Antonín Kalina: Czech Hero of the Holocaust
In 1939, the Nazis took over Czechoslovakia completely. They had already made their plans for “The Final Solution to the Jewish Problem”, which was to be implemented under the horrifyingly efficient Reinhardt Heydrich. The Jews, however, were only one group the Nazis aimed to destroy. They also focused on homosexuals, the Roma – and the Communists.
As a Communist, Kalina was arrested by the Gestapo in 1939. He was sent from one concentration camp to another. On his first day in Dachau he met another prisoner, a German, who was also a Communist. The man screamed and threw a chair at the Czech prisoners who didn’t understand him when he informed them of the camp rules. Kalina seized him by the throat and asked him why he behaved in this manner. The man responded that, after some time in camp, the prisoners would forget everything they had learned in the outside world. “When this is over,” Kalina told him grimly, “they will ask you how many people you killed.”
Kalina was later transferred to Buchenwald, where the Nazis used the political prisoners as a sort of staff, assisting in running the camp. He became the leader of Lager 66 in the summer of 1944. By that time, the Red Army was making steady progress westward, and the panicking Nazis were closing their easternmost camps and sending the prisoners west.
Many prisoners ended up in Buchenwald, and Kalina noticed how many children (from all over Europe) were among them. He told the head of the camp that he wanted the children to be put in the same block, and the man agreed. The Czech National Committee disagreed, fearing that if the children were all together, they would be easier to gather together so they could be sent to the gas chamber. Kalina, however, knew the Nazis well by this point, and he assured the Committee that he would put a warning sign on the block stating that the children had typhus. The Nazis were terribly afraid of the disease, and they were certain to avoid it.
In the end, Kalina had 1,300 children in his block; only 100 were not Jewish. Together with a fellow prisoner, Jindřich Flusser, Kalína was able to communicate with all the children (Flusser spoke French, the only language among the prisoners that Kalina did not know). The children needed beds, blankets, shoes, and other supplies, and Kalina found that one of the prisoners, who was the head of the prison store, was able to get them. This prisoner was none other than the German Communist from Dachau, the one who had been so violent with the Czech prisoners years earlier. Whatever Kalina needed for the children, this prisoner supplied.
Kalina and Flusser made a list of the children. One list contained their real names; the other listed them with Christian, rather than Jewish, names. The children were taught to say “No” if asked whether they were Jewish. (Kalina threatened to hit them if they responded in the affirmative.) By that time, the efficient record-keeping for which the Nazis were famous had begun to fall apart. No complete list existed of all the prisoners in Buchenwald, and Kalina and Flusser used this to their advantage. A prisoner sentenced to death could have his file exchanged with that of a prisoner who had already died.
One day, Kalina received word that six of his children must “disappear”; Kalina knew that they were destined for the gas chambers. The following day, these same children were sent to work (forced labor) under different names. When the SS demanded to know what had happened to the children, Kalina made up a different death for each one – typhus, pneumonia, etc. Just before Buchenwald was liberated, a high-ranking SS officer asked Kalina, “Where are your Jews?”
Kalina replied, “I have no Jews here. They went out on a transport. I have only children.”
When Buchenwald was liberated, the children – all 1,300 of them – walked out the front gates. In 1948, Kalina attended a celebration of the liberation of the camp, where he learned that some men from Belgium were looking for him. There were five of them; all were from the group of six boys whose deaths Kalina had faked. When they saw him, they lifted him high in the air and hugged him.
Antonín Kalina died in Prague on January 1, 1990. He was declared one of the Righteous Among the Nations by Yad Vashem on June 3, 2012. Three men saved by him in Buchenwald attended the award ceremony. On September 28, 2014, President Miloš Zeman awarded Kalina the Medal of Merit, First Grade.
PragueLife, 13 July 2017