Amplifying one sentence in Elie Wiesel’s Night

BY J. ZEL LURIE

More than a million of the six million victims of the shoa were infants and children. Survivors of Ravensbruck, the women’s camp, told how newborn babies were brutally destroyed before their mothers’ eyes.

The U.S. Holocaust Museum in Washington devotes a special section called Daniel to the fate of Jewish children.

I find it remarkable, therefore, that one sentence at the beginning of the last chapter of Night by Elie Wiesel has not drawn more comment and investigation. He was then a tall, skinny 15-year-old prisoner in Buchenwald. That sentence is:

“I was transferred to the children’s block, where there were 600 of us.”

That’s all Wiesel says. Over five million copies of Night have been sold, and this 50-year-old memoir, in a new translation by Marion Wiesel, continues to top the paperback best-seller list.

But less than a handful of the five million have noticed how remarkable this sentence is. Who ever heard of a children’s block in a death camp except for a few children being held for experiments on their young bodies?

Six hundred kids in a children’s block should have raised a few eyebrows. Were they gathered together for mass medical experiments? Among the tens of thousands of Holocaust books, there should be some explanation.

But “children’s block at Buchenwald” draws a blank on Google.

Nor has Wiesel amplified on this sentence in any of the many books he has written since he penned Night in Yiddish soon after the liberation.

When I asked Google for “children at Buchenwald” omitting “block,” I received tens of citations, including a photo of 427 children and youth at Buchenwald being transferred by the U.S. Army to rehab institutes and DP camps in France. The photo is credited to the Holocaust Museum, which identified Israel Lau, who became Chief Rabbi of Israel, in the first row and Elie Wiesel in the fourth row. The caption says that 200 children had previously been sent to Switzerland.

That still did not tell me who had rescued these kids. Who had fed them and nurtured them under the eyes of the SS guards and German soldiers. I finally found the answer in the 37th entry, a few paragraphs contributed by Professor Kenneth Waltzer, director of Jewish Studies at Michigan State University.

The title is: Block 66 at Buchenwald: The Clandestine Barracks to Save Children.

“Block 66,” Waltzer wrote, “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 SS gaze.”

It was organized by the Communist underground to save youth. Special rations were given by the Communist inmates in the food section. The block elder was Antonin Kalina, a Czech Communist from Prague. His deputy was Gustav Schiller, a Polish Jewish Communist.

“After January 1945,” Waltzer writes, “the underground concentrated all children and youth that could be fit into this windowless barracks — more than 600 children and youth, mostly Jews — and sheltered and protected them.”

Younger children, some only 4, were secreted in block 8, Waltzer relates. “When General George Patton’s Third Army arrived on April 11, 1945, more than 900 children and youth were discovered among the 21,000 emaciated prisoners.

They were alive because of the remarkable effort by the Communist underground to shelter and feed them. This is a unique and unprecedented effort in the history of the Holocaust. Why hasn’t it been featured in the tens of thousands of books and articles on the shoa?

Waltzer has found and interviewed many of the survivors. He says they were protected from work details except the good ones, like cleaning up after a bombing in nearby Weimar, where they could forage for food. Survivors recall receiving Red Cross packages. They remember efforts by their Communist elders to convince them that there was another world awaiting them. Their spirits were lifted by songs and stories, even history and math lessons. And they recall heroic interventions by Kalina and Schiller during the final days to protect them when the SS wanted to clear the camp of Jews.

“We were lined up in the huge assembly square in groups of five waiting to see the gate open,” Wiesel wrote. Suddenly the sirens wailed, American planes appeared. Kalina, who had marched with them shouted: ‘Back to the barracks.'”

Here is the way Wiesel continues the story. I am quoting from the original English version of Night, which Wiesel gave me almost fifty years ago.

“At 10 o’clock the (next) morning, the SS scattered through the camp moving the last victims toward the assembly place.

“Then the resistance movement decided to act. Armed men suddenly rose up everywhere. Bursts of firing. Grenades exploding. We children stayed flat on the ground in the block.

“The battle did not last long.. Toward noon everything was quiet again. The SS had fled and the resistance had taken charge of the running of the camp.

“About six o’clock in the evening, the first American tank stood at the gates of Buchenwald.”

Waltzer, who has doubtless consulted American records, credits an advance American unit, rather than the underground, with kicking out the SS. He is probably right. But I prefer Wiesel’s version. Don’t you?

When this column appears in print I will be in Israel for a few weeks. My next column should be datelined Jerusalem.

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