Q & A with Winegarden Visiting Professor Kenneth Waltzer, Ph.D.
Kenneth Waltzer, Ph.D. is an American historian at James Madison College of Michigan State University and the 2011-12 Myron and Margaret Winegarden Visiting Professor at UM-Flint.
Waltzer is an internationally known historian of the Holocaust, focusing on American and American Jewish responses to the destruction of European Jewry, on rescue in Europe, and on the experiences of children and youths in the concentration camps.
Waltzer has also been a key consultant on the documentary film Kinderblock 66: Return to Buchenwald, about four boys returning to the Buchenwald concentration camp as grown men. The premiere of the film at UM-Flint on April 25th will be Waltzer’s final presenation as this academic year’s Winegarden Visiting Professor.
Pillars contributor Jennifer Hogan took the opportunity to ask Professor Waltzer about the film, his ongoing research, and his time here at UM-Flint.
Q: How did you first discover the existence of Kinderblock 66?
A: I began researching the question how was it, when armored divisions of the U.S. Third Army arrived at Buchenwald, there were 1,000 boys among the 21,000 surviving prisoners who were still alive to be liberated. To the Nazis, youths 16 and under were “useless eaters.” What could explain why there was a concentration of youths here in Buchenwald. Early on, it became apparent that many of those who survived had been clustered in block 66, a large horse-barn type barrack way down the Ettersburg hill at Buchenwald, furthest away from the gate and the roll call plaza, and they had been mentored there by the veteran political prisoners who ran the barrack.
Later, when the Red Cross International Tracing Service (ITS) opened to scholars in 2008, I was able to explore camp records from Buchenwald and could track all prisoners who were assigned to block 66 and also how they were assigned. Most had notations when they were in block 66 that said they were not to work and not to be transported.
Q: What do you think is significant about this film that highlights a relatively new aspect of concentration camps?
A: First, it expands our idea of rescue, which is usually thought of as altruistic behavior and as done by good people, bystanders. In order to keep victims out of concentration camps. Here rescue was political behavior by fellow victims and not bystanders, it was a form of resistance, and it took place inside a concentration camp. Second, it deepens our appreciation of the struggle for humanity inside these Nazi-run concentration camps. At Buchenwald, veteran political prisoners chose to shelter youths and protect them as the Allied armies neared Buchenwald from both the east and the west. Finally, third, it complicates our understanding of the interior of these concentration camps. How were veteran political prisoners in any position to rescue youths and children. They participated and were complicit in the running of the interior administration of the Nazi camps even while clandestinely using such position to save their own and to protect youths.
Q: Survivor testimony is central to the narrative of this film. How did you go about contacting the survivors? Were they reluctant to talk about their experiences? Were there similarities in their testimonies about their experiences?
A: Survivors of Buchenwald were young enough in 1945 that most were still alive when I began – the year of the 60th year commemoration of liberation. If they were 15 at liberation (and many were younger), they were 75 during that commemoration year. Most had been silent for most of their lives in the new places they migrated to all over the world – the U.S., Canada, Australia, Israel, and France – but most had broken their silence and begun to tell their stories encouraged by the various visual history testimony projects in the 1990s, if not before. It was relatively easy, using the internet, to find former Buchenwald boys and to write and contact them and tell them of the project and ask to interview them. Very few turned me down. They were eager to tell their stories and to receive my written summaries and, while each telling particular stories, affirmed that there were veteran political prisoners at Buchenwald who were responsible for protecting them in designated children’s barracks where they were largely kept from work, kept from long roll calls, provided extra food (although all complained of hunger, and given schooling to raise their spirits. My work will tell the story of rescue at Buchenwald in the many voices of the many survivors with whom I’ve been privilege to interact.
Q: Were you present at the filming of the return of the survivors to the camp? If so, what was that experience like for them, and for you as a historian?
A: The survivors in the film are all people I’d interviewed for my work and were interested to participate in the film. We had hoped initially to have one survivor from Australia in the mix, but this turned out logistically difficult to do. I was at Buchenwald in Weimar Germany for the 65th liberation ceremony with all the participants in the film (I was filmed in the Buchenwald Musem and I was present at the filming of others in Weimar), and I was in Israel the next year when the filmmakers were filming in Jerusalem and elsewhere.
Q: What are your hopes and plans for the film?
A: My hopes, first, are for success for my friends, executive producer Steve Moskowic, and all the other producers who put the feature length documentary film together. I hope the film will show in film festivals around the world, in the U.S., Canada, Australia, Israel, and all over Europe, and that ultimately it will find its way to television. My hopes, second, and related to the first, are for broad dissemination of the story of the rescue of youths and children at Buchenwald and raised public interest in the reality of rescue inside a concentration camp.
Third, my own book, Telling the Story: The Rescue of Children at Buchenwald, will be finished in about a year and will tell the story in much greater detail and more attention to complexity, drawing on information obtained from nearly 200 of those who were helped to survive at the Nazi camp. It will say more about who these boys were, what their experiences were both before Buchenwald and then inside Buchenwald, and where they went and what they did with their memory of experience after liberation. A second book, to be prepared thereafter, will be called Children’s Stories, and will pull together many distinctive stories I’ve been told or have encountered while working on the collective story.
Q: Finally, you have been part of UM-Flint as the Winegarden Visiting Professor for the academic year. What has this experience meant to you professionally?
A: My experience as the Myron and Margaret Visiting Winegarden Professor at UM-Flint has been a salutary one for me. I directed a faculty seminar on “New Directions in Study of the Holocaust,” which helped me work out issues I’ve been considering about the value of testimonies and memoirs, and about new directions in Holocaust scholarship. I found UM-Flint faculty and staff refreshing, sharp, and questioning. I also directed an undergraduate/graduate research seminar on “Human Experience Beyond Extremity,” directing original research by UM-Flint students based in the Shoah Visual History Foundation testimonies taken during the 1990s and now available at the Thompson Library. It’s been hard work but a distinct and great pleasure.
Shoah Foundation Visual History Archives @ UM-Flint
UM-Flint and the University of Michigan-Ann Arbor are the only universities in the state with access to the Shoah Foundation Visual History Archives, the largest collection of video testimonials of Holocaust survivors in the world.
The database can only be accessed while on campus. Anyone with a uniqname and LAN password can set up an account to view the archives.
In the past, the Thompson Library has made arrangements for non UM-Flint affiliated people doing research to be able to access the archives, but they have to get in touch with a librarian to work out arrangements.