It was cold a day under an oppressive sky when Gene Klein stumbled out of the terrifying darkness into a waking nightmare.
Three days cramped in a windowless cattle car, surrounded by the stench of human waste and rotting bodies, left the 16-year-old desperate for a drink of water, springtime air, a glimpse of the sun and answers about the chaos that had swallowed his family whole.
Instead, an even more horrific hellscape unfolded before him.
Nazi guards, brandishing machine guns, shouted orders while German shepherds barked with the ferociousness of trained killers. Klein knew he must comply. But he didn’t know why they were separating the men and women into rows, why they were tearing children from their mothers’ arms.
“I was scared to death,” Klein, 91, of the Village of Duval, told the Daily Sun. “I didn’t know what was going to happen. We didn’t even know where we were.”
Where he was, was on a railway ramp at the infamous Auschwitz death camp, where Nazis selected prisoners for forced labor and gassed the others — the old people, women and especially children — to death.
For a brief moment, Klein reunited with his father, mother and two sisters before soldiers ordered him to join the line on the right of working-age young men.
His father had grown a beard on the rail journey — a white beard — that made the healthy middle-aged man look much older.
He was sent to the line on the left.
Klein never saw him again.
The Holocaust claimed more than 1.1 million lives at Auschwitz alone. When the Soviets liberated the camp 75 years ago today — Holocaust Remembrance Day — they found only 7,000 sick and starving survivors.
Including, miraculously, Klein’s mother and sisters.
Seventy-five years later, few survivors and those who fought in the great conflict remain to tell the tale. According to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, fewer than 389,000 of the 16 million Americans who served in World War II are alive today.
It is a last legion that stands as a beacon of freedom in veteran strongholds such as The Villages.Even before Auschwitz, Klein’s family already had suffered greatly under five years of German occupation in what was then Berehovo, Czechoslovakia.
Like elsewhere in Europe, Czechoslovakian Jews became ostracized in their own communities. They lost their legal right to sue, to hold elected office.
Klein’s father already was having trouble stocking his home goods stores because it was illegal to supply Jewish-owned businesses. One day, officials ordered him to inventory his wares and padlock the store for good.
It wasn’t long after that the Kleins heard the knock on the door, an order to pack basic necessities such as blankets and wait at the roadside with scores of their neighbors.
They were marched to a lumberyard where Klein estimates 4,000 to 5,000 Jews spent about four days lying on straw.
“They told us lies to keep us calm,” he recalled. “We were told that they wanted us for forced labor. They told us families would be kept together.”
Klein remembers waking to the sound of a train whistle on the morning his family members saw armed Nazi soldiers for the first time.
They ordered everyone into a line of cattle cars, each containing two steel barrel drums — one filled with water and an empty one for waste for about 80 people.
The water was gone by the end of the first day.
At Auschwitz, Klein and other prisoners were marched double-time from point to point, shorn, stripped, sprayed with chemicals and sent to cramped barracks with wooden shoes and prison garb stitched with yellow badges.
Only then did Klein summon the courage to ask another prisoner why his father hadn’t joined him.
His father, who taught him to sing and pray in synagogue.
His father, who had helped him prepare for his bar mitzvah four years prior.
The prisoner took him outside and pointed to smoke billowing from two large chimneys.
For more than a decade, victims of the Nazi killing factories were stripped of their clothes and valuables. Women’s hair was cut off to be manufactured into mattresses. Naked men, women and children were herded like cattle to their deaths in a gas chamber. Thousands more became subjects of appalling human experiments and grueling slave labor. Gold teeth were pulled from the mouths of the corpses. An attempt was even made to manufacture soap from the fatty parts of the bodies, while the ashes remaining after cremation were used for fertilizer.
It was a gruesomely commercial exploitation of death on a mass basis.
“One cannot walk the grounds of Auschwitz without being moved beyond words,” Vice President Mike Pence said last week at the World Holocaust Forum in Jerusalem, which drew an extraordinary gathering of more than 40 world leaders resolved to fight anti-Semitism.
