Moshe and his best friend Shani Itzcovitz 2020
In January 1945, with the evacuation of the Auschwitz camps, several hundred children and adolescents aged six to sixteen arrived in Buchenwald.
I was among them.
We got off the train. It was noon.
Only those who could stand could get out of the caravan. Some had no strength left and remained sitting on the train, amid the piles of the dead. Out of approximately one hundred people who boarded the car – only a few survived.
We had no idea what the place was. We encountered veteran prisoners in uniforms similar to ours, and armed SS soldiers. The main concern of any move to a new place was the fear they were going to gas us, using the same methods we knew from Auschwitz.
We advanced on foot towards the camp, which was surrounded by high barbed wire fences.
An inscription in German stood out on the entrance gate – “JEDEM DAS SEINE”: “Every man to his own fate.”
These words cynically and frighteningly reflected what was going on inside the gates, not only in Buchenwald but also in all the camps.
Our former lives, before we were expelled from our homes, had taught us mutual support, concern for others, and acceding to another. We had a vision of the interrelationship among human beings, and the strength of community and togetherness. We grew up on the precepts of the Torah, and the concept that all Israel are as one, intertwined with each other.
Some of us lost the battle to maintain this tradition. For many of the camp inmates the rules of love for others and mutual concern had disappeared as useless baggage. Here the rules were different. The Holocaust taught us that indeed, each man has his own destiny.
Moshe, his parents and brother Arnold
This sentence reflected the new worldview we had to develop which meant, among other things, a certain indifference towards the suffering of others and a focus solely on our capacity to survive. It may sound cruel but it was merely an intuitive numbness we adopted in our struggle to stay alive and sane.
In the camps, every slice of bread, every tablespoon of soup meant a better chance of enduring.
Many of those around us, who had believed in friendship and mutual support in our previous lives, now stole from each other, without feeling guilt or pangs of conscience. I ate my portion of bread in small pieces, and kept the leftover bits under my head while I slept. Shani still tearfully remembers when a portion of bread was stolen from him.
Part of the loss of our humanity was also a loss of values. The Germans had managed to get many of us to act like animals and not as human beings in the struggle for survival.
Yet, even within this world of shattered values, there were also many instances of mutual concern, sacrifice, and giving up for the sake of the other.
Arnold and Moshe
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We advanced into the camp. The SS soldiers hurried us along with curses and beatings.
We stopped at the parade square, which was at the centre of every Nazi camp. We lined up in fives and they told us to throw all our personal belongings on a pile in the middle of the field. The Germans burned all the meagre belongings of the “new” prisoners to attempt to prevent the transmission of disease.
They led us to a huge room and ordered us to strip naked. We threw our clothes into a pile and they took them away. They told us that we had to take a shower and go through a disinfection process, as part of the camp absorption process.
We moved to the shower hall, again in silence. We stood naked and waited. We knew that there was a chance that these were our final moments.
Frozen jets of water burst from the taps. We did not feel the cold, only the relief that washed over our bodies. Despite the uncertainty of what was to come, we felt happy.
Limor and Moshe
We later learned that a crematorium had been set up in the camp to incinerate the dead, but there was no active mass gassing. The harsh conditions in Buchenwald took care of assuring that tens of thousands of prisoners in Buchenwald would die of exhaustion or disease during the war. The crematorium operated non-stop 24 hours a day.
After showers and disinfection in a chlorine bath, veteran prisoners shaved us from head to toe. They worked in silence and carried out the task mechanically. None of them looked at us or spoke to us. Afterwards, we were sent to the quarantine block for an interim period. The Germans wanted to be certain we had not brought any diseases with us and we were forbidden to go anywhere for about a week.
We ran naked in the iciness of January from the showers to the quarantine block, where new prisoners’ uniforms awaited us, identical in design to those we wore in Buna, including the wooden shoes. The difference was in the numbering method, which was different from that used in Auschwitz.
They gave each of us a new number, which was sewn onto the striped shirt we wore.
From now on, I am prisoner 121207.
- The Boy from Block 66 was published by Ad Lib on January 4, 2024 (paperback £9.99) and is available to buy here