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The Children of Buchenwald

by Judith Hemmendinger and Robert Krell

On April 11, 1945, American Soldiers were astonished to find one thousand children in Buchenwald's Barrack 66. All of them survivors of the death march from Auschwitz and orphaned. Within two months, those children were admitted to France, Switzerland, and England. Four hundred twenty-six children were brought to France. Approximately ninety were placed in a home near Paris where Judith Hemmendinger was in charge from 1945-1947, until it was shut down.

This is the story of their lives in the camps, after liberation, their distrust and aggressiveness during the early days, and later the bonds of affection that helped them regain confidence in humanity. Twenty years later, some of them had become noted personalities. Most had started families and integrated into society.

While the majority of the survivors kept silent, thirty-one of the Buchenwald children offered their life stories. The book is comprised largely of their personal accounts with additional commentary by the authors. These young men's struggle with loss and bereavement and their heroic efforts and resilience to recapture a normal life are inspiring.

This book was published by Gefen, Jerusalem, NY, 2000. Judith Hemmendinger was the director of home at Amboy and at Taverny. She took care of many young survivors among them some who later became famous like Elie Wiesel, the Israeli Chief Rabbi Israel Lau and his brother the journalist-diplomat Naphtali Lavi and Robert Krell, a child survivor of the Holocaust and today a child psychiatrist.

This book originally was written by Judith Hemmendinger who decided to do a follow-up on the fate and life of those children whom she supervised in France from 1945-1947. They had also many reunions. In 1984, Wiesel wrote the Forward to this book, a unique memoir. The following is the Forward: "I read your book, and I remember. I see us back in 1945. Ecouis, Ambloy, Taverny. The dumbfounded instructors, the disoriented children. Did you know that to us, you belonged to another universe? Everything separated us: the language, the physical circumstances, and above all, the memories.

Did you know Judith, that we pitied you? We felt sorry for you. I hope you are not angry that I speak so openly. You thought you could educate us, and yet the younger of us knew more than the oldest amongst you, about what existed in the world, of the futility of life, the brutal triumph of death. We were not impressed with your age, or your authority. We observed you with amusement and mistrust. We felt ourselves stronger than you.

How did you succeed, Judith, to tame us? How did Niny, the beautiful, young, dedicated teacher, put up with us? I think often about what we went through together and then I feel embarrassed. It must have been so difficult for you to find for all of us a path and a possibility for understanding each other.

I often dream of the months, the years I spent in the children's homes of the OSE. The first Shabbat meals, the walks, the campfires, the songs, the gatherings. I will never forget the festival days at Ambloy, reciting Kaddish together, the fast of Yom Kippur, the joy of Simchat Torah, a forced joy at first but later genuine.

You recall it all so well, Judith. The departure of the children, the trains, the dreams, the nightmares. It was a remarkable community, in constant ferment. We were all possessed with the same longing, namely to succeed. Moishe-Ber, Menashe, Kalman, Binem and the children of Glick. Someday I shall also try to relate, in my own way, the stories that link us to yours.

Do you still remember Shushani? The lessons of the Talmud, the heated debates? Should we adapt to modern life or not? Should we go to the Holy Land or to an uncle in Brooklyn? I still recall my first report, "The Ghetto - Danger or Temptation," which I delivered in Yiddish. Andr´┐Ż Bodner advised me: "The structure, keep in mind the structure." The choral group, I also remember the choir very well. Shy as I was, I had to feign anger in order to maintain control. Every recital caused me sleepless nights. I lacked confidence and authority. I could not turn away any boy or girl even if they sang badly. Moreover, I could not look a choir girl in the eye; they all looked so pretty and inaccessible. I realized I must have appeared stupid indeed.

Now I understand that you also, the leaders, had obstacles to surmount and problems to solve. It could not have been easy to educate a group of children like us, with our peculiarities and obsessions. Nor did you have guidelines.

In reality it came down to a challenge of you against us. It was understandable that it might fail. How would we find common ground? Emerging from darkness we could not rid ourselves of it. Nor did we want to. Uprooted, underprivileged, we longed to remain faithful to the dead. In that time, the survivors had nothing to say to the living. The victory over the Germany of Hitler and his accomplices was celebrated in Europe and the rest of the world, without us.

Locked into the solitude of a mutilated, violated childhood, we longed to be let alone. When a representative of the outside world attempted to reach us, we withdrew further. We refused to cooperate with you. We did not want your help, your understanding, your psychosocial investigations, or your charity. You entered our lives too soon; we were still in mourning.

Reasonably, Judith, we were doomed to live cloistered lives on the other side of the wall. And yet we succeeded in a short time to find ourselves on the same side. To whom can we attribute the miracle? How can one explain it? To our belief? To yours?

The fact is that all the children could have chosen violence or nihilism but you succeeded to direct us toward confidence and reconciliation. You supported and encouraged us to choose a stake in the future and community. Your book demonstrates this. Their successes have justified your gamble. You bet on us to recover. I love how you talk of their family life, the wife of one, the children of another. I have kept in touch with a few. We often recall our time in Ambloy and Taverny. We speak of you, of Niny and of other leaders. In my travels, when I meet someone from the homes, I take them aside and talk.

I am happy that you wrote this book, Judith. It is serious and disconcerting. Occasionally it also made me laugh. Judith, do you realize how much you meant to our existence?"

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