“One cannot see the piles of shoes, the lone boxcar on the rail, the gate to the camp and the grainy photographs of men, women and children being sent to their deaths without asking: ‘How could they?’”
Centuries of bigotry and prejudice preceded the atrocities, said Norman J.W. Goda, Ph.D., the Norman and Irma Braman professor of Holocaust studies and director of the Center for Jewish Studies at the University of Florida.
European Jews became convenient scapegoats as Adolf Hitler, chancellor of Germany’s Third Reich, seized upon Jewish prosperity as a cause of economic misery and political upheaval in wake of Germany’s defeat in World War I.
“Understand that at the heart of the Holocaust were several long-standing conspiracy theories about Jewish power,” Goda said. “They were not just hated, but feared for this imaginary Jewish power, and that a world without Jews would be liberating. This was at the heart of the mass killing; that the world would be a much better place without the Jews in it.”
Remembrance is vital, said Moshe Kantor, the president of the World Holocaust Forum, because, as the Holocaust “recedes further into the past, some of its memory is being forgotten and its lessons are no longer being learned.”
“We are building a global coalition of leaders who can send a strong message that will resonate around the world that anti-Semitism, in all its forms, is absolutely unacceptable,” Kantor said.
Saved by the Kindness of a Wartime Stranger
About two weeks into his imprisonment, guards sent Klein and several hundred other prisoners on about a 12-hour train ride to a slave labor camp at Wolfsberg, a subcamp of the larger Gross-Rosen concentration camp at what is now southern Poland.
In a sense, Klein was fortunate. He was assigned to road- and rail-building crews and spared from more sickening duties such as body disposal.
It was still back-breaking work, clearing land for new roads and carrying heavy steel rail to the railroad line while receiving meager food rations — mostly clear soup and bread.
“As time goes by, more people are dying from illness, accidents,” Klein recalled.
Then something fortuitous happened.
A Nazi guard asked if anyone spoke fluent German. Klein raised his hand. A German-speaking surveyor needed an assistant.
Klein had excelled at languages, learning German and Italian, while also building athletic stamina as a youth soccer player.
The surveyor exhibited a kindness to Klein not experienced since before the family’s forced removal. He slipped Klein bread, cheese and milk without attracting unwanted attention from the guards.
“I credit this man, a German and a Christian, for saving my life,” Klein said.
About nine months into imprisonment, Klein learned the Germans planned to close Wolfsberg. He and other prisoners marched to a larger concentration camp where they found no labor, no food and the real possibility of starving to death.
“The death rate there was horrendous as people got sick and just lost faith,” he said.
One morning, he got up early and discovered empty machine gun towers.
“You did not know if that was good or bad, because they could be at the gate waiting to line us up and shoot us,” he said.
But the front gate was unguarded, the Nazis had abandoned the camp.
Through the fog, Klein noticed a lone rider coming near on a horse.
He recognized the red star on the cap: Russian.
“I couldn’t talk Russian, but we were hugging and kissing him,” he said.
It was an incredible new beginning. Like many survivors, Klein spent two years in a center for displaced persons. In 1947, he was granted immigration to the United States and moved with his mother and two sisters to New York.
“I was alive, and I was liberated,” he said.
On the Front Lines of the War on Evil
Liberators like Irving Locker, 95, of the Village Santiago, still spend time in classrooms and lecture halls to make sure the atrocities he witnessed are never forgotten.
When allied forces prevailed against the German army, Locker, a staff sergeant in the U.S. Army, rolled deep into Germany with Battery B of the 116th Battalion of the U.S. Army’s Fourth Division.
Along the way, his battery came across smoldering remains of a brick barn outside the small town of Gardelegen, Germany, about 100 miles west of Berlin.
What Locker saw sickened him.
“It was the smell, the odor, the odor of the dead,” he said.
