Elie Buzyn: Survivor, physician and father of France's health minister

What is resilience? It is proportional to the amount of love you have received when you’re a boy between 11 and 16 years old.

Elie Buzyn, who survived Auschwitz, is the father of France’s Health Minister Agnes Buzyn (photo credit: TRIBUNE JUIVE)
Elie Buzyn, who survived Auschwitz, is the father of France’s Health Minister Agnes Buzyn
(photo credit: TRIBUNE JUIVE)
LOLEK (ELIE) Buzyn was born in Lodz in 1929. He had a brother and a sister who were 11 and five years older than himself, respectively. He came from a religious and well-off family. Buzyn’s grandfather, Henoch Perel, was a member of the Gur Hasidic court, a man whose looks reflected wisdom. When observing the photo of his grandfather that Buzyn treasures, one cannot but be struck by the close resemblance between them. Buzyn’s father was an entrepreneur and his mother was very active in philanthropic institutions. His brother Avram, who was 20 years old in 1938, had decided to settle in Palestine, but his father persuaded him not to leave the family.
Buzyn recalls that in December 1939, three months after the occupation of Poland, the Nazis created a labor camp in the shabbiest quarter of the town of Lodz. In 1940, the ghetto was sealed off while the Nazis acted with terror and violence. Elie was then 11 years old. On the evening of March 7, a Nazi officer randomly picked out three young men for death to display the power of the German forces and to deter any attempt to resist them.
The gunning down of Avram in front of his family was to haunt Elie’s memories.
His mother’s hair turned white in one day, at the age of 41. Her husband remained prostrate with guilt. Buzyn’s sister, then aged 16, became an epileptic. Elie rapidly understood that they were incapable of any work. He resolved to support the family in the ghetto, where children worked from the age of ten.
In January 1942, Elie secretly celebrated his bar mitzvah. Some 55,000 people had been deported. It was then that his mother implored him to survive and rejoin her two brothers in Paris. In the autumn of that year, ten thousand children under ten were sent to their death at Chelmo. Elie, his parents, and his sister managed to live for two years in hiding in the ghetto, until the summer of 1944. Then, with the advance of the Soviet forces, the Nazis liquidated the ghetto under the pretense that they were sending its population to “a better camp.” That was their means of deterring any rebellion.
For three days, they traveled in sealed cattle cars to the Auschwitz-Birkenau labor and extermination camp without food, water, or hygienic conditions. Forever separated from their parents, Elie and his sister, together with some 130 of the 1,450 people in the convoy, were selected for work. Aged fifteen, Elie pretended he was two years older, but when he heard that his parents had been immediately gassed, he regretted having lied. The tattooed number, B-7572, on his left forearm meant that he was good enough for work. He strove to do the tasks he was given in Auschwitz and later in the Babitz labor force, 20 kilometers away.
This was an enormous agricultural farm where the exhausting work led those who directed it to increase the meager rations of the forced laborers. After four months, as the Soviet armies were approaching, the order was given to evacuate Auschwitz.
January 18, 1945 was a bitterly cold day.
The deportees were formed into five columns, harshly escorted by soldiers of the SS on their horses. During the “Death March,” anyone showing a sign of weakness was immediately shot in the neck. Later, two open snow-filled cattle cars heading towards Buchenwald took between 120 and 140 exhausted people. Elie’s toes were frozen.
Sent to the “Revier,” the camp “hospital,” he was told that amputation was necessary to avoid gangrene, but refused to accept the diagnosis. Back in his block, a wise inmate advised him to alternatively dip his feet in cold and warm water. This piece of advice saved him from amputation.
With the massive evacuation of Auschwitz and other camps in Poland, the internal organization of the camp inmates, which included resistance fighters, extracted him from the “small camp” populated mainly by Jews awaiting their death, collapsing from exhaustion, starvation, and diseases.
Elie was fortunate enough to be brought to Block 8 of the “big camp,” where political prisoners were detained.
