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Group portrait of child survivors of the Buchenwald concentration camp. The boys are dressed in outfits made from German uniforms due to a clothing shortage. Among those pictured are first row (left to right): Lolek Blum, David Perlmutter, Birenbaum, Joseph Schleifstein, unidentified, and Israel Meir Lau (middle row, far right). Middle row: Nathan Szwarc, Jack Neeman, Berek Silber, Jacques Finkel, unidentified, Marek Milstein, and Salek Finkelsztein. Back row: Elek Grinbaum [or Grinberg], Chaim Finkelstajn [or Charles Finkel], Romek Wekselman [or Wajsman], and Abram Czapnik.
Josef (Janek) Szlajfaztajn (later Joseph Schleifstein) is the son of Izrael and Esther Schleifstein. He was born on March 7, 1941 in Sandomierz, Poland during the German occupation. The family remained in Sandomierz through its existence as a ghetto, from June 1942 through January 1943. After the liquidation of the ghetto the family was moved to Czestochowa, where Israel and Esther were presumably put to work in one of the HASAG factory camps. During this period Joseph was placed in hiding in the area. Israel was sent to work for the Letzium Work Camp in the Radom District working for a firm called Ralnik from October 1942 till September 1943. He worked in Makashin, near Sandomierz, from September till December 1943; in a HASAG ammunition factory in Kielc from December 1943 to approximately November 1944; and for a short time in Czestochowa. In January 1945, when the HASAG camps were closed and their operations transferred to Germany, the Schleifsteins were deported to Germany. Esther was sent to the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp. Izrael and Josef were taken to Buchenwald and arrived on January 20, 1945. Izrael successfully passed the selection process by concealing Josef in a large sack in which he carried his leather-working tools. The child could not remain concealed for long in the camp, but his life was spared, in part because the Germans valued Israel's craftsmanship and in part because they took a liking to the child. The SS guards came to treat Joseph as a camp mascot, and even had him appear at roll calls wearing a child-sized striped uniform. Despite this special treatment, Joseph remembers being lined-up for execution at one point and his father intervening at the last moment to save him. He also remembers being very sick during his imprisonment and living in a hospital for a time. Soon after their liberation in Buchenwald, Israel and Josef were taken to Switzerland for medical treatment. Some months later they were reunited with Esther in Dachau, where they lived until emigrating to the U.S. in 1947.
The Buchenwald children were a group of approximately 1000 Jewish child survivors found by American troops when they liberated the Buchenwald concentration camp on April 11, 1945. Most of the children were originally from Poland, though others came from Hungary, Slovenia and Ruthenia. Unsure of what to do with the child survivors, American army chaplains, Rabbi Herschel Schacter and Rabbi Robert Marcus, contacted the offices of the OSE (Oeuvre de Secours aux Enfants) Jewish children's relief organization in Geneva. They arranged to send 427 of the children to France, 280 to Switzerland and 250 to England. [Vivette Samuels reverses the figures for England and Switzerland in her monograph, "Sauver les Enfants."] On June 2, 1945 OSE representatives arrived in Buchenwald and together with Rabbi Marcus escorted the transport of children to France. Rabbi Schacter accompanied the second transport to Switzerland. Because of the difficulty in finding clothing for the children, the boys were clad in Hitler Youth uniforms. This created a problem, for when the train crossed into France, it was greeted by an angry populace who assumed the train was carrying Nazi youth. Thereafter the words "KZ Buchenwald orphans" were painted on the outside of the train to avoid confusion. On June 6, 1945 the French transport arrived at the Andelys station and the orphans were taken to a children's home in Ecouis (Eure). The home had been set up to accommodate young children, but in fact only 30 of the boys were below the age of 13. This was only one of the many problems faced by the OSE personnel, who were not prepared to handle a large group of demanding, rebellious teenagers who were full of anger for what they had experienced. At Ecouis the boys were given medical care, counseling and schooling until more permanent accommodations could be found. Most of the children remained only four to eight weeks at Ecouis before being moved elsewhere, and the home was closed in August 1945. Among the first to leave were a group of 173 children who had family in Palestine. They were given immigration certificates and departed from Marseilles in July aboard the British vessel, the RMS Mataroa. The remaining boys at Ecouis were soon transferred to other residences and homes. Some of the older ones were sent to the Foyer d'Etudiants located on the rue Rollin in Paris, where they boarded while attending vocational training courses or working at jobs in the city. Others were sent to the Chateau de Boucicaut home in Fontenay-aux-Roses (Hauts-de-Seine). Many of the boys came from religiously observant homes. Since the OSE could not obtain kosher food for everyone, they divided the children into religious and non-religious groups. Dr. Charly Merzbach offered OSE the use of his estate, the Chateau d'Ambloy (Loir-et-Cher) for the summer, and between 90 and 100 boys chose to go there in order to receive kosher food and live in a religious environment. In October 1945 the children and staff of Ambloy were relocated to the Chateau de Vaucelles in Taverny (Val d'Oise). About 50 of the non-religious boys were taken to the Villa Concordiale in Le Vesinet (Yvelines) near Paris that housed an equal number of French Jewish orphans. In the summer they went to the Foyer de Champigny in Champigny-sur-Marne (Val-de-Marne). In all the homes attended by the Buchenwald children vocational training as well as regular classroom instruction was offered. At the same time OSE social workers made every effort to locate surviving relatives, succeeding in about half the cases. By the end of 1948 all of the Buchenwald children who had come to France had left the OSE fold and begun new lives for themselves. [Sources: Hemmendinger, Judith and Krell, Robert. "The Children of Buchenwald." Gefen Publishers, 2000; Grobman, Alex. "Rekindling the Flame." Wayne State University Press, 1993; Hazan, Katy, "Chronologie de l'histoire de l'OSE L'action de l'OSE apres la guerre." (31 December 2002).]
- Buchenwald, [Thuringia] Germany, circa May 1945. United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, courtesy of Joseph Szwarcberg.
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