“We have found approximately one thousand Jewish children in Buchenwald. Please organize evacuation without delay."
This chilling message was dispatched by a US Army commander to the offices of the OSE Child Aid Society in Geneva during the liberation of Buchenwald in April 1945.
The troops arriving at the infamous German concentration camp could barely comprehend the images their eyes saw. Mangled corpses and living skeletons intermixed and indistinguishable from one another; beaten and starving men, women and children on the brink of their demise; a center of despair, death and disease. Most surprisingly – among the 4,000 surviving prisoners were more than 900 children, who had miraculously remained alive against all odds, thanks to an exceptional resistance organization in the camp.
It took nearly two months for decisions and preparations to be made regarding these young survivors, but on 6 June 1945, a group of 426 mostly orphaned youth – nicknamed the "Buchenwald Boys" – arrived at an OSE home in Écouis, in the Eure region of France.
The stories of some of these children are revealed in Yad Vashem's new and moving online exhibition entitled "My Lost Childhood," which was uploaded to Yad Vashem's website to mark International Holocaust Remembrance Day – 27 January 2021.
This online exhibition displays eyewitness testimony, artifacts, documents and photographs from Yad Vashem's collections to tell the personal stories of the "Buchenwald Boys" and other child survivors of the Holocaust.
In Écouis, the surviving children of Buchenwald had finally left the concentration camp universe, but still confronted the demons of deprivation and loss. The challenges facing the staff were immense: What was the best way to rehabilitate these young people, who had survived and returned from a living hell? How could they be taught to rebuild their lives?
At first, there were basic communication struggles, stemming from different languages, cultures, origins and experiences. It was particularly difficult for the educational team of the OSE to understand these children, many of whom appeared physically older than their biological age, having suffered and survived the unspeakable horrors of the Shoah. As the Nobel Prize Laureate Prof. Elie Wiesel, one of the children of Écouis, wrote:
"We felt that we were stronger than you. … Uprooted, underprivileged, we had faith only in death. … Immured in the solitude of a destroyed childhood – robbed, humiliated – we wished to remain aloof. Each time a representative of the outside world tried to approach us, we withdrew further."
Eventually, they learned to trust again and relationships developed. Fundamental values that were lost during the Shoah were re-learned, and enjoyment, love and a sense of belonging restored. Following a visit of another Auschwitz survivor, one boy remarked:
"He restored our souls. He breathed life into the feelings that still simmered within us."
Also among the children survivors of Écouis was an eight-year-old boy nicknamed Lolek, and his older brother Naftali. The two boys hailed from a rabbinic dynasty, and Lolek later grew up to become the Chief Rabbi of the State of Israel. Lolek – now Rabbi Israel Meir Lau – currently serves as Chairman of the Yad Vashem Council.
Écouis was thus an indispensable transitional stop along the path towards rehabilitation and continuity for hundreds of child survivors of Buchenwald. More than half of the children of Écouis immigrated to Eretz Israel, while others found their new homes in the United States.
"My Lost Childhood" is not only the geographical journey of child survivors from Buchenwald to Normandy and beyond, but rather, and above all, a story of human resilience and triumph over despair and tragedy.