Boy From Buchenwald

Rob­bie Wais­man, Susan McClelland

  • Review
By – October 11, 2021

When Romek Wajs­man was lib­er­at­ed from the bru­tal con­cen­tra­tion camp of Buchen­wald in 1945, both his phys­i­cal and emo­tion­al selves had been sub­ject­ed to unfath­omable tor­ments. Only four­teen years old, Romek, who would lat­er assume the name Rob­bie Wais­man as an emi­grant to Cana­da, had lived before the war in a small Pol­ish shtetl. Along with 472 oth­er young boys whose fam­i­lies could not be locat­ed, he was res­cued and sent to safe­ty and planned reha­bil­i­ta­tion in France. Although pro­fes­sion­als and oth­er kind adults at his group home opti­misti­cal­ly intend­ed to restore Romek to health, they were unable to under­stand the trau­ma he had under­gone. In this deeply hon­est mem­oir, Boy from Buchen­wald, Wais­man describes his life before depor­ta­tion and the hor­rors of being a child in Buchen­wald. He unflinch­ing­ly ana­lyzes the wound­ed young adult he had become and the process through which he grad­u­al­ly learned to start his life over while remain­ing faith­ful to the past that he had irrev­o­ca­bly lost.

Young read­ers who may be unfa­mil­iar with Holo­caust mem­oirs will learn about the dev­as­tat­ing expe­ri­ence of chil­dren sep­a­rat­ed from the par­ents and deprived of their human­i­ty, but even those who have read Holo­caust sources will gain both knowl­edge and hope from this book. Wais­man chron­i­cles his ambiva­lence with great insight as he looks back from the per­spec­tive of a long and suc­cess­ful life to the child he used to be. All human val­ues were obvi­ous­ly dis­tort­ed beyond recog­ni­tion under the Third Reich. Wais­man shows through his own eyes exact­ly what it felt like to be the vic­tim of Nazi ter­ror and then painful­ly put the pieces of his psy­che back togeth­er and return to life. He avoids easy con­clu­sions and focus­es on the indi­vid­ual cop­ing strate­gies that he and oth­er young sur­vivors adopted.

Wais­man mourns his Jew­ish life before the war, rem­i­nisc­ing about his par­ents, sib­lings, and the cus­toms and rit­u­als of Jew­ish life that would nev­er again hold the same mean­ing for him. Work­ing as slave labor in a Nazi muni­tions fac­to­ry, Romek lis­tens to the warn­ing of a fel­low inmate about the dan­gers of inter­nal­iz­ing hatred and becom­ing demor­al­ized. Yet he is unable to ignore the obvi­ous fact that sur­vival in the camp became the para­mount con­cern, with Jews from dif­fer­ent com­mu­ni­ties turn­ing against one anoth­er. After Amer­i­can sol­diers freed them from their hell, he admits that he and oth­er Buchen­wald boys” dealt with their rage by steal­ing from Weimar fam­i­lies and shops, van­dal­iz­ing homes and pub­lic build­ings, and try­ing to kill one anoth­er.” This is not a com­fort­able mes­sage, but Wais­man artic­u­lates the real­i­ty that sur­viv­ing the camps was a begin­ning, not the defin­i­tive assur­ance of, a new life.

There are unfor­get­table por­traits of the many peo­ple who crossed paths with Romek. Some unam­bigu­ous­ly offered their patient sup­port. Pro­fes­sor Man­fred, who also lost his fam­i­ly, offers a mod­el of sto­ic deter­mi­na­tion while Ralph, a com­mit­ted Com­mu­nist, relies on an ide­ol­o­gy that Romek can­not embrace. A young Elie Wiesel, also a Buchen­wald sur­vivor, advis­es him to look for solace in reli­gious prac­tice. Oth­ers actu­al­ly advise him sim­ply to put the past behind him. One wealthy woman becomes his bene­fac­tor; she and her fam­i­ly ulti­mate­ly offer to adopt him. Only by inte­grat­ing the past into his devel­op­ment and new rela­tion­ships is Romek able to find mean­ing in a life frac­tured by tragedy.

This high­ly rec­om­mend­ed mem­oir includes an epi­logue, addi­tion­al his­tor­i­cal infor­ma­tion, and a time­line, as well as photographs.

Emi­ly Schnei­der writes about lit­er­a­ture, fem­i­nism, and cul­ture for TabletThe For­wardThe Horn Book, and oth­er pub­li­ca­tions, and writes about chil­dren’s books on her blog. She has a Ph.D. in Romance Lan­guages and Literatures.

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