Buchenwald Boy, Max Z, described the hell that was Buchenwald concentration camp in the following words,
If I ever imagined hell, this was it. The only thing missing was fire. It was said no one ever escaped from hell. I was resigned to my fate. I closed my eyes to sleep, not expecting to wake up. (Max Zilberman in Zilberman, B and Norich, R, March into Life, Melbourne, 2017, p111)
By the winter of 1944–45, most of Europe was facing the last months of the Second World War. At this stage, although there was growing awareness of the general nature of the Nazi genocide, the world paid little attention to the atrocities and murders occurring on a massive scale, as the concentration and labour camps in the east were evacuated. Many months passed before the world saw the horrors experienced by the many thousands of evacuees who were forced westward into concentration camps such as Buchenwald.
Buchenwald concentration camp in Weimar, Germany was established in 1937 and became the largest concentration camp in the country. Between 1937 and 1945, some 280,000 people from over 30 countries were imprisoned in Buchenwald and its subcamps. It is estimated that 56,000 of them were killed in Buchenwald or in the surrounding forests. At the end of March 1945, the camp population was 80,436. (Gedenkstatte Buchenwald (ed), compiled by Stein H, Buchenwald Concentration Camp: A Guide to the Permanent Historical Exhibition, Wallstein Verlag, 2010, p253)
Buchenwald’s initial purpose was for the detainment of political and criminal prisoners. By 1942, as the War progressed, the Germans required increased armaments, but their available workforce for the manufacture of equipment had diminished due to deployment by the military. Therefore, the Germans exploited the concentration camp inmates as slave labour in German national manufacturing entities, or they leased the camp inmates as slave labour to German private industry.
In addition, the Nazis used the concentration camps as a means to systematically exterminate entire groups of the population. Each inmate was given a badge, colour coded to identify the group to which they belonged. For example, the red triangle symbolised political prisoners.
A yellow triangle was for Jews, often inverted over other coloured symbols.
As the mass transports to Buchenwald increased, a section of the camp, called the Little Camp, was expanded. People interned in the different sections of the camp experienced the concentration camp in different ways. The Melbourne Buchenwald Boys were in the Little Camp, where they struggled to survive in the worst conditions of Buchenwald. The Little Camp became the primary place of death, hunger, filth and disease. At least 1,000 people, and in many cases up to 1,800, were assigned to a barrack, each 500 square metres in size. At the beginning of January 1945, before the mass evacuation of people from Auschwitz to camps in Germany, the Little Camp accommodated some 6,000 people. By April 1945, its population had increased to 17,100.
Having endured and survived the horrific death marches, the Boys found themselves thrust into barracks in the most terrible conditions imaginable, alongside hundreds of sick and dying men. They suffered beatings, starvation, sickness and death. Most of the Boys were sent to do torturous labour, barely managing on meagre food rations.
The Jews were at the bottom of the camp hierarchy as determined by the Nazis. They had the least chance of survival. The term “muselmann” was given to those who were the closest to death, too starved and weak to survive.
During interviews, the Boys told how the conditions in Buchenwald were worse than any they had experienced anywhere else during the Holocaust, including Auschwitz concentration camp.
The Children’s Block – Block 66
Some of the Communist political prisoners in Buchenwald had been instrumental in establishing children’s barracks in Buchenwald, Block 8, Block 23 and Block 66. The children, many of whom were Jewish, had better conditions in these barracks, and therefore a better chance of survival.
One of the Melbourne Boys, Ari K, was in Block 8 of the main camp. Another Melbourne Boy, Joe S, arrived in Buchenwald from the labour camp, Skarzysko-Kamienna, in August 1944. Initially, Joe was put in Block 23 before being transferred to Block 66. A large number of the younger Boys were gathered into the children’s block, Block 66, which was located towards the edge of the Little Camp. Some of the Melbourne Boys remember starting in one of the general barracks and being moved to join other young boys in Block 66. For example, Jack U recalled that he had originally been in Block 58 and Jack C remembered being in Block 62. Salek R told that he had been in Block 63 with his father until, tragically, his father was killed during a work assignment. Salek, being a youth on his own, was transferred to Block 66.
In spite of the overall terrible conditions of the Little Camp, these Boys considered themselves to be relatively fortunate because the Blockeldester, or block leader, of Block 66, Antonin Kalina, protected them. Kalina was one of the non-Jewish political prisoners who assisted the Germans in administering the camp. Kalina realised that it would be better for the children if they were kept together rather than interspersed among the men. Kalina and his assistant, Gustav Schiller, gathered many hundreds of the young inmates into this block. Benny G, in his interview, remembered Schiller, a Polish Jewish communist, as a type of “father figure and mentor” for the Polish Jewish Boys. Kalina and Schiller arranged for the boys to get extra food rations and made sure that they did not have to work.
Kalina organised for the young inmates to be registered as political prisoners, and not as Jews. He prevented the Germans from entering Block 66 by placing a sign on the door saying that there was typhus in the barrack. During the last days before the liberation of Buchenwald, Kalina detained the Boys of Block 66 in the barrack, thereby protecting them from further death marches and almost certain death.
In 2012, Kalina, for his efforts in helping the Jewish youth in Block 66, was recognised by Yad Vashem, Israel as one of the “Righteous Among the Nations”.
Some of the Boys who were in Block 66 recalled that they sang songs and learned lessons together. One of the Boys, Emil K, who was born in Czechoslovakia, remembers there being different groups of boys in the barrack, the groups divided according to their backgrounds and countries of birth. He stuck with the other Czech Boys because they shared the same language.
Jack U described Block 66 as being very cramped, with over 600 youths. They slept in bunks, layered on top of one another, from the floor up to the ceiling. By contrast, many of the Boys who were not in Block 66 were squashed into other barracks that housed from 1,000 to 1,800 adult inmates.
At the time of the liberation of Buchenwald concentration camp by the Americans on 11 April 1945, it was one of the first camps that provided the world with indisputable primary evidence of the crimes committed. The camp was captured with many inmates still there, compared with other camps that had been evacuated and partly or fully destroyed. The photos taken of the horrors of the Little Camp, where the Boys were interned are available at United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, Yad Vashem – The World Holocaust Remembrance Center and Buchenwald and Mittelbau-Dora Memorials Foundation.