By Noah Botman.
On Sunday February 10, 2013, in preparation for “The March of the Living”, scheduled to take place early April, a few Jewish students – including our son, Noah – interviewed Holocaust survivors, Nancy and Howard Kleinberg. We thank Howard and Nancy for taking the time to share their personal stories with the students. Below is a written extract of their testimonies prepared by Noah Botman.
I was born in a small town in Poland called Wierzbnik, also known as Starachowice (today Wierzbica). I came from a family of 10 children, where I was the youngest. When I was a baby, my oldest brother died playing soccer, probably because of a heart attack. In 1928, my family was sponsored by an uncle to go to Canada. All of the children and my mother were accepted, but there was a TB outbreak at the time, and my father was rejected because he was skinny and failed the weight test. As a result, my parents decided to send the four oldest children to Canada, and the five youngest returned with my parents back to Wierzbnik.
In Poland, school started when you were five. On the first day, I was very well dressed in new, special clothing, and I looked quite cute that day. There was one class where the Jews and the Poles were separated for religious instruction. The Jews were in a classroom where a woman would tell bible stories, while the Catholic children were being indoctrinated by a priest to hate Jews. After this class, the Christian children would beat us very badly. You can just imagine me, just five, with my new clothes all torn and bloody. This was my first real taste of Anti-Semitism. The one bright side of experiencing Anti-Semitism at an early age was that it taught me to be cunning and resourceful to survive. My childhood consisted of school, cheder, soccer, and the highlight of the week, Shabbat. On Shabbat, my friends and I would walk a half-mile to a forest, and we would sing songs about “Palestine.” We were dreaming about escape from Anti-Semitism even then.
Before the war, the church was a dominating factor in small-town Poland. If you wanted to get a shop, you needed to get permission from the Anti-Semitic church. Pesach coincided with Easter, and the Anti-Semitism always increased at this time. There was also always the fear of roving Anti-Semitic gangs during Sukkot. The Poles were brought up with hatred of the Jews. Although some would show restraint before the war, the situation became fluid once the Germans arrived. Kindness was punishable by death. The Poles also got all of the Jewish houses and clothes and belongings when the Jews left. One can’t judge what the Poles did with such death and threat everywhere. It was unexplainable and impossible to imagine whether you would have behaved differently.
The Germans walked into Poland on September 1st of 1939. My life was turned upside down instantly, with such severe restrictions day in and day out. You sometimes lost track of what you were and weren’t supposed to do. The Nazis then took the senior Jews who were running the show from before the war, and made them the Kapos. After a week or two, free Jewish labour was required by the Germans. They would need many labourers to, say, clear the snow with a shovel. We were also dredging rivers by hand. Jews were also used in factory work. Compensation for work was a coupon that would give some basic food. I was happy for the work, as my father was old and I was a bread-winner for my family. I was 14 at the time.
In 1941, they established the Ghetto. A small house in the Ghetto would hold 12-16 kids with their parents and elderly. Conditions were awful. This lasted until October 27, 1942, when we heard that ghettos were being liquidated. We knew that Jews were being sent to places such as Auschwitz, Treblinka, and Majdanic, where they were being killed. We hoped that the Germans would still need us for factory work, but at 3:00 in the morning, there were dogs and shouting and turmoil, and we were told to move to the town square. The able-bodied people were separated from the elderly. I had no chance to say goodbye to my parents and one of my sisters. I was put on a train heading who knows where.
After I got off the train, we were told to run, but not where, just to run. The Germans prepared two conjoined camps to hold us in. There were long barracks where people would live and sleep. We were counted, so that if someone ran away, 20 would be shot. We were told this as a way to stop us from running away. We were given an aluminium pan, and it was to be our lifeline. Work in the factory was hard, working steel in such heat. We only had a thin shirt to wear, and then winter came with a vengeance. Those who were resourceful, like myself, found a cement bag that was then improvised into basic winter clothing.
