by Dr. Joanna Sliwa
Feodor Mikhailichenko was 15 years old in July 1942 when the German army occupied his native Rostov-on-Don in what today is Russia. This was the second German occupation of the city. The first one lasted for two weeks in November 1941. Many residents were evacuated by the Soviet government. The German authorities proceeded to institute anti-Jewish measures and murdered about 1,000 Jews in Rostov. The Soviet army managed to liberate the city. By the time of the next occupation, Mikhailichenko had been in a naval school. This time, too, the Soviet authorities organized an evacuation, focusing on people and equipment essential for the war effort. While his peers were evacuated into the unoccupied area of the Soviet Union, Mikhailichenko had to stay in Rostov because he was sick.
The German authorities stationed in the city identified and destroyed perceived enemies. Among them were several thousand Jews who were shot to death in August 1942 by members of special task forces, the Einsatzgruppen, that followed the German army. The German authorities also targeted non-Jews who were deemed communists. They exploited, too, the local people by sending them for forced labor in Germany. Mikhailichenko, was denounced by a neighbor and deported to Germany.
In fall 1943, the Gestapo arrested Mikhailichenko for robbery and incarcerated him in the Buchenwald concentration camp. During the camp’s existence, since 1937, prisoners had created a communist-oriented resistance network. As part of their clandestine activities, they designated a few blocks in the camp for the youngest prisoners to try to ensure their survival. Mikhailichenko, who at 16 years old was among the youngest inmates, was put in such a barrack.
As the Soviet army was advancing from the east, the German authorities, still focused on exploiting slave labor, began a mass evacuation of the prisoners from eastern Europe toward Greater Germany. Thousands of emaciated prisoners were forced onto death marches between fall 1944 and early spring 1945. Over 10,000 new prisoners arrived in Buchenwald, raising the number of the camp’s prisoners to over 100,000.
Among the new prisoners who entered Buchenwald were some children. Eight-year-old Israel Meir Lau was one of them. Lau hailed from Piotrków Trybunalski in Poland. The German authorities deported nearly all of the city’s Jews to Treblinka. Israel and his older brother Naftali were sent to a labor camp in Częstochowa, and on to Buchenwald in January 1945. Once there, the brothers were separated. Israel was put in Block 8 with other youngsters. It was there that he met the teenage Feodor Mikhailichenko.
Feodor did everything he could to protect Israel. Even though food was scarce, and stealing was severely punishable, Feodor stole potatoes and cooked them for Israel. The child relied on him. Feodor struggled to keep Israel warm in the harsh winter cold by knitting ear-warmers for him. Feodor also shielded the child during a gunfire that erupted as the Germans were leaving the camp. Lau recalled in his memoir written many years after the war, “Feodor, the Russian, looked after me in the daily life like a father would for a son. His concern and feeling of responsibility gave me a sense of security.”
After liberation in April 1945, Feodor and Israel parted ways, never to see each other again. Israel and his brother Naftali kept their mother’s promise to settle in the Land of Israel, which they reached on a ship carrying refugee children in summer 1945 (the State of Israel was created in May 1948). Israel studied in various religious schools (yeshivot) and became a rabbi. Between 1999-2003 Rabbi Israel Meir Lau served as the Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi of Israel, returning afterwards to his position of Chief Rabbi of Tel Aviv-Yaffo. In November 2008, he was appointed chairman of the Yad Vashem Council.
Rabbi Lau never forgot his rescuer. He only knew his first name and that he was originally from Rostov, but when Lau first visited the Soviet Union, he asked the Secretary-General of the Communist Party to help him locate the man. No one came forward.
Only in 2008, while conducting research about children and youths in Buchenwald, American historian from Michigan State University, Kenneth Waltzer, identified Rabbi Lau’s rescuer as Feodor Mikhailchenko. This discovery in the Arolsen Archives – International Center on Nazi Persecution (then called the International Tracing Service of the International Committee of the Red Cross) highlights the continued importance of scholarship on the Holocaust and availability of documentation about that time. By the time of this discovery, Feodor had already passed away. His daughters, Yulia Selutina and Yelena Belayaeva, however, were found.
The daughters said that their father had told his family about the children in his barrack in Buchenwald, and about one small Polish child in particular. After the war, he even tried to find Israel. They also filled in information about their father. Upon returning to the Soviet Union, Feodor became a prominent geologist. In 1992, a Russian-language documentary film relayed Feodor’s selfless and courageous deeds on behalf of the children in Buchenwald. He died in 1993 at the age of 66.
On January 25, 2009, Feodor Mikhailichenko was recognized as Righteous Among the Nations. “This closes a circle of 64 years. You look for this person, to whom you owe your life, and you don’t know whom to thank,” Rabbi Lau said at the ceremony, and continued, “He was my childhood hero. A man with a huge soul and a heart of gold.”