The man who saved 900 Jewish boys inside a death camp
Antonin Kalina was a communist imprisoned by the Nazis in Buchenwald. There, he kept the youngsters of his Block 66 alive. He never discussed this after the war, and died 20 years ago. Only now has his heroism been recognized.
For decades, Jews around the world have sought out examples of non-Jews like Raoul Wallenberg, whose centennial birthday was observed last week, and Oskar Schindler, who defied the Nazis to prevent the murder of Jews. In Israel, the Righteous Among the Nations is Yad Vashem’s highest honor, and over 23,000 people have been awarded this status since the program began in 1953.
The criteria established by Yad Vashem is straightforward: Jews can nominate individuals who provided substantial assistance to save Jews, provided that said assistance was not given with the expectation of financial gain. Honorees receive a medal, a certificate of honor and have their name engraved on the Wall of Honor in Yad Vashem’s Garden of the Righteous. If the recipient is no longer alive, the awards are given to next-of-kin.
Last month, 67 years after the end of the Holocaust and over 20 years since his death, Yad Vashem granted this honor to Antonin Kalina, a Czech communist who saved over 900 boys in Buchenwald.
In late 1944 through early 1945, as the Red Army pushed the Germans out of eastern Europe, the Nazis began liquidating their death camps, placing Jewish prisoners on brutal “death marches” toward the German hinterland. Countless thousands of Jews died on these brutal marches westward – some from the cold, others starved to death along the way, others were shot when they failed to keep up. Those who survived were put into concentration camps scattered throughout Germany, Buchenwald included.
Buchenwald, a camp established in 1937 to imprison criminals and political opponents of the Nazi regime, swelled to over 100,000 inmates in the final months of the war.
Included in this influx of Jewish prisoners were a large number of boys, many between the ages of 12 and 16. These boys had come from all over Europe and had already undergone unimaginable horrors: ghettoization, transports, brutalizations, privations, starvation and often the loss of their families. By the time they arrived in Buchenwald, they were already hardened veterans of the camps, having learned how to survive under the most inhuman conditions. Upon their arrival at Buchenwald, thanks to Kalina and his deputies, their situation improved dramatically.
Kalina had risen to a position of influence in the underground, which ran the day-to-day operations of the camp on behalf of the Nazi SS. Kalina and his fellow prisoners decided to place the youths in a special barrack, far away from the main part of Buchenwald, deep in the filthy quarantine area where the SS was loathe to go. This barrack, number 66 in the “little camp,” became known as the “kinderblock,” or children’s block. Antonin Kalina was the block elder. In this capacity, he went to extraordinary lengths to ensure the survival of the boys he placed there.
Unlike the other prisoners in Buchenwald, the boys of block 66 did not have to leave their barrack for roll call – instead of assembling with the rest of the camp twice a day no matter the conditions outside, the boys were counted inside. Also, unlike the other prisoners, the boys of 66 did not go to work. Remaining inside the bunk was a tremendous advantage for the boys and a factor that certainly helped keep many of them alive. Conditions within the block were also better than in other parts of the camp – the boys had access to blankets, and at times extra food rations.
Significantly, the block elders didn’t beat the boys, something almost unheard of within the Nazi camp system. Let there be no misunderstanding: despite the relative advantages, this was still a concentration camp full of fear, disease, hunger and death. But Kalina did what he could to mitigate this reality for the boys of Kinderblock 66, often at great personal risk.
As the Allied forces closed in during the war’s frantic final days in early April 1945, the Nazis decided to eradicate Buchenwald’s Jews. The camp’s commanders ordered all Jews to report for assembly; they were to be forced out on more death marches.
Kalina refused to comply with this order. He commanded the boys not to report to the assembly and changed the religion on their badges – the Jewish boys were now listed as Christians – so that when the SS came around looking for Jews, Kalina told them that block 66 had no more.
Thanks to Kalina’s efforts, when the Allies liberated Buchenwald on April 11, 1945, over 900 Jewish boys survived. When they were freed, the boys lifted up Antonin Kalina and carried him on their shoulders.