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January 10, 2003

Friendship from depths of hell

Boys of Buchenwald shows how survivors made new lives for themselves.

Love and friendship are words not usually associated with the Holocaust and its aftermath. But Paperny Films' The Boys of Buchenwald tells one story in which these ideals are paramount. Produced in association with History Television, the documentary premières this month at the Norman Rothstein Theatre before it airs on television in February.

On April 11, 1945, the Americans liberated inmates at the Buchenwald concentration camp. Some 1,000 children were among the survivors; most of them had lost all of their family. The Organisation secours des enfants (OSE) in France was engaged to help with these orphans. Switzerland accepted 280 boys, 250 went to England and 426 boys made their way to France in June 1945. The Boys of Buchenwald centres on this latter group.

Directed by Audrey Mehler and produced by David Paperny, the documentary is narrated by actor Saul Rubinek. It includes interviews with three survivors – Robbie Waisman, Elie Wiesel and Joe Szwarcberg – and two of their OSE care-givers – Judith Hemmendinger and Gaby "Nini" Cohen, as well as archival film footage and photographs. The result is an interesting and moving portrayal of how the French orphanages managed, in Waisman's words, "to salvage these souls that survived hell."

Waisman, who now lives in Vancouver, is a main focus of The Boys of Buchenwald. The filmmakers capture his emotional return to France in the spring of 2002 with several other of the "boys." He reminisces about his post-war experiences, recounting one instance of them lighting a bed on fire, as a way of releasing some of their pent-up anger and frustration.

"Although we tried to be as normal as we could, the past was constantly nagging at us," said Waisman.

For obvious reasons, the boys distrusted the world and had built a wall around their emotions.

"We had to learn how to cry," said Waisman. "Normal emotions that one has were foreign to us. We laughed, but it was artificial. It didn't come from the heart."

Many of the OSE educators and psycologists had written them off as "enfants terribles" ("terrible children") who were too damaged from their experiences to be saved. However, with the help of such people as Hemmendinger and Cohen, and the friendships that formed between the boys at the homes in France, the Buchenwald survivors were able to restart their lives. They were even able to find love again, with many of the boys harboring crushes on certain staff members and local girls, including Cohen.

After two years in the care of OSE, it was time to move on. The older boys chose a trade and made their own way. Younger boys, like Waisman, were placed with foster families around the world.

Waisman arrived in Halifax at the age of 17 and made his way by train to Calgary, where he was taken in by the Goresht family. In choosing Canada, Waisman said he wanted to get away from Europe, far from any chance of another Holocaust.

"Things in Europe felt so far away, like they were almost nonexistent," said Waisman of his life in Calgary. He lost touch with the other boys, until a reunion in Israel, in 1988, drew him back.

Szwarcberg, meanwhile, went to Australia, along with 40 other boys who have maintained close contact with each other over the years. Wiesel grew to become an acclaimed author, winning the Nobel Peace Prize in 1986.

Now, more than 57 years later, Wiesel says of the boys in Buchenwald, "That friendship is a sense of hope and of strength."

Paperny Films ( is a Vancouver-based company that produces documentaries with an emphasis on history, biography and social issues. Paperny's work includes biography documentaries (writer Mordecai Richler, billionaire Jimmy Pattison, Olympic skier Nancy Greene, Canadian filmmaker Ivan Reitman), history programs (Murder in Normandy, Forced March to Freedom) and social issue documentaries (Star Spangled Canadians). Mehler has directed documentaries for History Television, CTV, Showcase and an award-winning biography of Dr. Henry Morgentaler for the CBC series Life and Times.

The world première screening of The Boys of Buchenwald is being presented by the Vancouver Holocaust Education Centre and Paperny Films on Saturday, Jan. 25, 7:30 p.m., at the Norman Rothstein Theatre. A reception with the filmmakers will follow in the Holocaust Education Centre. Call 604-264-0499 for tickets and information.

The Boys of Buchenwald airs on History Television Thursday, Feb. 6, at 9 p.m.