WITH THE arrival of American forces on April 11, 1945, the camp was liberated.
About 1,000 very young detainees had survived but were deprived of everything.
In June, Elie found himself among the so-called Buchenwald children. A few weeks later, finally fulfilling his mother’s wish, he found his maternal uncle, Dr. Leon Perel, in Paris. Within a few months he learned to speak French, but did not feel like staying in the country. For Elie, Europe remained a cemetery covered with the ashes of his family, and France loomed as a country that had collaborated with the Nazis. Members of his paternal and maternal families had also been deported from France.
Elie stayed in OSE homes, including that in Ecouis where he met young Izio Rosenman.
In October 1947, he decided to leave for the Jewish homeland in Palestine with a British passport. As an 18-year-old young man, he embarked for Palestine without his uncle’s approval, sensing, as he confessed, that he had to do it at least for his brother who had been assassinated by the Nazis. He felt he had to live up to his brother’s dream of a Jewish homeland.
He fought in Israel’s War of Independence and then contributed to the building of the country by working in a number of kibbutzim. He cultivated vegetables in the summer and worked in construction (as a carpenter) in the winter. He remained in Israel for seven years, speaking fluent Hebrew.
But he realized that it was not easy to be a student in Israel, a fledgling country, which had to fight for its survival, surrounded by enemies. He had no family to support him in the Jewish state. He knew then that he longed to be a doctor, but who would pay for his medical studies? At the time, kibbutzim could only extend financial help to those who chose to study agriculture.
So Elie had no other solution but to return to France. In 1954, he resolved to do so with an Israeli passport.
His uncle was overjoyed. Buzyn was then 25 years old and had not attended school since the age of ten. In order to study medicine, he needed to at least sit for the baccalauréat, the French high school diploma.
How was he going to pay for his studies? Having learned how to be independent, he did not wish to be supported by his uncle and found a job in Collège Bénichou, a boarding school in the city of Oran, Algeria, a French colony until 1962. In the framework of that boarding school he was authorized to attend the classes of the tenth and eleventh grades.
In 1956, he passed his baccalauréat and returned to France to begin medical studies.
He was ten years older than his fellow students. Since he did not like to answer questions about his deportation, he had his tattooed number surgically removed and preciously kept the piece of skin, which had become a part of his identity.
After difficult, competitive medical studies to become an intern in surgery, he defended his thesis with honors. Specializing in general surgery, he then continued post-graduate studies in orthopedic surgery.
Why surgery? Why orthopedics? When questioned years later, he admitted that this decision was linked to his inclination to see speedy results. It also had to do with the wrong recommendation in Buchenwald to amputate all his toes. In his work as an orthopedic surgeon in the psychiatric department of the Parisian Cochin Hospital in Villejuif, he resorted to his experiences in the concentration camps. He felt that they led him to be tolerant toward members of the Jehovah Witnesses. For instance, he respected their wish not to receive a blood transfusion before a surgical procedure.
At this point in our interview, Buzyn reveals that he was saved in Auschwitz (once he had been sent to the hospital) by a young German who was a Jehovah’s Witness and had been interned in the camp because he refused to be drafted into the German army.
Another consequence of the Holocaust on the practice of his profession was that he could not bear the suffering of older people in the surgery department and would do anything to alleviate their pain. They reminded him of his parents, who died without his being able to do anything to help them.
While an intern, he married Etty, who became a prominent psychoanalyst and an author. Her understanding and love enabled Buzyn to reconstruct his emotional life. For him, the best response to the Nazis remains their three children and six grandchildren.
That, he maintains, is his “real success.”
Elie proudly adds that although he is not a religious Jew, he brought his children to the Reform Copernic Synagogue in Paris to enable them to have a bar mitzvah and a bat mitzvah, thus giving positive content to their Jewish identities. Furthermore, his children have a strong emotional link with Israel, as do their parents. His daughter, Agnès Buzyn, a famous hematologist, was appointed France’s health minister in May 2017. Going beyond one’s limits is a shared attitude which runs in the family, while stemming from Elie’s own experience and yearning for tikkun olam – repairing the world.
