Naftali Fürst, born in 1932 in Bratislava (Slovakia), who, as a Jew, was deported to the Buchenwald concentration camp by the Nazis at the age of twelve together with his parents and his brother Shmuel via Auschwitz extermination camp. He now lives in Haifa (Israel) and is Chairman of the Buchenwald Concentration Camp Inmates’ Advisory Board. In 2008, he first published his life story under the title Wie Kohlestücke in den Flammen des Schreckens [Like Pieces of Coal in the Flames of Terror]. Naftali Fürst was scheduled to deliver his speech as part of the commemorative act at the German National Theatre on 5 April 2020.
Corona, Corona, what have you done to us!
We wanted to meet, commemorate, and remember each other; we wanted to be happy. We wanted to say: we are still here, despite Jorge Semprún’s prediction fifteen years ago: “In ten years, there will be no more direct reminders, no first-hand testimonies, no living memories; the experience of that Death will have come to an end.” That was back in 2005 on the occasion of the 60th anniversary of the camp’s liberation. Let's celebrate together that he got it wrong! Unfortunately, on account of the ongoing global epidemic, it is impossible for us to come together.
Although the last surviving inmates were invited to the commemoration this year, not everyone was able to accept the invitation on account of their advanced years and health status.
75 years ago, I was a twelve-year-old boy who was liberated while in the Buchenwald concentration camp. I had come from Auschwitz following a death march and being transported in an open boxcar at twenty-five degrees below freezing. That was 23 January 1945.
I am grateful for my great happiness and I thank all those brave men for liberating 21,000 prisoners who were mere skin and bone, including around 900 children in the camp.
I am often asked how I could survive those three years in the death camps. I even often ask myself the same question. I usually answer: my upbringing at home, a will to survive, and perseverance. And, I can add another reason: I was with my brother Shmuel, who was two years older than me. May his memory be a blessing.
After what we lived through at Auschwitz, Buchenwald meant a major change for us, to put it very cautiously, for the better. Naturally, it is all a matter of proportion. As soon as we stepped into the disinfection chamber and were about to receive dry clothes, the veteran inmates calmed us down and assured us: “This is not Auschwitz.”
We were initially housed in a barracks for adult prisoners for a few days, after which we were brought to Block 66 ––the Children’s Block––in the small camp at the further end of the camp.
Perhaps this is my final opportunity to thank the members of the Buchenwald camp's resistance organization (political prisoners including Communists, French, Germans, Dutch, Jews).
They were determined to save the last surviving children who had survived the camps in Poland and the death marches and who had been transferred to Buchenwald by railway transport in groups or individually.
The Children’s Block was established under the initiative of Jack Werber, Antonin Kalina, and other resistance fighters. Antonin Kalina was the block’s elder; he was posthumously bestowed the honorific title “Righteous Among the Nations" by the Yad Vashem Memorial in Jerusalem for his contribution to the rescue of about 900 Jewish children, including my brother and I.
Those adult inmates responsible for us, including Jindřich Flusser and Gustav Schiller, ensured that a constructive atmosphere flourished in Block 66.
After some months, my health deteriorated to such an extent that I was at the death’s door. On Antonin Kalina’s initiative and with the help of my brother, I was moved to the camp's infirmary with the hope that I might recover. This is my last opportunity to thank that bespectacled Polish inmate lying next to me, whose name I no longer can recall. He took me under his wing and offered me hope and strength to keep fighting for my life. To my amazement, after a few days I was moved to the camp’s brothel along with other sick people. I was astounded at how luxurious it was and how beautiful and well-groomed the women were.
I hadn't laid eyes on such beauties in years. I felt as though I had entered the Garden of Eden. I was hugged, I was heartily encouraged, and I was medically examined in a professional way. I got better food, even chocolate !!!
I take this opportunity to thank those wonderful women who were also camp inmates and who were forced to work in that place. They devoted themselves to my recovery and ultimately saved my life. May their memory be a blessing. I was liberated while I was still in the camp’s brothel. That was on 11 April 1945 toward midday. Gunshots and cheers were to be heard on the parade ground. Prisoners left their barracks and chased the SS agents out of the camp.
The Buchenwald concentration camp was liberated by the prisoners themselves, members of the ardent resistance organization that had existed there since 1937, in fact ever since the camp had been established. The Allies, GIs from Patton’s Third Army, reached Buchenwald and officially liberated the concentration camp at 15.15.
In 2005, sixty years later, I returned for the first time to Germany and to the Buchenwald camp. It was an over-powering experience. I had intensely mixed feelings. Grief mingled with joy that I had been fortunate enough to survive. I met friends, former prisoners. I got to know the large and committed team who have been working at the memorial site with great care, knowledge, and dedication. Given that contact with former prisoners is so vital to them, we have been getting together on the anniversary of the camp’s liberation on an annual basis. Their remit is to collect and archive historical documents and artefacts from the camp’s past.
The memorial management staff concern have been devoted to the conservation and the transfer of knowledge about all that unfolded in Buchenwald and its sub-camps between 1937 and 1945. The ultimate objective is to preserve the memory of what happened and not let it be forgotten. Indeed, delegations from memorial sites from all over the world, as well as students and individual visitors have been coming to the site.
Finally, I would like to thank all the Buchenwald staff members, beginning with the management team Prof. Volkhard Knigge, Rikola-Gunnar Lüttgenau, and Dr. Philipp Neumann-Thein, the historians, the educators, the archive staff, the restorers, all those who have worked at the memorial site in the past and those who continue to do so today, who give of their time and energy for this noble objective.
Many thanks to the International Buchenwald Committe who represent us and bring us together.
A special word of thanks to the Thuringian state government, which has supported the commemorative work in the former Buchenwald concentration camp in every respect and continues to do so.
I would also like to take this opportunity to personally congratulate Minister President Bodo Ramelow on his successful re-election.
Your success is our success.
Naftali Fürst, Haifa
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