out by the Nazis and put on transport April 10, the day before liberation. These youths were liberated later at Terezin but not at Buchenwald. Czech Communist Antonin Kalina headed the massive horse-barn barrack way down in the “kleine lager” (little camp) at Buchenwald and was assisted by Polish Jewish Communist Gustav Schiller, his tough deputy.

“Kinderblock 66,” written by Rob Cohen, director, and made by Steve Moskovic, executive producer and the son of a Buchenwald boy, and by several other talented co-producers, traces the journeys of four former Buchenwald boys, now elderly men, back to participate in the 65th anniversary commemoration of liberation in Weimar at the invitation of the Buchenwald Museum.

Youths Naftali Furst, Pavel Kohn, Israel Laszlo Lazar and Alex Moskovic, all who came to Buchenwald in 1944-45 via Auschwitz, were filmed in their homes in Israel, Germany, and the United States, respectively, then at Buchenwald during the commemoration ceremonies, together with dignitaries like Volke Kniggard, head of the museum, and Jorge Semprun, famed European literary figure, and then home again with their wives. Some address their dead parents, whom they never saw again. All remark on the responsibilities of remembrance. “We are not survivors but the burning embers of the fire that burned and has not yet gone out,” Furst reflects late in the film.

The film also documents the effort I spearheaded, along with Moskovic, Furst and numerous others in the U.S., Australia and Israel, to win Righteous Among the Nations designation by Yad Vashem in Israel for Antonin Kalina, the block elder. More difficult to win than first thought, the designation was granted in 2012 and was announced by the head of the Righteous Department at the film’s showing at the Jerusalem Film Festival.

Now, as part of the U.N.’s International Day of Commemoration in memory of the victims of the Holocaust, “Kinderblock 66” is being shown in cities in Austria, Belgium, Greece, Hungary, Slovakia, Switzerland, Burundi, Namibia, Nigeria, South Africa, Tanzania, Zambia, Bangladesh, India, Nepal and Paraguay.

Photo by Matt Hallowell