In his Paris apartment, I ask him from whence he drew the strength to overcome his trauma. He replies without hesitation: “The relationships with my family in the years until my internment were crucial; thanks to them I felt armed for life. I survived because of all the support I had received in the early years of my development as a youth. What is resilience? It is proportional to the amount of love you have received when you’re a boy between 11 and 16 years old.”
In 1995, Elie Buzyn retired from the surgical profession but accepted humanitarian missions such as being a volunteer surgeon in Africa, particularly in Mauritania and Cameroun. Three years later he became aware of his need to transmit the memory of the persecution of the Jews and began lecturing in junior high and high schools. He also began accompanying groups to Auschwitz.
Buzyn later played a role in the Amicale des Anciens society, comprised of the veterans of OSE, and was active in its social affairs. Simultaneously, and shortly before turning fifty, he began training for the seven marathons he was to run. He participated in the London, New York, Paris, and Jerusalem marathons, and was chosen to bear the Olympic torch at the Winter Olympic Games in Turin in 2006. Running helped him cope with his past.
Above all, Buzyn feels today that he has lived up to his mother’s injunction: to live and enable others to live. This applies not only to his own children and grandchildren but also to all the patients he has saved through the surgical operations he performed both in France and in Africa. His grandfather who, as noted, was a Gur Hasid, would certainly have felt that his grandson, Elie, had performed tikkun olam in the field of action he had chosen.
In 1956, when he had placed the removed tattooed skin in his wallet for safekeeping, it was with the thought of transmitting a fragment of his past identity to his children.
They would thus remember not only that their father had been incarcerated in a camp, but also that the day he was tattooed in Auschwitz, like an animal, was also the last day of the lives of his parents – their grandparents.
When the wallet containing his tattooed number, which he had in his jacket, was stolen in a gym, Elie sank into deep depression.
The evidence of his having been interned in a concentration camp had vanished. Completely shattered and emotionally exhausted, he began pondering what to do and came up with the foolish idea (in his own words) of having the number tattooed again and removed again, ready to be given to his children as a legacy! Today, he has a photo of his skin with the tattooed number, but is that enough? His questioning is relentless, especially nowadays, as the desire to eradicate the State of Israel is official policy in countries such as Iran.
There is not a single day when Elie Buzyn does not send e-mails to his contacts and friends to combat misinformation about Israel, a country for which he had been ready to lay down his life in the War of Independence.
Not being an observant Jew in spite of his very Orthodox background, Buzyn’s Jewish identity is strongly linked to Israel and its security. On October 6, 1973, Israel was attacked by surprise on the holy day of Yom Kippur, while most of the population was fasting. The next day, Buzyn went to the Israeli Embassy in Paris to volunteer as a surgeon. He was not sent to Israel, but was told he would be called if necessary.
In November 2013, at the age of 84, his involvement in the transmission of the memory of the Holocaust assumed the form of a collective journey to the sites of the concentration camps in Poland together with a heterogeneous group of intellectuals, students, high-ranking military personnel, and a French Jewish chaplain who later became chief rabbi of France, Haim Korsia.
On that memorable trip, Buzyn was accompanied by a 15-year-old grandson – his own age when he had been incarcerated in Auschwitz. My four-hour interview in Paris, supplemented by two additional interviews by telephone, had given me a glimpse into his life path and of the impact of his Holocaust experiences on his choice of the "healing profession" that his daughter now pursues.
Dr. Françoise S. Ouzan is Senior Research Associate at The Goldstein-Goren Diaspora Research Center at Tel Aviv University. She has just published a new book, titled ‘How Young Holocaust Survivors Rebuilt their Lives: France, the United States, and Israel’ (Indiana University Press, 2018)