Have you ever heard of Antonín Kalina? Probably not. He is the (almost) unknown hero who saved 1200 Jewish children from the inhuman conditions of the Buchenwald concentration camp.
1200 children who escaped death in a German concentration camp. That is the score of Antonín Kalina from Třebíč, whose heroism is acknowledged internationally but in his homeland, most people remain ignorant of his name.
Who was Antonín Kalina
Kalina was born on February 17, 1902 in Třebíč (in a quarter called Kočičina), now Czech Republic, and spent half of his life doing what he studied – shoemaking. His father, a social democrat, was a significant influence and Antonín decided to join the Communist Party and became a municipal representative. Stanislav Motl, a publicist, says that Kalina was very self-confident and fearless. He was never afraid to speak his mind and often came of as controversial. So it comes as no surprise that he was arrested just one day after the protectorate was declared. He was taken to the Špilberk castle in Brno (used as a prison) and later to the concentration camps in Dachau and Buchenwald, Germany, in September of 1939.
The man who saved 1200 Jewish children
He spoke several languages which meant that he could communicate with the staff as well as the prisoners from various backgrounds. Although a prisoner himself, Kalina actually became the administrator of the block 66 which was the children’s block of the Buchenwald camp. He cared for the children’s basic needs like food or blankets but he decided to go much further in his help.
In fall of 1944, the archives of block 66 were destroyed in a bomb attack and Kalina saw it as his opportunity. He and his co-worker Jindřich Flusser started changing the Jewish children’s names to Christian names, training the children in using their false names and they also removed the yellow stars from their clothes. He warned the children that he would spank anyone who admitted they were a Jew. He also created a false typhus epidemic center in the block 66 so Nazi supervisors wouldn’t come to the block and check on the children too much.
He also helped adult prisoners – if a prisoner was sent to another camp or to die, he restored a file of a deceased prisoner and swapped the two people’s identities.
Antonín Kalina returned home to Třebíč in July 1945. He died on November 26, 1990 without any recognition of his heroic acts. He himself never talked about what he did in the camps but he remained friends with Jindřich Flusser. He was burried in Olšanské hřbitovy in Prague.
Recognition and comparison to Nicholas Winton
For decades after his death, Kalina’s heroism remained unrecognized, at least in his home country. It was the already mentioned publicist Stanislav Motl who “discovered” Kalina’s name in one of his trips to Israel and he is the one who brought the story of this incredible bravery back home.
In 2012, Antonín Kalina received the Yad Vashem memorial recognition in memoriam (Israel) and in 2014 the Medal of Merit (Czech Republic). The city of Třebíč awarded him a honorary citizenship in 2014.
There are some tendencies to compare Antonín Kalina to Sir Nicholas Winton or even Oskar Schindler. While all of these men are heroes who deserve all the recognition there is for saving so many lives, their acts are incomparable. Kalina wasn’t a free man and he was laboring under constant death thread. His camp file said that his return was “undesirable” and every single thing he did in the process of saving all those people could lead to his immediate execution.
- ŠJů, Wikimedia Commons, CC BY 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=57633339