The man who had commanded an anti-aircraft, anti-tank artillery unit during the Battle of the Bulge had just missed a horrific scene.
Nazis had herded about 1,000 forced-labor prisoners into the barn and set it ablaze, according to war tribunal findings.
Nazis fired on prisoners as they tried to dig out under the barn. Only four men survived.
“It was literally unbelievable to my eyes, being Jewish,” Locker said. “Man’s inhumanity to man. I threw up looking at that. And, then, I sat down and cried, because but for the grace of God go I.”
Locker still struggles with the images of the massacre etched in his memory.
“Even today, when I go to any event to talk about the Holocaust, I don’t sleep that night,” he said. ”I can talk about the war, and it doesn’t bother me. But when I talk about the Holocaust, I don’t sleep.”
Memories of War That Never Fade
William “Skip” Whipp, 93, of the Village of Country Club Hills, awakens every day, even 75 year later, with the burden of two images.
One is the German soldier he killed at age 18 on his first day in combat on a cold, snowy January day at the end of the Battle of the Bulge. He was a member of Gen. George S. Patton’s 3rd Army, Fourth Division, 22nd Infantry Regiment, 3rd Battalion, Company L.
The private first class known for his sharpshooting skills sighted the German soldier crawling in a field. He shot and saw dirt fly up just below the chin of his target. He readjusted for windage and elevation. The second shot hit the soldier in the head, leaving a lifeless body that Whipp confirmed through binoculars.
“I see him every morning,” Whipp said. “When you kill somebody you never forget it.”
The other image is a man with sunken eyes on a skeletal frame he greeted as his squad liberated a barracks during an April 1945 sweep of the Dachau Nazi concentration camp north of Munich, Germany.
“I didn’t want to just barge in armed to the teeth and get everyone all nervous,” Whipp said. “So, I knocked on the door, and we walked in about 12 feet and stopped. We stood there in shock, because of what was looking back at us. They were all human skeletons. You could see the skeletal work in their bodies, but still alive. It’s amazing how the body can stay alive and look like that.”
Dachau had become a site for human experimentation: many prisoners died from freezing experiments, high-altitude experiments, forced intake of saltwater, malaria testing and worse.
“One man stepped closer to me, started tearing up and said, ‘We thought we were all going to die today,’” Whipp recalled. “I said, ‘No you’re not; you’re free now.’”
The soldiers emptied their pockets and gave the prisoners cigarettes and chocolate.
“Now the atmosphere in the barracks was starting to change,” Whipp said. “The one prisoner said, ‘We don’t have anything to share with you, except ….’ The prisoner turned around and squatted down and pulled up a floorboard and picked up a bottle. He had a big smile on his face and said, ‘Vodka. We make our own vodka out of potatoes. Please, share our vodka with us.’ Now, they’re all crying, smoking cigarettes and drinking vodka. I took a sip, and it must have been 190 proof. It felt like a hot coal going down.”
An Eye-Witness to the Unimaginable
The memories from 75 years ago also are still vivid for Winton Petersen, 98, of the Village of Lynnhaven.
Drafted at age 20, he served in the Army’s 286th Engineer Combat Battalion.
By age 21, the Army promoted him to first lieutenant and sent him to France in charge of a 44-member platoon building bridges, destroying them sometimes and searching for land mines.
“We could build a bridge in one to two days with no opposition at all,” he said. “We would pull back, and the Germans would blow it up. We would put it up again the next day.”
The battalion moved east to Worms, Germany, about 40 miles south of Frankfurt, crossed the Rhine River and continued south to Stuttgart and then to Landsberg en route to Munich.
At Landsberg, Petersen saw the bodies of more than 100 forced-labor prisoners murdered at the Kaufering complex, a group of 11 concentration camps that reported to Nazi authorities at Dachau.
The camps were considered the worst from the standpoint of overcrowding, malnutrition, disease and brutality, according to war tribunal findings.