Because of a lack of sanitary conditions in the camp there was a typhus outbreak near the end of November of 1942. To combat the typhus, a commander, whose favourite pastime was to shoot Jews at random, would kill everybody too sick to run. In January of 1943, I got typhus. The commander was coming to check our barracks, to see who was sick and who wasn’t. I was terribly sick with Typhus that night. I crawled out, and I was trying to find someone to climb up on, but was pushed and kicked to the end of the column, and collapsed on the ground. As I was lying in the snow, a miracle happened. Due to my typhus and fever I fell asleep and when I woke up, I felt better. In the same morning, the SS came and removed the camp commander. They still needed workers at that time. The first thing they did was to quarantine the camp to eradicate the sickness. After that, to keep the workers alive, they gave us better food, clothes, and weekly public showers. Life was a little more bearable.
In 1943, we heard about the Germans’ major defeat at Stalingrad, and how the war might end in the Allies’ favour. In July of 1944, we heard about the Russian advance, and that they were just 200 kilometres away. We found the factories were closed. We knew that if the camp was closing because of the Russians, there was only one place we could be going: Auschwitz. The next day, there was a spontaneous escape attempt, and many Jews escaped to the adjoining forest. Others were quickly killed by machinegun fire. Those who escaped had a bounty of five pounds of sugar on their head. Within a few days, they were all turned in by Poles, and killed. Eventually, there came a train to take us to Auschwitz. We arrived at Auschwitz, and instantly smelled the crematoriums. Many people could hardly walk after the train journey, and those people were put in the bad column of the arrival selection. We were told to go to the showers, and we had heard rumours of showers being gas chambers. Then, a second miracle: Instead of gas coming out, it was water. After the shower, we were given striped uniforms, and then we were given our numbers. Getting tattooed so brutally with a dirty needle was incredibly painful. My number was A-19186. This was what replaced my name for years.
We were often exposed to a delegation of SS who were looking for skilled workers, such as tailors, barbers, and technicians. I would always step forward, and was able to eventually get a job as a saddler. I was there working as a saddler from August to December. Later, we were marched south to Vienna. The Austrians were giving us water through the fence, and the SS weren’t doing anything about it. This was very unusual, and made us think that the stories of the war ending were true. Then we were moved to the Alps where there was the camp of Mathousen. There was no work in Mathousen, because it was a junction point for skilled workers to be transported elsewhere. Every day, we were forced to go through the snow naked to a shower in the open air in the Alps. We would come back to find our clothes all wet and in a pile, and, of course, there was chaos, with the tall guy grabbing the short pants and the short guy grabbing the tall pants. After one month, we were transported to a munitions factory in Germany, with an adjoining Russian prisoner camp. It was very scary there, as many of the Russians wrote graffiti in blood. We were working there until the end of April. After that, we were death-marched to Bergen-Belsen.
What you need to understand about Bergen-Belsen was that there was nothing there. No work, food, or crematorium; you lived as long as you were on your feet. There were thousands and thousands of corpses on the field, and we were told to pull corpses into a huge mass grave. I did this for two weeks, and then, finally, the British liberated the camp on April 15, 1945. We were given food, but the people who ate too much would tear their stomachs and die instantly. When the British arrived, I knew that I had survived the Nazis, and felt like I could finally die in peace. So, I lay down, ready to meet my maker, but I couldn’t find room to lie down because there were so many corpses. Then, another miracle happened: Sometime later, two girls found me lying in the snow and rescued me, and nursed me back to health. One girl was desperately trying to keep me alive, cleaning and feeding me. The first week, I slept. After a week, I had enough strength – to tell her that I needed a doctor, or I would die. Obviously, there was no doctor. One day, there was nobody around, so I crawled out of bed, inched to the road, lay down there, and was quickly found by a military vehicle, and put in a hospital.
