Alive! A la Vie!: Exhibition honors Buchenwalds young survivors and those who saved them

Gen. George Patton and the U.S. Army encountered endless horrors while liberating Nazi concentration camps in April 1945. In Buchenwald, they encountered a miracle.

Among the camp’s survivors, hundreds of Jewish boys from across Europe made it through the last months of the war relatively unscathed, thanks to the protection of adult prisoners. After liberation, the French Jewish agency OSE took charge, rehabilitating the children, reuniting many with their families and finding them permanent refuge.

Israel Meir Lau went on to become Ashkenazi chief rabbi of Israel photos/ose/cdjc mémorial de la shoah

To honor the boys of Buchenwald, Berkeley’s Lehrhaus Judaica and the San Francisco Public Library will present a photo exhibition that tells their story, “Alive! A la Vie!” The exhibit covers placid prewar Europe, through the harrowing Holocaust years, to the boys’ ultimate survival and triumph.

Previously on display in Paris and Jerusalem, the exhibit opens Saturday, Jan. 10 in the library’s Skylight Gallery and will also feature a series of related lectures and performances. The exhibition and all related programs are free.

On display will be a series of photo panels showing the families of the boys before the war and, most remarkably, after the war, when Buchenwald transformed from concentration camp to a place of liberation. It was there that the boys of Buchenwald, with the help of Allied forces and Oeuvre de Secours aux Enfant (OSE), got a new lease on life.

There will be several lectures in conjunction with the exhibit. Local speakers include Berkeley’s Graduate Theological Union Jewish studies professor Naomi Seidman and S.F.-based Jewish Family and Children’s Services education services coordinator Yedida Kanfer, who will introduce the screening of the 2002 documentary “The Boys of Buchenwald.”

The opening program will feature Murray Baumgarten, a U.C. Santa Cruz English professor and co-director of the university’s Jewish studies program. In his talk on Sunday, Jan. 11, he will focus on Nobel laureate Elie Wiesel, who was 16 when liberated from Buchenwald. In addition, actor-playwright Charlie Varon will do a reading from Wiesel’s lauded memoir, “Night.”

Baumgarten teaches classes on the Holocaust at U.C. Santa Cruz, but preparing for his “Alive! A la Vie!” lecture, he was struck once again by the heroism of the boys and their saviors.

A few days after liberation of Buchenwald

How did they pull it off? Though tens of thousands died there, Buchenwald was not built to be a death camp in the style of Auschwitz-Birkenau and Treblinka. It was more of a slave-labor factory.

“[It] was one of the original camps,” Baumgarten said of Buchenwald, which was constructed in 1937 to house mostly political prisoners. “The Communist [inmates] were so organized, they even collected weapons. As the Nazi system crumbled, the Communists killed the remaining guards and took over the camp before Patton showed up.”

One of those Communists was Czech native Antonin Kalina. Together with other leaders, he had made sure the boys of Buchenwald — traumatized by loss of family and by time spent in ghettos and death camps — had food, shelter and love. The Children’s Block included no girls, as boys were thought to make better slave laborers.

Kalina has been recognized as a Righteous Gentile and was memorialized by a tree planted in his name at Yad Vashem.

In June 1945, OSE moved 436 boys from Buchenwald to Ecouis, a French transit camp. There they spent months attending school and making attempts to find surviving family members.

Elie Wiesel

Within several weeks many were sent in smaller groups to various locales around France. Others chose to immigrate to Palestine, among them Israel Meir Lau, the future Ashkenazi chief rabbi of Israel.

By the time they left for Israel, the United States and other parts of France and Europe, the boys were healthy, strong and eager to get on with life. Though scattered around the world, survivors stayed in touch and held frequent reunions.

Since 1967, French survivors gather every April 11, the date of the camp’s liberation.

As a professor of English, Baumgarten has a special affinity for the literature that came out of the Holocaust, including Wiesel’s searing “Night.” But he readily concedes the Holocaust is a subject that encompasses so much more, as the story of the boys of Buchenwald attests.

“The whole point of the camp was to turn you into someone who turned against everyone else, the Hobbsian war of all against all,” Baumgarten says of Buchenwald.

“But we have those who helped others, especially the boys. They are key. They met each other, took care of each other, bonded with each other, and helped each other.”


Lectures, readings and film augment photo exhibit

A series of programs will accompany the exhibition “Alive! A la Vie!” at the San Francisco Public Library.

A child shares his drawing with fellow Buchenwald survivors.

Professor Murray Baumgarten of U.C. Santa Cruz will present the opening program, “Wiesel’s Buchenwald and Wiesel’s Night,” at 2 p.m. Sunday, Jan. 11. Baumgarten will provide a historical review of Buchenwald, and discuss Elie Wiesel’s best-selling memoir “Night” in the formation of the Holocaust narrative. In addition, San Francisco actor Charlie Varon will perform a dramatic reading of Elie Wiesel’s letter to the authors of “The Children of Buchenwald” and a selection from “Night.”

Yedida Kanfer of S.F.-based Jewish Family and Children’s Services will introduce the documentary film “The Boys of Buchenwald,” which screens following her 6 p.m. Jan. 27 talk. The film explores the adult lives of child survivors of Buchenwald. 

Jewish studies professor Naomi Seidman of Berkeley’s Graduate Theological Union will give a lecture titled “The Holocaust in Every Tongue: Which Night Is Right: Yiddish, French or English and the Politics of Translation” at 6 p.m. Feb. 12. She will explore the role of literary translation in Holocaust discourse, in particular the role translation played in “Night.” (Wiesel’s first version was in Yiddish before he rewrote it in French, and it was translated into English for publication in the United States in 1960.)

“Alive! A la Vie!” runs from Saturday, Jan. 10 to March 15 in partnership with Lehrhaus Judaica and JFCS’ Holocaust Center. All events are free and take place in the library’s Skylight Gallery, 100 Larkin St., S.F. Find information at

Dan Pine

Dan Pine is a contributing editor at J. He was a longtime staff writer at J. and retired as news editor in 2020.