On My Mind: 'Kinderblock Survivors'

The idea for the film "Kinderblock 66" came during a sudden trip to Buchenwald in 2009.

Holocaust survivors at Auschwitz 370 (photo credit: reuters)
Holocaust survivors at Auschwitz 370
(photo credit: reuters)
Nearly 70 years after the Holocaust, inspirational stories of courage and survival are still emerging. One such episode took place in Buchenwald, where 904 Jewish boys were found alive in an isolated barrack when US soldiers liberated the camp on April 11, 1945. Kinderblock 66, a new film appearing across the US, sheds new light on this story.
The film’s creator, Steve Moskovic, is an award-winning New York filmmaker whose father, Alex, is a Kinderblock survivor.
Moskovic told me he had learned a lot over the years about his father’s experience in the camps, first in Auschwitz-Birkenau.
“He came face to face with Josef Mengele, who selected him for one of his bizarre medical experiments, but was spared when typhus broke out,” says Steve.
After his father retired in 1993, he regularly visited schools near his Florida home to talk about his Holocaust experiences, but not until three years ago did Steve learn about his time in the Buchenwald children’s barrack.
“They are nonchalant,” says Moskovic of his father and other survivors. Indeed, a solemn calmness is evident among those who appear in the film to retell this extraordinary story about the will of youngsters to survive, and the unique circumstances of this concentration camp that allowed for a courageous inmate, Antonin Kalina, a Czech communist, to help protect them.
The idea for the film came during a sudden trip to Buchenwald in 2009. The elder Moskovic, with his son beside him, had traveled to Prague to testify in favor of reparations for survivors. They then decided to go to Buchenwald. It was Steve’s first time, and Alex’s first return after 64 years. They learned from the tour guide about plans to bring as many Kinderblock 66 survivors as possible to the 65th anniversary of the liberation.
Back in the US, Steve conceptualized a film and contacted Rob Cohen, an experienced writer and director with whom he had worked many times before. With the assistance of a Michigan State professor, Kenneth Waltzer, who has done considerable research on child survivors, they found three other Kinderblock survivors – Naftali Furst and Israel-Laszlo Lazar, now living in Israel, and Pavel Kohn in Germany – to be, with Alex, the primary subjects. Also in the film are interviews with other survivors, American liberators and Germans who manage the Buchenwald memorial.
Buchenwald, located only six kilometers from Weimar in central Germany, was originally built as a labor camp, not a death camp, and its prison population was made up predominantly of political dissidents brought from Nazi-occupied European countries to work for German industry.
Communists assumed a leadership role among the prisoners, both serving the Nazis they so despised and, where possible, aiding fellow prisoners. As the camp population grew to as many as 100,000, the Nazi SS increasingly relied on these communist block leaders to keep certain parts of the camp running.
At the end of 1944 and beginning of 1945, more than 1,000 Jewish teenagers, separated at Auschwitz and other death camps from their parents, were gathered in Buchenwald. The Nazi SS placed them in an isolated area, called the Little Camp, far from the main gate.
It was there that Kalina proposed housing the boys in their own overcrowded barrack, which was named Kinderblock 66. Kalina and his comrades became, essentially, guardian angels for these boys.
“Buchenwald was at this point chaotic,” says Cohen, who wrote the script and directed Kinderblock 66. “It was a perfect storm that this could happen at all – hiding 1,000 Jewish boys in plain sight inside a concentration camp.”
Kalina counseled the boys to assert, when asked, that they were at least 16 years old, since the Nazis considered anyone younger unfit to do labor. He collected the yellow stars they had been forced to wear, and arranged for classes in math, and even Yiddish, taught by older Buchenwald prisoners.
When the SS sought out Jews in Buchenwald to send on marches in cold winter to die, Kalina would explain that no Jews were in the children’s barrack. Still, some of the children died from disease, hunger and the harsh conditions of their ordeal.
The film also covers the effort to secure Yad Vashem recognition of Kalina, who died in 1988, as a righteous among the nations. That would be a well-deserved posthumous honor to an individual who defied the Nazis to save nearly 1,000 youths.
These boys had lost their families to the gas chambers and would find out after the liberation just how alone they were.
Indeed, they were very much alone in Buchenwald, and did not know at the time whether this would be the last stop on their horrific journey.
“We are the embers that did not burn in the great fire,” says Naftali Furst.
The writer is the American Jewish Committee’s director of media relations.