After six months, I was healed. I then went back to the camp to find the girl who had saved me, but she was nowhere to be found. I was lucky, and was selected to come to Canada after the war as a ward of the government. I sailed to Halifax, and then went from Halifax to Toronto, with Jews hugging and kissing me and the other wards very emotionally. The station at Montreal was wall to wall packed with Jews. Once in Toronto, I was able to find my two sisters and two brothers whom I had never known, and time went by. After a while, I heard that the girl who saved me was living in Toronto, and I decided to go meet her. I had been taught the proper way to meet a girl, and I bought some flowers for her. When she came to the door, I said, “Do you recognize me?” and she said, “Oh, it’s you!” We were in touch for three years, and then I popped the question, and she said “yes.” Today, we have 4 children, 11 grandchildren, and on great-grandchild. March 14th will be our 63rd wedding anniversary.
Seven movie clips of the recorded interview are accessible for viewing on You Tube. (All photographs and videos are Copyrighted to Michel Botman. Please contact Michel if you wish to utilize them. Thank you!)
Note from Michel Botman (February 22, 2013): I usually don’t respond to comments left on my blog or on You Tube. Everyone has the right to their own opinions. I respect freedom of speech and don’t wish to entertain public quarrels. (I frankly just don’t have the time or inclination). I however noticed a rather nasty comment on You Tube addressed to Mr. Kleinberg. Since I posted the videos of Mr. Kleinberg, I felt compelled to respond (see: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_yzHlK86nT0)
One of the most striking aspects of Howard and Nancy Kleinberg’s testimonies, is the fact that they were clearly not filled with acrimony or animosity towards the German or Polish people. They certainly recalled particularly appalling actions, but did not do so with spite or hostility. Despite having been victims of some of the most horrific events ever perpetrated by mankind, I did not feel any enduring hatred in their voices. Infinite sadness, yes, but no hatred. This generous attitude is all to their honour.
At one point, Mr. Kleinberg was specifically asked the following question by our son, Noah: “Did you ever witness any kindness from the Polish?”
Mr Kleinberg responded in a very compassionate manner (Listen very carefully to the beginning of the video clip #3): “Kindness was punished by death. The Polish were brought up with hate for the Jews. If they kept a Jew in their home, the whole family would be shot (by the German soldiers).” … “We can’t sit in judgment and say that they didn’t do much to help the Jews, because the conditions (for the Poles) were very severe.” “As a matter of fact, a question came up after the war: ‘How would you behave if you had been in this situation?’ This is the lingering question.”
On the video, Mr. Kleinberg is clearly seen struggling with the idea. It is obvious that the answer is agonizingly difficult for him to contemplate or express. There is great sadness in his eyes, followed by painful silence and perhaps the inability to answer. His hand is shaking as he reaches for a glass of water.
Noah, (being a teenager and not taking silence, or social cues, for a response), insisted and asked: “So, if you had been a Pole at the time and someone else a Jew, would you have tried to … would you have done anything?”
Mr. Keinberg is seen wrestling with the question, again. He shakes his head in a way that seems to indicate extreme doubt and perhaps (as I personally see it) the tragic admission that under such circumstances, most of us would have likely not risked our lives and the lives of their families to save a Jew.
Mr. Kleinberg adds: “It was an unexplainable situation”, expressing again the impossibility to fully comprehend and judge others’ conduct under such circumstances. There seems to be no answer to such excruciatingly intimate and perplexing question. As Mr. Kleinberg said, it will remain forever “a lingering question”. He finally completes his response, stating facts that don’t quite answer the unanswerable: “In Yad Vashem (The World Center for Holocaust Research, in Jerusalem), are honored the righteous Gentiles. There are five thousand (righteous) Poles, for a population of thirty millions.”
This is evidently not a discourse of hatred. These are non-judgmental words of someone who, despite having been subjected to the most atrocious and unspeakable treatment by his fellow Man, has remained compassionate, understanding, and even, one could say, indulgent.