The father and son who survived Auschwitz

Journey to the past: Fritz Kleinmann visits Auschwitz again in the 1980s. © Reinhold

This Sunday is Holocaust Memorial Day. A new book tells the story of two remarkable survivors: a father and son who stuck together in concentration camps for six horrific years…

Fritz Kleinmann was 17 when he made the most extraordinary request of his life. “I need you to pull whatever strings you can to get me on the Auschwitz transfer,” he told a kapo.

It was the Second World War. Fritz and his father, Gustav, had been arrested in Vienna in 1939 for being Jewish. They were sent to the Buchenwald concentration camp in Germany, where they had managed to survive for three years in horrific conditions. But then Gustav was put on a list of names to be transferred to Auschwitz. Even then, prisoners in other camps knew that this one was worse.

Fritz’s name was not on the list, but he refused to let his father go alone — and so they boarded the train together.

“Everyone is saying it is a journey to death,” Gustav wrote in the secret diary that he kept throughout the experience. “But Fritzl and I do not let our heads hang down. I tell myself that a man can only die once.”

And yet, once again, both of them managed to survive — through luck, and through their skills as labourers.

Their incredible story is told in a new book published yesterday, which draws on Gustav’s diary and Fritz’s memoir.

It is full of twists, turns and near misses. At Buchenwald, Gustav almost died of dysentery. At Auschwitz, Fritz joined the resistance and was questioned by SS officers. Although he was released, he faked his death and took on a new identity. Throughout it all, the pair kept each other going.

“The boy is my greatest joy,” Gustav wrote in his diary. “We strengthen each other. We are one.”

When they were transferred to a new camp a few months before the war’s end, Fritz jumped from the train and tried to escape. Gustav was too frail to follow, and they were separated. Fritz’s escape failed, but both survived the war and were reunited at their home in Vienna.

This Sunday is Holocaust Memorial Day. The theme for 2019 is “torn from home”. It asks people to remember those forced to leave “a place of safety, comfort and security” by persecution. Not just people like Fritz and Gustav, but also refugees — both in the past and today.

Survivors

“And all this is happening in the 20th century,” Gustav wrote incredulously in his diary. He is shocked that something so evil could be happening in the world he knows. But could it happen again in the 21st century? After all, anti-Semitism is rising around the world. Is that why it is so important to remember the Holocaust?

And what should we take from the story of the Kleinmanns? On the one hand, it is an incredible survival tale and a reminder of how love can overcome the harshest of circumstances. On the other hand, it reminds us of all those who did not make it — and who never got a chance to tell their story.

You Decide

  1. Why is it important to remember the Holocaust?
  2. Why are we so fascinated by survival stories?

Activities

  1. Write a poem or produce a piece of art for Holocaust Memorial Day, inspired by the theme “torn from home”.
  2. Create a timeline of Nazi Germany and the Second World War, including information about the Holocaust.

Some People Say...

“Auschwitz is outside of us, but it is all around us, in the air. The plague has died away, but the infection still lingers.”

Primo Levi, Auschwitz survivor and author

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
Six million Jewish people were killed during the Holocaust, and around 17 million people were killed in total. Last year, the UN secretary general warned that anti-Semitism (hatred of Jewish people) was rising around the world, even in places “where there are no Jews at all.” In October, 11 people were killed in a shooting at a synagogue in Pittsburgh in the US.
What do we not know?
Why anti-Semitism is rising again. Some have blamed the nationalist rhetoric of US President Donald Trump. However, the White House strongly denies this, pointing out that members of his own family are Jewish (including his son-in-law Jared Kushner). Others have argued that the shadow of anti-Semitism is rising as more of those who lived through the Second World War come to the end of their lives.

Word Watch

Auschwitz
The largest concentration camp of the Nazi era, where 1.1 million people were killed. It was in German-occupied Poland.
Kapo
Inmates who were assigned to supervise their fellow prisoners in concentration camps.
Labourers
Fritz helped to build a new camp within Auschwitz, while Gustav used his upholstering and carpentry skills — and volunteered for any other specialised work. “There was no work he didn’t think he was capable of,” Fritz wrote.
Book
The Boy Who Followed His Father Into Auschwitz, by Jeremy Dronfield.
Dysentery
An infection which causes diarrhoea and fever.
Resistance
For example, he would pass information about the war to other prisoners.
SS officers
The “Schutzstaffel” (SS) was a paramilitary group within the Nazi Party which eventually grew to hundreds of thousands of members. They specialised in surveillance, enforcing the Nazi’s ideology and running the concentration camps.
Holocaust
The genocide of six million Jewish people between 1941 and 1945 by Adolf Hitler’s Nazi regime. Millions were also killed for their race, disability and sexuality.

PDF Download

Please click on "Print view" at the top of the page to see a print friendly version of the article.