Antonin Kalina is buried in a simple grave in Prague with his wife and stepson. Not many visitors come by to pay their respects, as he had no known next of kin and few of his generation are alive today. Finding out details about this remarkable man has proven nearly impossible -- he was born in 1902 and was a Communist functionary. When the Nazis took over Czechoslovakia, he was imprisoned in the Buchenwald concentration camp until 1945. After the war he seems to have lived an unexceptional life, and he died in 1990. Were it not for the efforts of a group of Holocaust survivors and scholars, Antonin Kalina's memory would be lost to history. But today, scattered around the world, there are thousands of people who owe their existence to this man.
While in Buchenwald, as the end of the war drew near, Kalina and his comrades in the camp noted the influx of large numbers of boys among the Jews who had begun arriving at the end of 1944 and early 1945. As the Red Army pushed the Germans out of the Soviet Union and Poland, the Nazis forced Jews on "death marches" from the Nazi extermination camps in the east to places like Buchenwald, a camp outside of Weimar, Germany that the Nazis originally built for political prisoners in 1937. Countless thousands of Jews died on these brutal marches westward -- some from the cold, others starved to death along the way, others were shot when they failed to keep up.
Kalina, a political prisoner, had risen to a position of influence in the communist underground, which ran the day-to-day operations of the camp on behalf of the Nazi SS at Buchenwald. When the boys arrived at Buchenwald, Kalina knew that something must be done to protect them -- as a true believer, Kalina saw in the boys the hope for a brighter future. He and his fellow prisoners decided to place the youths in a special barrack, far away from the main part of the camp, deep in the filthy quarantine area where the SS was loath to go. This barrack, number 66 in the "little camp" at Buchenwald, became known as the "kinderblock," or children's block. Antonin Kalina was the block elder. In this capacity, he went to extraordinary lengths to ensure the survival of the boys held there.
Thanks to Kalina's efforts, unlike the other prisoners in Buchenwald, the boys of block 66 did not have to leave their barrack for roll call -- instead of assembling with the rest of the camp twice a day no matter the conditions outside, the boys stayed inside. Also, unlike the other prisoners, the boys of 66 did not go to work. Remaining inside the bunk was a tremendous advantage for the boys and a factor that certainly helped keep many of them alive. Conditions within the block were also better than in other places around the camp -- the boys had access to blankets, and at times extra food rations, and the block elders didn't beat them, something almost unheard of within the Nazi camps. Let there be no misunderstanding: despite the relative advantages, this was still a concentration camp full of fear, disease, hunger and death. But Kalina did what he could to mitigate this reality for the boys of Kinderblock 66, often at great personal risk.
Amazingly, special arrangements were made for the boys to receive lessons -- math, history, Yiddish and other subjects -- and there were even shows that the boys put on for entertainment. Kalina himself was personally responsible for bringing boys to the kinderblock from other blocks in order to reunite them with siblings who were already in 66. He was always quick to cheer up and encourage the boys to persevere, and he developed a special rapport with some of the boys from his native Czechoslovakia. Running this kind of operation within a concentration camp was unheard of; while Kalina had help from other Kinderblock leaders, as the block elder he put himself on the line for the boys. As the war drew to a close Kalina's efforts to protect the children were severely tested; and it was in these final days that Antonin Kalina became a hero.
As the Allied forces grew closer in the war's frantic final days in early April 1945, the Nazis decided to eradicate Buchenwald's Jews. The camp's commanders ordered all Jews to report for assembly; they were to be marched out on more death marches. At great risk to his own life, Kalina refused to comply with this order. He commanded the boys not to report to the assembly and changed the religion on their badges -- the Jewish boys were now listed as Christians -- so that when the SS came around looking for Jews, Kalina told them that block 66 had no more. Thanks to Kalina's efforts, when the Allies liberated Buchenwald on April 11, 1945, over 900 Jewish boys survived. When they were freed, the boys lifted up Antonin Kalina and carried him on their shoulders.
After the war, Kalina returned to his home in Czechoslovakia and lived out the remainder of his life in obscurity. His boys began new lives in Israel, the United States, Australia and Europe; but they always remembered the Czech communist who risked his life in order to save theirs. Over the past few years, the surviving boys, along with the historian Kenneth Waltzer, have initiated a process to have Kalina recognized as Righteous Among the Nations by Yad Vashem. Providing testimonies and bearing witness for perhaps the final time, these survivors have been working to ensure that their rescuer receives the recognition that he deserves. As the decision drew near, exhaustive efforts were made on Kalina's behalf in Israel by former Buchenwald boy and current member of the International Buchenwald Committee, Naftali Furst, and his life partner Tova Wagman.
This month, nearly 70 years after the end of the Holocaust and over 20 years since Antonin Kalina's death, Yad Vashem granted him this honor. While there is no surviving member of the Kalina family to accept the medal that goes along with it, this honor is shared by the surviving boys of block 66, their children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren. May his memory be a blessing for them all.
Follow Brad Rothschild on Twitter: www.twitter.com/@brad4rdr