Thomas Geve was just 15 years old when he was liberated from Buchenwald concentration camp on 11 April 1945. It was the third concentration camp he had survived.
On his eventual release, Thomas felt compelled to capture daily life in the death camps in more than eighty profoundly moving drawings. Infamous scenarios synonymous with this dark period of history were portrayed in poignant but simplistic detail with extraordinary accuracy.
The Boy Who Drew Auschwitz, tells Thomas’ story, presenting a rare living testimony through the eyes of a child who had the unique ability to observe and remember every detail around him and chose to document it all.
Sky HISTORY spoke to the book's co-author, Charlie Inglefield, a British writer based in Zug, Switzerland about Thomas' experiences in Auschwitz and how he became involved in the project.
Sky HISTORY: How did you become involved in writing Thomas' Story?
Charlie Inglefield: It all came about through the most random of circumstance. To cut a long story short, I had a client, Natalie Albrecht who I was doing a little bit of freelance writing for and she said, there's this exhibition called the 'Children of Buchenwald' which is at the Burg Museum in Zug [where Charlie lives].
She gave me this leaflet, for the exhibition and that's where I first saw the name, Thomas Geve, inside that leaflet. It piqued my interest and I researched Thomas and that's where I first saw his drawings. Thomas had come over to Zug in the summer of 1945 after Buchenwald was liberated to recuperate with other girls and boys who came from the Buchenwald camp.
I found his website and I dropped an email, loosely explaining the Zug connection and they were lovely. They said they’d love to chat, as they wanted to bring Thomas's testimony to today's readers. That's how it started at the beginning of April 2019. I organised a trip to Tel Aviv to see him and I interviewed Thomas over the course of the weekend and it gathered legs from there.
What was it about Thomas' story that so fascinated you?
What hit home for me about his story was that he was transported to Auschwitz-Birkenau at the age of thirteen. He and his mother had already escaped and evaded the SS and their informers for two to three years in Berlin. So, he was streetwise even before he got on one of the last transports out of Berlin to Auschwitz-Birkenau.
It’s an extraordinary story of survival even before he even ended up in Auschwitz-Birkenau that this boy aged ten or eleven had the nous to be able to escape and evade Hitler's persecution of the Jews in Germany.
What does the book tell us about life at Auschwitz?
He arrived into Auschwitz-Birkenau with his mother and they were separated. His mother tragically died.
Thomas was quite big for his age. He was tall and was probably quite muscular which gave the impression that he could work. Thomas said to me ‘It was literally do what you're told and put one foot in front of the other’.
He was put in a group of men who were marched off into Auschwitz Birkenau. They stayed there for the night and they had to go to Auschwitz Camp I.
Every autobiography and memoir of this period are all unique but what I think what comes through with Thomas’, was his ability to make friends, identify allies and spot enemies. He could pick up languages quite quickly and had a thirst for knowledge. These were very important attributes, as you had all kinds of different nationalities, all kinds of different cultures in Auschwitz. These characteristics keep hope and the will to survive going in the most terrible circumstances.
In his book, Thomas doesn't ignore the Holocaust and the horrors of it, but he does focus a lot on how they survived, on what life was like in Auschwitz and the other Nazi concentration camps, on what they went through on a daily basis, what they ate, their work, the daily routine etc. All these things he’s trying to show, ‘This is how we built our hope’ amidst the atrocities and the horrors of the Holocaust.
How was Thomas eventually liberated?
Auschwitz was liquidated in January 1945 and Thomas went on what was known as the death march from Auschwitz. So many people died on that march, as you can imagine, in freezing temperatures with barely any food and little clothing. He eventually ends up in Gross-Rosen, a concentration camp in Upper Silesia.
That was another horrendous experience for Thomas, again with very little food, with terrible conditions and very aggressive fellow inmates. Then he was transported from Gross-Rosen to Buchenwald. This is why we say he survived three Nazi concentration camps, not just Auschwitz which is where he spent the majority of his time.
He was liberated from Buchenwald at the age of 15 on April 11, 1945, when the American GIs came in. So, he survived 22 months since arriving in Auschwitz-Birkenau.
What is the story behind Thomas' remarkable pictures?
Thomas and the other survivors felt that no one would believe them if he told them what they went through and so he decided to draw his experiences of life in the camps. Thomas had managed to get access to some coloured pencils and some SS ration cards which were the size of a postcard and decided to draw his experiences. He did over eighty drawings that have become synonymous with the Holocaust.
The detail in these drawings is incredible. There's a drawing called Es Stimmt Nicht (It Doesn’t Tally) about the rollcalls where he gives every single person in the drawing - in what is a very small space - an identity. It wasn't just him drawing what he remembered, it's like, he wanted to provide each person with an identity and honour them.
The simplicity and innocence of them are what captured my attention. Those drawings are very moving and very emotional for me. They are a very powerful testament to today's readers.
You co-wrote the book with Thomas, what was it like working with him?
First and foremost, the obvious thing to say here is, I have a huge amount of respect for Thomas. When you're interviewing a Holocaust survivor, there's a certain amount of nerves but he was very funny. He said to me, quite early on, 'Charlie, I don't like cricket' because I told his daughter, early on I'd been on a cricket tour to India. He said he tried it when he was in England but he just didn't like it. That broke the ice.
He's very insightful, very intelligent as befitting his career as an engineer. He doesn't say a huge amount but what he does say is extremely relevant powerful and insightful.
After all the suffering Thomas' story had a happy ending as he was reunited with his father…
Thomas hadn't seen his father, roughly in six or seven years. In the winter of 1945, as he had spent the summer in Switzerland, the authorities had finally managed to locate his father in London. For Thomas, I can't possibly imagine what it must have been like but it was extraordinarily emotional as you can imagine.
They spent the next four or five years together in London until Thomas moved to Israel in 1950. So, they managed to have that time together to live as a family.
Why are books like The Boy Who Drew Auschwitz so important for today's readers?
You ask Thomas, what his objective has been over many years - and it is to make people aware, to educate future generations, all generations, of what exactly happened and how individuals like Thomas survived and lived in the Nazi concentration camps.
Long after Thomas has gone, people will be able to understand these infamous events in history through his testimony, in terms of his story and through his drawings.
That's the reason why, I took the book on, to try and get this story into people's hands whilst survivors like Thomas are still with us.