Sunday, February 10, 2019


Devoted son chose Auschwitz: When 19-year-old Fritz learned his father was being sent to the notorious concentration camp, he begged to go with him — even though it meant almost certain death

By Ysenda Maxtone Graham

Daily Mail
February 7, 2019

by Jeremy Dronfield

We should all perhaps force ourselves to read this shattering book about the Holocaust, lest we forget the depravities to which humans can sink, and of what the human body and spirit can endure.

We know about the gas chambers, but this account tells us more about the living death outside those hell holes, where those selected to work as slave labourers were worked until they dropped and died.

It is also the astonishing story of the unbreakable bond between a father and a son — Gustav and Fritz Kleinmann, from a happy Viennese Jewish family — a bond so strong that the son volunteered to be transported to Auschwitz in order not to be parted from the father.

Brilliantly researched and written with searing clarity by historian Jeremy Dronfield, it’s a book where things are horrible from the very beginning — Viennese Jews being made to scrub the pavements by their previously friendly neighbours who have become rabid anti-Semites overnight — and then get progressively worse, till you can’t believe they can get any worse, but they do.

Even to read it is a kind of torture. It’s almost unbelievable that the chief protagonists, Gustav and Fritz, lived every day of the hell for almost seven years.

In one of the first round-ups of able-bodied Viennese Jews, on 10 September 1939, those two (aged 48 and 16) were carted off to Buchenwald concentration camp in Weimar. I felt I would have died on the very first day, when everyone, thirsty and terrified, was made to get out of the cattle wagons and forced to run 8km uphill to the camp without stopping. That was a mere aperitif for the daily torture and exhaustion in store.

As always with the Holocaust, there are new details that, once heard, you can’t ever forget.

Inside the hell of barbed-wire fences, searchlights, routine beatings and starvation that was Buchenwald, there stood a beautiful old oak tree, known as the ‘Goethe Oak’, because Goethe used to sit in it while writing his poems. From the branches of that oak, the enslaved prisoners were hung by their arms for hours on end, as a punishment for not working hard enough in the backbreaking quarries where they had to do twelve-hour shifts pushing wagonloads of boulders uphill, with sadistic guards lashing them and calling them ‘Jew-pigs’.

There can be no starker image to bring home that those depraved atrocities happened in the ‘civilised’ country of Goethe, Beethoven and Bach.

And there’s worse: lethal injections administered by smiling doctors of death, routine lashings and starvation punishments. A favourite sport for the guards was to throw a prisoner’s cap beyond the sentry line and encourage him to go and fetch it. If he stepped beyond the line he was shot for trying to escape; a guard got three days’ holiday for every ‘escapee’ he shot. It was that kind of sadistically jokey vileness I found most upsetting. Another favourite activity was ‘Strafsport’: making the prisoners run round the roll-call square and whipping the slow or exhausted ones.

Gustav managed to keep a tiny secret diary, which he hid, for seven years. He didn’t write much, as there wasn’t much space, but every now and then, he wrote sentences of such humanity, using the vocabulary of a man of morals in a place of depravity, that to read them is balm.

‘One can scarcely drag oneself along,’ he wrote, ‘but I have made a pact with myself that I will survive to the end. I take Gandhi as my model. He is so thin, yet survives. Every day I say a prayer to myself: “Gustl, do not despair. Grit your teeth: the SS murderers must not beat you”.’

‘What would you have done?’ you keep asking yourself as you read. Would you have had the physical and mental strength to survive, or would you have voluntarily stepped over the sentry line?

The most pivotal moment comes on page 162. Young Fritz had been taken under the wing of some kind older fellow inmates who had helped him to survive by teaching him the useful art of bricklaying.

On 15 October 1942, Fritz heard that his father had been put on the list of 400 prisoners to be transported to Auschwitz the next day. He insisted on getting onto that list as well, but his chief mentor, a kind man called Robert Siewert, was aghast. ‘What you’re asking is suicide,’ he said. ‘You have to forget your father. These men will all be gassed.’

Fritz was adamant. He could not bear to be parted from his father, and requested formally that he too should be sent to Auschwitz.

So it was that the father and son travelled to next place of horror, where they were both selected for work rather than instant death — and to Gustav’s astonishment he realised he was in the same barrack building where he’d been hospitalised during World War I (he had been a decorated military hero).

If a cat has nine lives, that’s nothing compared to how many lives those two totted up between them during the next three years. Again and again, they came within in a whisker of death, whether from random selection, punishment, illness (which nearly always led to the gas-chambers), or American bombing raids.

Through a network of good luck and kindness, they somehow survived, day after day, seasoned old ‘Buchenwalders’, toughened up through enduring years of the nightmare.

Many newcomers couldn’t cope with the shock: within days they were reduced to broken-spirited wrecks, especially when they found out that their wives and children had been sent straight off to Birkenau to be gassed.

Gustav and Fritz were spared till much later the knowledge that Tini and Herta (wife/mother, daughter/sister) had been transported to the east in 1942, shot on arrival and their bodies thrown into a pit. Thankfully, Fritz’s brother Kurt had managed to get a visa for the USA, and his sister Edith had managed to get out to England, where she fell in love with and married another refugee.

It was the kind acts of strangers that pulled at my heartstrings most. The slave labourers at Auschwitz worked alongside German civilians in the local factory, and one of these, Fredl Wocher, turned out to be a kind and trustworthy person who went to Vienna on leave, and brought back loving messages and food parcels from Gustav and Fritz’s old and loyal neighbours.

As the whole Nazi murder machine fell apart in 1945, the skeletal surviving prisoners were sent on death-marches or death-train journeys to Belsen. Fritz jumped out of one train into the snow and survived for a while but was arrested — using up another of his lives. By the time they were liberated by the Americans, both men were just skin and bone. Fritz weighed five and a half stone.

I could hardly believe that Gustav lived on till 1976, and happily remarried; or that Fritz (who married twice and had a son) lived on till 2009. Gustav never wanted to talk about their ordeal, but Fritz, seething with anger, was determined that the story should be told. His own memoir was entitled And Still The Dog Just Will Not Die. The Nazis had tried to obliterate him and his father, but in the end they failed. Their living, breathing children and grandchildren are the Kleinmanns’ final triumph.

1 comment:

Trey Rusk said...

A sad true story that compliments the human spirit.