This remarkable man died 21 May in Paris. The day before, Elie Buzyn had been recalling his long, remarkable, journey to young people. The journey started in Lodz, Poland, in 1929.
Early life of Elie Buzyn
His father was a successful entrepreneur and his mother was very active in charities. His brother Avram, who was 20 years old in 1938, had hoped to settle in British-occupied Palestine where the Jewish agricultural cooperatives [Kibbutzim] had become known for their success. Elie’s father persuaded him not to leave the family for a land where the Arab revolt was in progress. However, the Polish regime discriminated against the Jews, encouraged them to emigrate and, at the same time, gave military training to the Zionist Irun in its underground fight against the British in Palestine.
Only a short time later, in September 1939, the Nazi German invasion of Poland took place. Brutality followed immediately against the 3.5 million Jews who made up 10% of the population. The proportion of Jews was often much higher in Polish cities such as Warsaw. In December 1939, the Nazis created a labour camp in the poorest district of the town of Lodz. In 1940, the ghetto was sealed off while the Nazis acted with terror and violence. Elie was then 11 years old. On the evening of 7 March, a Nazi officer randomly picked out three young men, including Avram, for execution to display the power of the German forces and to deter any attempt to resist them.
A brutal childhood
The execution of Avram in front of his family was to mark Elie for life. Both his parents were bruised for life. Buzyn’s sister, aged 16, became an epileptic. Elie rapidly understood that they were incapable of any work and he attempted to support the family in the ghetto, where children worked from the age of ten.
Elie, his parents, and his sister managed to live for two years by hiding in the ghetto, until the summer of 1944. As the Soviet forces got closer, the Nazis liquidated the ghetto claiming they were sending its population to “a better camp.”
For three days, the inmates travelled in sealed cattle wagons to the Auschwitz-Birkenau labour and extermination camp. They had no food, water, or toilet facilities. Forever separated from their parents, Elie and his sister, together with some 130 of the 1,450 people in the convoy, were selected for work. Aged 15, Elie pretended he was two years older, but when he heard that his parents had been immediately gassed, he regretted having lied. The tattooed number, B-7572, on his left forearm meant that he was regarded as good enough for work. He strove to do the tasks he was given in Auschwitz and later in the Babitz labour force.
This was an enormous agricultural farm where the exhausting work led those who directed it to increase the rations of the forced labourers. After four months, as the Soviet armies advanced, the evacuation of Auschwitz was ordered. The SS guards marched the prisoners on foot to the West. Those who could not keep up were shot.
Lucky to survive
Elie was lucky to survive cold, hungry and with frozen toes in Buchenwald. He was lucky again to end up with political prisoners and was there when the Americans arrived 11 April 1945. Earlier on that day, listening clandestinely to radio reports, inmates realized the Americans were close. With that knowledge, prisoners stormed the watchtowers, seizing control of the camp. Later that afternoon, US forces entered Buchenwald. Soldiers from the 6th Armored Division, part of the Third Army, found more than 21,000 prisoners with Elie among them.
A few weeks later, finally fulfilling his mother’s wish, he found his maternal uncle, Dr. Leon Perel, in Paris. Within a few months he learned to speak French, but did not want to remain. For Elie, Europe reminded him too much of the Nazi’s murderous policies, and France’s Vichy regime had collaborated with the Nazis. Members of his paternal and maternal families had also been deported from France.
In October 1947, aged 18, with a British passport, Elie decided to leave for Palestine. he left for Palestine without his uncle’s approval. He took this step for his murdered brother, who had hoped to be a pioneer of a Jewish homeland.
War of independence
Elie fought in Israel’s War of Independence and then worked in a number of kibbutzim. He cultivated vegetables in the summer and worked in construction in the winter. He remained in Israel for seven years, becoming fluent in Hebrew.
In 1954, Elie returned to France with an Israeli passport. He had come to the conclusion that without means he would not be able to study medicine in Israel. It was a brave move. He was 25 years old and had not attended school since he was ten. In order to study medicine, he needed at least to sit for the French high school diploma.
Although his uncle approved this move Elie did not wish to be supported by his uncle. He found a job in Collège Bénichou, a boarding school in the city of Oran, Algeria, a French colony until 1962. In the framework of that boarding school he was authorised to attend the classes and, in 1956, passed his baccalauréat and returned to France to begin medical studies. Ten years older than most of the other students, he did not find his studies easy. He specialised in general surgery and then went on to postgraduate studies in orthopaedic surgery working in in the psychiatric department of the Parisian Cochin Hospital in Villejuif,
His later life
While an intern, Elie married Etty, who became a prominent psychoanalyst and an author. Her understanding and love enabled Buzyn to reconstruct his emotional life. For him, the best response to the Nazis was their three children and six grandchildren.
Elie proudly added that although he was not a religious Jew, he brought his children to the Reform Copernic Synagogue in Paris to enable them to have a bar mitzvah and a bat mitzvah, thus giving positive content to their Jewish identities. Furthermore, his children, like their parents, developed a strong emotional link with Israel, His daughter, Agnès Buzyn, became a famous hematologist, and France’s health minister 2017-2020,
In 1995, Elie Buzyn retired from the surgical profession but accepted humanitarian missions such as being a volunteer surgeon in Africa, particularly in Mauritania and Cameroun. Three years later he became aware of his need to transmit the memory of the persecution of the Jews and began lecturing in junior high and high schools. He also began accompanying groups to Auschwitz.
Remarkably, shortly before turning 50, Elie began training for the seven marathons he was to run. He participated in the London, New York, Paris, and Jerusalem marathons, and was chosen to bear the Olympic torch at the Winter Olympic Games in Turin in 2006.
Although he was not an observant Jew, Buzyn’s Jewish identity was strongly linked to Israel and its security. He offered his medical services at the outbreak of the Yom Kippur war, in 1973. He was not sent to Israel, but was told he would be called if necessary.
Transmission of memory
In November 2013, at the age of 84, his involvement in the transmission of the memory of the Holocaust assumed the form of a collective journey to the sites of the concentration camps in Poland together with a group of intellectuals, students, high-ranking military personnel, and a French Jewish chaplain who later became chief rabbi of France, Haim Korsia. On that memorable trip, Buzyn was accompanied by a 15-year-old grandson – his own age when he had been incarcerated in Auschwitz. Elie was knighted in the Legion of Honour in 2014 and commanded an Ordre des Palmes académiques.