“We got there soon after the infantry got there,” he recalled, interrupting the Nazi plan to burn, bury and hide the evidence.
Petersen took a photo of the corpses that he keeps to this day.
“All I could think is, how could they do this to other humans?”
In the woods nearby, Army soldiers discovered the remains of about a dozen children, Petersen said.
“I don’t know why they were in the woods,” he said. “Maybe they intended for them to run. I don’t know. They were from 6 to 12 years old, boys and girls. They had been machine gunned to death. They were torn apart.”
At Munich, Petersen witnessed one more horrific sight, and he will never forget the stench.
“The refugees were pointing to a railroad boxcar,” he said. “It was nothing but dead bodies.”
A Day For Reverence and Remembrance
Holocaust memorials throughout the world frequently quote President Dwight D. Eisenhower from his role as Supreme Allied Commander of the World War II Allied Expeditionary Force.
“The things I saw beggar description,” he wrote in a letter dated April 15, 1945, to Army Chief of Staff George C. Marshall. “The visual evidence and the verbal testimony of starvation, cruelty and bestiality were so overpowering as to leave me a bit sick. In one room, where they were piled up twenty or thirty naked men, killed by starvation, George Patton would not even enter. He said he would get sick if he did so. I made the visit deliberately, in order to be in position to give first-hand evidence of these things if ever, in the future, there develops a tendency to charge these allegations merely to ‘propaganda.’”
It’s a fear shared today by Susan Sirmai Feinberg, of the Village of Pennecamp, the daughter of two Holocaust survivors.
Feinberg is co-chairwoman of the Holocaust Remembrance Committee at Temple Shalom of Central Florida at Oxford.
The committee’s biggest event is the Tri-County Interfaith Holocaust Remembrance Day, planned this year for April 23, at St. Timothy Roman Catholic Church at The Villages.
By chance only, Feinberg’s mother survived extermination when she received one of the coveted passports that Swedish diplomat Raoul Wallenberg issued to Hungarian Jews.
“All the other Hungarian women went to the Ravensbrück concentration camp and were never seen again,” Feinberg said.
Her father survived imprisonment forced labor, while she lost scores of aunts, uncles, cousins and her paternal grandfather in the Holocaust.
This was not information that Feinberg learned easily. Her parents were extremely reluctant to share the story.
“I was around 7 years old when I knew something was different, something was wrong,” she said. “They really didn’t want to talk about it.”
Around three years later, one of Feinberg’s Hungarian grandmothers came for a visit to the family home in Baltimore.
“That’s when I started asking a lot of questions,” she said. “But it wasn’t easy getting it out of them at first.”
After graduating from college, Feinberg moved to New York and became involved with Holocaust survivor organizations and participated in the fundraising efforts for the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum on National Mall in Washington, D.C.
Feinberg realized the important role bequeathed to descendants of Holocaust survivors, and she became involved in “second generation” activities.
“We are doing more outreach to create a second-generation group at Temple Shalom,” she said. “There are more than 25 children of survivors in the area. We believe there are a lot more. And we welcome them to our group.”
Somebody has to live to tell the story, she said, “because there are people out there who say the Holocaust didn’t happen. If you don’t remember, it will happen again. People forget.”
Gene Klein’s daughter, Jill, found herself answering a similar call.
The two of them wrote a book of their family’s experience, “We Got The Water,” which is sold at the United States Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C.
“I started writing (the book) in the late ’90s,” Jill Klein said. “It took me about 15 years to write the story. It’s a huge honor, and it means a lot to me.”
Gene Klein also taught many classes at The Enrichment Academy on his experiences.
Most of the time when he speaks to an audience, he ends up breaking down in certain parts, he said, adding that “I realized that I survived something horrendous. This was something that happened in my past. I’m not going to let this ruin my life. I’m going to get as much out of life as possible.”
Senior writer David R. Corder can be reached at 352-753-1119, ext. 5241, firstname.lastname@example.org.