The boy who DE­MANDED he was sent to Auschwitz stay with the fa­ther he adored

But, as a com­pelling book re­veals, both lived to tell their mirac­u­lous story of love and sur­vival

The Scottish Mail on Sunday - - Talk Of The Town - JEREMY By DRONFIELD © Jeremy Dronfield, 2019

FRITZ KLEINMANN was shift­ing a heavy con­crete block into place when he was sum­moned from the scaf­fold­ing. ‘Kapo wants you.’ Fritz feared the worst. Ka­pos – in­mates as­signed by the SS to help over­see fel­low prison­ers – had the power of life and death in Buchen­wald, the con­cen­tra­tion camp in which he’d man­aged to sur­vive for three long years.

‘There is a list in the records of­fice of Jews to be trans­ferred to Auschwitz,’ the kapo said sim­ply. ‘Your fa­ther’s name is on it.’

Fritz, 17, and his 53-year-old fa­ther Gus­tav had been to­gether the en­tire time they’d been in Buchen­wald, help­ing one an­other to stay alive in night­mar­ish cir­cum­stances. Now his fa­ther was to be taken away. Ev­ery­one knew the name of Auschwitz. There had been dis­turb­ing ru­mours about spe­cial gas cham­bers be­ing built, in which hun­dreds of peo­ple at a time could be put to death. Buchen­wald was hor­rific, but a trans­fer to Auschwitz meant only one thing.

The list of those go­ing was a long one; the only ex­cep­tions were those like Fritz, who were re­quired for build­ing work. The kapo looked Fritz in the eye. ‘If you want to go on liv­ing, you have to for­get your fa­ther.’

‘That’s im­pos­si­ble,’ he replied. Af­ter a few days of ag­o­nis­ing, he re­turned to the kapo with an ex­tra­or­di­nary re­quest: ‘I need you to pull what­ever strings you can to get me on the Auschwitz trans­fer.’

The kapo was aghast. ‘What you’re ask­ing is sui­cide.’ But Fritz was adamant. ‘I want to be with my papa, no mat­ter what hap­pens. I can’t go on liv­ing with­out him.’

And so it was that two days later, Fritz and Gus­tav were herded on to a cat­tle wagon – their des­ti­na­tion a place syn­ony­mous with mur­der on an in­dus­trial scale. THERE are many Holo­caust sto­ries, but not like the tale of Gus­tav and Fritz Kleinmann. Not only did they ex­pe­ri­ence the hor­rors of the Nazi con­cen­tra­tion camps from the first mass ar­rests in the late 1930s all the way through to even­tual lib­er­a­tion, but they went through the whole in­ferno to­gether, fa­ther and son. That makes them unique.

More than luck or cir­cum­stance, it was their love and de­vo­tion to each other that kept them alive. ‘The boy is my great­est joy,’ Gus­tav wrote in his se­cret di­ary. ‘We strengthen each other. We are one, insep­a­ra­ble.’

To­gether, they en­dured a six-year odyssey through the hell of the camps, be­gin­ning with three years at Buchen­wald, where Gus­tav so nearly be­came one of the tens of thou­sands to die in its unimag­in­ably harsh con­di­tions. Yet, how­ever re­mark­able their story would prove to be, be­fore the Nazis tore them apart there was noth­ing un­usual about Gus­tav’s fam­ily.

A dec­o­rated hero of the Great War, Gus­tav had mar­ried his sweet­heart Tini and they were rais­ing their four chil­dren – Fritz, Edith, Herta and Kurt – in a small apart­ment in Vi­enna, where he worked as a master up­hol­sterer. Ev­ery­thing changed in March 1938, when Aus­tria was an­nexed by Nazi Ger­many. Un­der the Nurem­berg Laws, Aus­trian Jews were stripped of their cit­i­zen­ship. In April that year, Fritz, then 14 and train­ing to en­ter his fa­ther’s trade, was ex­pelled from the Trade School. Gus­tav’s work­shop was seized. Those caught buy­ing from Jews were made to stand with a sign: ‘I am an Aryan, but a swine – I bought this in a Jewish shop.’

A month later, the fam­ily dressed in their best out­fits for a pho­to­graph. The pho­tog­ra­pher caught Gus­tav’s ap­pre­hen­sive­ness and the sto­icism of Tini’s dark eyes. It had been Tini’s urg­ing that had brought them to the stu­dio. She had a fore­bod­ing that the fam­ily might not be to­gether for much longer and wanted to cap­ture her chil­dren’s im­age while she had the chance.

The ham­mer blow came on a Sun­day in Septem­ber 1939, when Tini was in the apart­ment with Herta, Fritz and Kurt. Four men ar­rived, all neigh­bours. All were work­ing men like Gus­tav – friends with wives she knew, whose chil­dren had once played with hers.

‘We want your hus­band,’ one said. ‘We have orders. If he isn’t here, we’re to take the lad.’ He nod­ded at Fritz. Tini felt as if she’d been phys­i­cally beaten. They took hold of her pre­cious boy and marched him out.

When Gus­tav re­turned and heard what had hap­pened, he turned around and headed for the door, in­tend­ing to go straight to the po­lice. Tini grabbed his arm. ‘Don’t,’ she said. ‘They’ll take you.’

‘I’m not leav­ing Fritzl in their hands,’ he replied.

‘No!’ Tini pleaded. ‘You have to run away, go some­where and hide.’

But there was no dis­suad­ing him. Leav­ing Tini in tears, Gus­tav walked quickly to the po­lice sta­tion and an­nounced: ‘I’m Gus­tav Kleinmann. I’m here to turn my­self in. You have my son. Take me and let him go.’ The po­lice­man glanced around. ‘Get the hell out of here,’ he mut­tered.

