Child survivors walk out of the children's barracks in the Auschwitz-Birkenau killing centre. Taken from a Soviet film about the liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau. Some of the film’s scenes are unrehearsed, while others are staged. Oświęcim, Poland, 1945. United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, courtesy of Lydia Chagoll.
Jews and other prisoners were forced to live in inhuman conditions, to suffer starvation and disease and to endure brutal treatment from those in charge. The worst of the camps, the killing centres, were designed for mass murder. In the killing centres, most children were sent to their deaths upon arrival. Those the Nazis viewed as strong enough to work were spared, but they were often subjected to hard labour.
It seems impossible to imagine that anyone would be able to learn and study under these conditions. But there were extremely rare instances where Jewish youth and teachers found a way.
Brave and determined, educators in several camps were able to create classroom spaces and libraries, or they taught in secret. Prisoners exchanged stories with each other. Sharing their traditions, knowledge and skills helped them to maintain a sense of their humanity.
The following stories give us a glimpse of some of these rare opportunities for education in the camps.
Arrival in Auschwitz-Birkenau
“Bright lights shone directly into our faces as we stepped off the train. The harsh glare of the light, after being in the dark for so many days, hurt my eyes. As soon as the doors of the train cars were opened, everything became pandemonium. Barking dogs, trained to attack, snarled and jumped at us. My first thought as I exited the train car was: We are going to die here. I saw smoke. Very thick, black smoke. When I was still in Užhorod, the young German soldier had tried to warn me not to get deported to Poland, but I didn’t believe him. I had even heard rumours about gas chambers and crematoria, but I didn’t think it was possible. Until that very moment, I had thought that wherever we ended up, I would be able to take care of my children from the school. I would work somewhere… I would shelter them… I wouldn’t let them be hurt. Instead, we were all heading to our deaths.”
The Czech Family Camp
The Czech family camp was established in 1943 by the Nazis within Auschwitz-Birkenau. Here, they allowed families who had been deported from Theresienstadt to stay together, and several prisoners created a space for children to play and learn within one of the barracks. The family camp was short-lived, however, and by July 1944 most of the camp’s inhabitants were murdered.
“I must say something about the heroes in our midst… Fredy [Hirsch] was somehow able to squeeze a bit of feeling out of the camp Kommandant and arranged for small children to be permitted to spend the cold days indoors. The authorities permitted part of one of the barracks to be opened to children up to age fifteen. Here we could sit on benches in small groups; we could play, read and stay in greater comfort. The older boys and girls, the madrichim (youth leaders), organized little groups, played games with us and told us stories. We played games, exercised a little and sang songs. Someone brought a tennis ball into the camp and we boys divided into teams and played soccer at the very edge of the camp. We children, even then, in the concentration camp, had some spirit left.”
Did you know that?
All of the books that made up the Czech family camp’s library came from belongings that the Nazis had confiscated from prisoners on their arrival in Auschwitz-Birkenau. For “pencils,” children used the ends of wood splinters that had been burnt in a fire.
The Secret School in Buchenwald
David Newman became a teacher again, secretly teaching boys in the barracks of Buchenwald.
Toronto Holocaust Museum.
Learning from Each Other in Auschwitz-Birkenau
“One day I saw him [another prisoner] sitting by the furnace carving some pieces of wood. I went to take a closer look and recognized what he was making – they looked like crude chessmen….
The chess pieces didn’t look that good, but at least he had painted them black and white so I could recognize them. We set it up and we played a game. I didn’t play very well and after about five minutes he told me that I was a lousy player. I replied that I was doing my best and asked him if he would give me a few tips. ‘I’m not a teacher,’ he said, very roughly….But he didn’t have anyone else to play with, so he called me over again a couple of days later. I went back and he set the board up and we started playing again. He grudgingly admitted that I was playing a little bit better.”
An Inspirational Teacher in the Sasel Forced Labour Camp
Henia Reinhartz and a beloved teacher were reunited in the Sasel forced labour camp.
Toronto Holocaust Museum.
Who Were the Educators?
What was the role of educational leaders in the camps and ghettos? Click on “Learn more” to read about the brave educators who risked their lives to to nurture the minds and spirits of Jewish youth during the Holocaust.