The fable told in the Oscar-winning Italian film “Life is Beautiful” — a Jewish boy survives the Holocaust hidden by his father in a Nazi concentration camp — actually happened.
Recently discovered archival records of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee document the story of Joseph Schleifstein, who is believed to be the only child to have survived the Holocaust in this manner.
While the little boy in the movie hid in the barracks and in a metal chest during the day, details of how Joseph was hidden are sparse. But at one point, according to the file, his father hid him in a sack.
“I don’t recall any other cases of this nature,” said Ted Feder, the deputy director of JDC programs in the U.S. zone in Germany immediately after World War II.
Benjamin Meed, president of the American Gathering of Jewish Holocaust Survivors, also said he never heard of such a case but does “not question such things.”
“Survival was a miracle,” he said.
Like Meed, Aaron Breitbart, senior researcher for the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles, said he “never heard of such a thing.”
Attempts by The Jewish Week and the JDC to locate Joseph Schleifstein have been unsuccessful. And Meed said he is not among the list of the 130,000 survivors his organization keeps.
The JDC’s archivist, Eric Nooter, discovered the file while doing research for the JDC exhibit “To the Rescue: Eight Artists in an Archive,” now at the International Center for Photography in Midtown. A picture of Joseph by Wendy Ewald is included in the exhibit.
According to the file, Joseph was born in the Sandomiez ghetto south of Warsaw in March 1941. He remained there with his parents (their names are not mentioned) until the ghetto was evacuated in 1942. When his parents were moved to a slave labor camp near the ghetto, they managed to hide Joseph from guards “who were constantly sending ‘useless’ children to the Auschwitz gas chambers,” according to Joseph’s JDC file written in 1947, a copy of which was obtained by The Jewish Week.
In 1943, the family was moved again — this time to the Buchenwald concentration camp in eastern Germany. Older inmates and children were ordered to line up on the left (they were later murdered), younger people were ordered to form a line on the right (they became slave laborers). Joseph’s parents were sent to the right, Joseph was ordered to the left.
“In the general confusion of lining up, however, Joseph’s father found a large sack and, with a stern warning to keep absolutely quiet, placed his 21/2-year-old child in it,” according to the file. “The mother was sent off to work in Bergen-Belsen concentration camp, while his father, with his ‘bundle,’ stayed in Buchenwald.”
Joseph remained at Buchenwald — hidden from the Nazis with the help of his father and two German anti-fascists — until the camp was liberated by the U.S. Army on April 12, 1945, according to the file.
“Joseph recalls that day with joy for several reasons,” said the file. “First, because from that day on he no longer had to hide. Secondly, because he started getting ‘lots more to eat and drink.’ And thirdly, Joseph remembers this with greatest glee, because there were ‘lots and lots’ of rides that the Americans gave him on their tanks and jeeps.”
A photograph of Joseph sitting on the runningboard of a United Nations truck is found on an Internet site.
The JDC then helped Joseph and his father go to Switzerland for a recuperative period. After a few months they returned to Germany to look for Joseph’s mother. They found her in the town of Dachau near the site of another Nazi concentration camp in southern Germany. It was there that the family settled.
According to the file, Joseph was a “star witness” at a 1947 trial set by an American court in Germany. He testified for the prosecution in the case against 31 officials and guards at Buchenwald, “where Joseph and his father were prisoners for almost two years.”
The file said that in the two years after his liberation, Joseph regained his health and was “one of these rare Jewish displaced children who managed to regain both parents.”
What happened to them next is unclear. The JDC file said the organization was able to get the family registered and processed for immigration to the United States. It said Joseph’s father had an uncle in New York, Julius Szwickman, and a sister in Toronto, Rachel Harmelyn.
“The Schleifsteins’ days in Germany are numbered and all three are anxiously counting them,” said the file.
A check with the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society said its records show that it helped someone named Joseph Schleifstein, who was born in 1941, enter the United States in 1948. The records show that he was accompanied by his parents and that they settled in Brooklyn.