by: Jo Sarah Stanford
Monday, 20 May 2019 | The boys’ heights were checked against a marker. They had to be tall enough. For most children, being tall enough means they can to go on an amusement park ride; for Josef Kleinman and his brother, two child survivors of the Auschwitz concentration camp, being tall enough was a matter of life and death.
For years, no one knew about the youth of Auschwitz. No documentation. No numbers tattooed on their arm. Out of the 3,000 Jewish boys sent to the death camp during the Holocaust, only 150 survived to see the end of the war. Their story was all but unknown until 1961, when Kleinman testified at the trial for Adolf Eichmann in Jerusalem. Now, at 89, Kleinman has made it his life mission to tell his story to anyone who will listen—to make sure that the 2,850 Jewish boys who did not survive Auschwitz do not remain forgotten.
It was the eve of Yom Kippur (the Day of Atonement) 1944 in the Auschwitz death camp, and Nazi Doctor Josef Mengele—nicknamed the Angel of Death—was once again selecting prisoners for extermination. In “celebration” of the holiest Jewish holiday, the Nazis were sending yet another round of people to the gas chambers. It was not the first time Kleinman and his brother were inspected, nor the last. Each time it was only by a miracle that they were not selected.
Two thousand teenage boys stood in line on an old soccer field waiting for inspection. A wooden plank was nailed to a goal post, and the boys were made to walk underneath. Those who were tall enough to reach the plank were sent to work; those who were not were killed.
At 14, Kleinman knew he would not be tall enough. His brother, two years older, whispered to him, “You have to do something!” In desperation, Kleinman put pebbles in his shoes to make himself taller, but he could not walk without pain. His brother finally gave him his cap, which Kleinman tore up and placed in his shoes to cushion the pebbles.
The desperate attempts were unsuccessful. Kleinman was still not tall enough, so when Dr. Mengele’s back was turned, he snuck into the line that had already passed. However, he was not the only boy to do so, and when Mengele noticed the line growing unusually long, he ordered that it be rechecked. Kleinman then snuck back into his original line. He faced certain death until Mengele, angry and tired, halted the sorting. Kleinman was safe—for the time being. One thousand other boys were sent to their deaths.
Sukkot (the Feast of Tabernacles) was fast approaching, which meant another “celebration.” The boys knew they must escape or die. When a workgroup of 1,500 men was sent to Dachau in Germany, ten boys, including Kleinman and his brother, managed to hide among them, escaping Auschwitz and certain death.
Seven months later, on April 27, 1945, the US liberated the Dachau work camp. Kleinman and his brother were free. A Jewish–American soldier gave Kleinman a shirt, saying: “My son, for you the war is over. Let me dress you like a normal person.” He still has the shirt today.
The war was over, yet Kleinman’s journey was not. He and his brother attempted to immigrate to Israel—then British Mandate Palestine. After a year in a refugee camp in Italy, they boarded the Ha’apala (Four Freedoms) illegal immigration boat. They sailed for 11 days, “packed like sardines” and were rationed only one canteen of water per day—only to be turned away by the British. They could see the shores of the Promised Land in the distance. Sent to a detention camp in Cyprus, the Kleinman brothers spent six months waiting for their chance to go to Israel. Finally, their names were called. Once they reached Israel, they spent a further month in quarantine.
On March 15, 1947, they were released from quarantine, and Kleinman finally felt he had come home. He remembers the date to this day.
Kleinman served in the Givati Brigade in the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) during the War of Independence. When peace finally came to Israel, he and his brother opened a carpentry business, which they ran for 50 years.
Kleinman’s mission to share about the Youth of Auschwitz was born in 1960. On a visit to Yad Vashem (Israel’s Holocaust Museum), he noted they had no record of the youth. When he asked why, he was told that nobody knew. Staff at Yad Vashem recorded his story, and the following year he testified at the trial for Adolf Eichmann.
Eichmann—responsible for the collection and transportation of Jews to the concentration camps—was captured and stood trial in Israel in 1961 for war crimes. Kleinman was one of the 110 witnesses to testify. Eichmann was convicted of his crimes and sentenced to death. It is the only time Israel has ever used the death penalty.
Kleinman now lives in Jerusalem with his wife, Chaya—also a Holocaust survivor, who was smuggled out of a Hungarian ghetto as a toddler. They have three children, 16 grandchildren and four great-grandchildren. His grandchildren, too, serve in the IDF and often bring their units to hear Kleinman’s stories.
Kleinman still marvels at life. He tells his story to anyone who will listen. He speaks to schools and community groups and has published a memoir. It is his life mission that his story—and that of so many boys who did not survive—should be recorded in history and never be forgotten.
Posted on May 20, 2019
Source: (Bridges for Peace, May 20, 2019)
Photo Credit: Michio Nagata/bridgesforpeace.com
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