by Kenneth Waltzer
During the final months at Buchenwald, 15-year old Elie Wiesel was assigned to a special barracks that was created and maintained by the clandestine underground resistance in the camp as part of a strategy of saving youth. This block, block 66, was located in the deepest part of the disease-infested little camp, a separate space below the main camp at Buchenwald, that was beyond the normal Nazi SS gaze (the local SS officer actively cooperated and conducted appels inside the barrack).
The barracks was overseen by block elder Antonin Kalina, a Czech Communist from Prague, and his deputy, Gustav Schiller, a Polish Jewish Communist originally from Lvov Schiller, who was a rough father figure and mentor, especially for the Polish-Jewish boys and many Czech-Jewish boys; but he was less liked, and even feared, by Hungarian- and Rumanian-Jewish boys, especially religious boys.
After January 1945, the underground concentrated all children and youth that could be fit in this windowless barracks — more than 600 children and youth, mostly Jews — and sheltered and protected them. Younger children, like Israel Meir Lau (Lulek) from Piotrkow, later the Chief Ashkenazi rabbi of Israel, not yet 8 years old, and several others were secreted in block 8 in the main camp and watched by prisoners there, still others, as young as 4 years old, including Josef Shleifstein of Sandomierz, and Stefan Jerzy Zweig (Juschu) ofCracow, were hidden elsewhere throughout the camp. When General George Patton’s Third Army arrived on April 11, 1945, more than 900 children and youth — mostly teenagers, but also younger boys — were discovered among the 21,000 emaciated prisoners. They were alive in part due to a remarkable effort by key elements in the Communist-led underground to assist them to survive until liberation.
In this barrack, young Jews were protected and sheltered from work, save for occasional forays to clean up after bombing raids in nearby Weimar, where they scavenged for food. Survivors recall extra food in Red Cross packages distributed to them from Danish and other political prisoners in the main camp. They recall efforts by their mentors to raise their horizons in the barracks, songs, stories, even history and math lessons, to convince them there was another world awaiting them. And they recall heroic intervention by Kalina or Schiller during the final days to protect them from being led out when the Nazis sought to clear Jews from the camp.
Many of the boys, despite all that was done for them, were nonetheless marched to the main gate on April 10 and lined up to be marched out. Wiesel says this in _Night. “So we were massed in the huge assembly square in rows of five, waiting to see the gate open.”_However, American airplanes flew overhead, sirens sounded, the guards ran to the shelters, and Kalina, who marched with them, ordered the boys back to the barracks. They were still there the next afternoon when advanced armored units of the American Third Army droveSS guards from the camp and broke through the barbed wire fences.
<a></a>*Waltzer is Professor and Director, Jewish Studies, Michigan State University