Wednesday, April 30, 2014

He risked his life - but saved 900 others

Antonin Kalina was born in Trebic in Czechoslovakia. When he grew up, he became an official in the Communist Party. When the Germans overran the country, he was sent to Buchenwald. During the war he rose to a position of influence among prisoners who looked after the day-to-day running of the camp for the SS.

In the final months of the war, as the Germans retreated from the Russians, thousands of prisoners took part in brutal "death marches" towards Germany. Thousands died, from cold, hunger or exhaustion, or shot because they couldn't keep up.

Some of those who survived reached Buchenwald. Among them were a considerable number of boys, from 12 to 16 years old. Kalina housed the boys in Block 66, far away from the main part of Buchenwald in the filthy quarantine area where the SS guards were loathe to go.

The boys of Block 66 did not have to turn out in the desperate cold for roll call. They were counted indoors. They did not go to work. They had blankets and sometimes extra food. Conditions were harsh, but Kalina saw that the boys weren't beaten, something almost unheard of in the camp system.

In early April 1945, the Nazis decided to eradicate Buchenwald's Jews. They ordered the Jews to report for assembly.

Kalina ordered the boys not to go. He changed the religion on their badges from Jew to Christian. When the SS came looking for Jews, he told them there were none left. When the Allies liberated Buchenwald, 900 Jewish boys were still alive.

After the war, Kalina returned to Czechoslovakia and lived in obscurity. For years, the boys didn't talk about their experiences, but on the 65th anniversary of the liberation, four of them went back to Buchenwald, and sought to have Kalina's efforts recognised.

A film, Kinderblock 66, was made. After a showing to a full house at the Jerusalem Film Festival, Irena Steinfeldt, of Yad Vashem, announced that Kalina had been included in the Righteous Among the Nations.

Unfortunately, Kalina wasn't there. He died in 1990 - and he had no surviving family to collect the award. But he had the knowledge that he had saved 900 Jewish lives.

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