On the occasion of the International Holocaust Remembrance Day, Czechs are marking the memory of Antonín Kalina, a Czechoslovak Communist who risked his own life to save at least 900, mostly Jewish children from the Holocaust. A documentary about the unsung hero of the Holocaust was premiered on Czech Television this week while his hometown of Třebíč announced plans to open a memorial hall dedicated to their famous son.
While Nicolas Winton and Oscar Schindler have been celebrated as the symbols of defiance against the Nazi regime, little has been heard even in his home country about Antonín Kalina, a Czechoslovak communist who helped to save at least 900 mostly Jewish boys in the Buchenwald concentration camp.
Kalina, who was born in Třebíč in 1902 was imprisoned in the camp by the Nazis in 1939 for being a member of the Communist Party and trade union agitator. He used his position in the camp’s communist resistance to become the prisoner in charge of Bloc 66, known as the children’s or Kinderblock, protecting the most vulnerable prisoners from the harsh conditions of the camp. He spared them hard work, provided them with better blankets and sometimes additional food.
Later, as the war near its and the danger of mass execution climbed, Kalina managed to keep the guards away by claiming the block was a quarantine area for prisoners with typhus. And when the front finally approached, he falsified the boys' documents and hid their yellow badges. Two years ago, a memorial plaque to Kalina was unveiled in his hometown of Třebíč. This year, the town hall plans to open a memorial hall in the Jewish district dedicated to him. Jaromíra Hanáčková is a councillor in charge of culture:
“There will be panels telling the story of his life and a little exposition of shoemaking, because he came from a shoemaker’s family. We will have authentic objects belonging to his father. But the most valuable exhibits, including all the awards he received in memoriam, are currently on their way from his relative in California.”
Antonín Kalina was recognised by the Israeli award for gentiles who helped Jews escape the Holocaust as a Righteous Among the Nations in 2012. In 2014, he received the Medal of Merit in Memoriam by President Miloš Zeman. So how come that Antonín Kalina heroism went unrecognised for so many years?
“Kalina was a convinced communist throughout his whole lifetime. This is why he was arrested and imprisoned in 1939. After the war, during the totalitarian regime, contacts with Israel were not really promoted. After the Velvet Revolution, Kalina was already in his 90s and was labelled as a communist, and because of that, no one was really interested in his story.”
The memorial hall in Třebíč dedicated to Antonín Kalina is set to open on February 17 on the occasion of what would be his 115th birthday. In the future, the town hall also plans to open an exhibition focused on lives of the children he managed to save.