The rescue

Boys on train in Basel on way from Buchenwald concentration camp after liberation. From right: Jack A, Motek A, Yossl B, unknown.
Boys on train in Basel on way from Buchenwald concentration camp after liberation. From right: Jack A, Motek A, Yossl B, unknown.

Approximately 1.5 million children were killed during the Holocaust. The Melbourne Buchenwald Boys consider that their survival was mainly due to chance. However, the age of the Boys was also a factor in their survival. Unlike very young children, the Buchenwald Boys were of an age where they had the physical strength to be able work in spite of starvation, illness and beatings that many suffered in the ghettos and labour and concentration camps. Their ability to work meant that they were of value to the Germans. Their youth assisted them to be strong enough to be among the survivors of the tortuous death marches and the dreadful conditions in Buchenwald. Then, when liberated from Buchenwald, their young age determined the pathways that they followed in the weeks and months immediately after liberation. They were young enough to be treated as child refugees and be placed in orphanages in France and homes in Switzerland, rather than face the difficulties often associated with displaced persons camps.

Immediately after liberation, it became clear to the American Army Jewish chaplain, Rabbi Herschel Schacter, that the Jewish child survivors of Buchenwald needed urgent rehabilitation. He wanted them to be given the chance to reclaim some of their childhood and adolescence, continue their schooling, learn skills or trades, and live in a Jewish environment. One Melbourne Boy told how Rabbi Schacter did not want them venturing into the nearby village of Weimar with the older survivors, seeking the thrills that the village offered.

Rabbi Schacter contacted the international aid organisations, including the Oeuvre de Secours aux Enfants (OSE), the Swiss Red Cross, the Swiss Jewish Federation of Communities, the Zionist organisations and the American Joint Distribution Committee (JOINT). By June 1945, they had arranged to send 427 of the Buchenwald children to France, 280 to Switzerland and 250 to England. Rabbi Schacter, who travelled with the group on the train as far as Basel, negotiated with the Swiss aid organisations to accept all of the many refugees that he accompanied. Some 374 survivors of Buchenwald and its subcamps arrived in Switzerland, including Tova Cykiert, who had been in Togau, a subcamp. (Lerf, Madeleine Buchenwaldkinder: eine Schweizer Hilfsaktion, Zurich 2010) Tova joined her brother, Abraham, in Buchenwald after hearing that he had survived. They travelled to Switzerland together and later to Melbourne.

Among the Melbourne Buchenwald Boys are two survivors of other concentration camps who were rescued in similar ways, Sam L and Sam Su. Sam L had survived Dachau concentration camp. A few weeks after being liberated from Dachau, he went to Switzerland where he joined the youth from Buchenwald, including Morrie B, Moniek R and brothers Baruch and Yossl B. Sam Su, after his liberation from Brünnlitz concentration camp, befriended one of the Buchenwald Boys, Joe K, in France in an orphanage called Draveil. The Melbourne Buchenwald Boys’ lifelong friendships extended to both Sam L and Sam Su, who have always been regarded as integral members of their Buchenwald Boys group.