Be­wil­dered, Gus­tav left the build­ing. He went home to find Tini dis­traught that Fritz was still gone. ‘I’ll try again to­mor­row,’ Gus­tav said. But at 2am, a tide of men surged into the apart­ment. There was weep­ing, there were pleas, and fi­nal des­per­ate words be­tween hus­band and wife. And then it was all over. The door slammed, and Gus­tav was gone. EACH morn­ing, an hour and a half be­fore dawn, shrill whis­tles yanked the prison­ers from their sleep. Then came the ka­pos, yelling at them to hurry.

Out­side, Buchen­wald was ablaze with elec­tric light along the fence lines, atop the guard tow­ers and in the walk­ways. Peo­ple were herded to the square for roll call, stand­ing mo­tion­less and shiv­er­ing in their piti­ful clothes for two hours. When it was time to go to work, sun­rise was be­gin­ning to lighten the land­scape.

Gus­tav and Fritz had been as­signed to the quarry de­tail, work­ing as wagon haulers. All day, they and 14 other men had to heave and push a laden wagon weigh­ing around four and a half tons up the hill, a dis­tance of more than 800 yards, lashed and yelled at by ka­pos. Falls were fre­quent, with frac­tured limbs and bro­ken heads. The in­jured would be taken to the in­fir­mary or, if they were Jews, to the Death Block – a hold­ing bar­rack for the ter­mi­nally sick.

Gus­tav and Fritz toiled on day af­ter day, mirac­u­lously manag­ing to avoid both pun­ish­ment and in­jury. ‘We are prov­ing our­selves,’ Gus­tav wrote in his di­ary.

But things turned very dif­fer­ent one day in Novem­ber, af­ter a failed as­sas­si­na­tion at­tempt on Hitler in Mu­nich. When the prison­ers lined up in the square, the ka­pos went along the ranks, grab­bing ev­ery 20th man and shov­ing him for­ward. One of them was Fritz.

A heavy wooden ta­ble with straps dan­gling from it was dragged on to the square. The Bock – the whip­ping bench. Fritz’s jacket and shirt were re­moved and his trousers pulled down. Gus­tav watched help­lessly as the first lash landed like a ra­zor cut across Fritz’s but­tocks.

‘Count!’ they yelled at their vic­tim. ‘One,’ Fritz said. The bull-whip cut across his flesh again. ‘Two,’ he gasped. Fritz strug­gled to con­cen­trate, know­ing that if he lost count the lashes would start over again.

At last the count reached 25; the

strap was loos­ened and he was forced to his feet. Be­fore his fa­ther’s eyes he was helped away, bleed­ing, his body on fire with pain, his mind stunned as the next un­for­tu­nate was dragged to the Bock.

De­spite his agony, Fritz was more wor­ried about his papa than about him­self. Dysen­tery and fever plagued the camp, and now the older man had caught the sick­ness.

Dur­ing roll call he swayed, shiv­er­ing, his senses fail­ing. He was un­con­scious be­fore he hit the ground. When he woke, he was on his back. In his hazy, febrile state, Gus­tav dimly re­alised that he must be in the block set aside for hope­less cases, from which peo­ple rarely emerged alive. The Death Block. The air was thick, sti­fling, filled with groans and an at­mos­phere of hope­less­ness.

As the days wore on, Fritz vis­ited his papa when­ever he could. The dysen­tery had failed to kill him, and the worst had passed.

How­ever, it was ob­vi­ous to Gus­tav that he would never get well in this en­vi­ron­ment. Af­ter two weeks, Gus­tav begged to be dis­charged, but doc­tors wouldn’t let him go. He was far too weak to sur­vive. Gus­tav was de­ter­mined and asked Fritz to help him to his feet. With Fritz guid­ing his papa’s fal­ter­ing steps, fa­ther and son slipped out of the Death Block to­gether. IT WAS Oc­to­ber 1942 when they ar­rived at the most no­to­ri­ous of all the camps. Fritz had been al­lowed to go with his fa­ther and on their jour­ney to Auschwitz, Gus­tav wrote: ‘Ev­ery­one is say­ing it is a jour­ney to death, but Fritzl and I do not let our heads hang down. I tell my­self that a man can only die once.’

Fritz saw the marks of abuse and the signs of im­pend­ing death in all his fel­low prison­ers, in­clud­ing him­self: bruises, bro­ken bones, sores, scabs and gapped teeth.

The prison­ers were able to shower once a week, but it was an or­deal. Af­ter show­er­ing, only the first men out got dry tow­els, so if you lagged be­hind you got noth­ing but a soak­ing rag and had to walk back to the bar­rack drip­ping, even in the cold­est win­ter weather. Pneu­mo­nia was en­demic, and of­ten fa­tal. Food was dis­trib­uted in the bar­rack. Only a few bowls were pro­vided, so the first to get their help­ing of soup had to wolf it down so as not to keep the oth­ers wait­ing. If you man­aged to ac­quire your own spoon, you would guard it with your life.

Hav­ing a de­cent pair of shoes was es­sen­tial. If they were too large or too small, they chafed and caused blis­ters. Socks were rare, and many sub­sti­tuted strips of fab­ric torn from the tails of their camp-is­sue shirts. This in it­self was risky, be­cause dam­ag­ing SS prop­erty was classed as sab­o­tage.

Gus­tav and Fritz were sent to a sub-camp within Auschwitz called Monowitz. Within weeks, most of their Buchen­wald com­rades had been sent to their deaths, but – against the odds – the pair had man­aged to sur­vive as a re­sult of their use­ful labour­ing skills. Fritz had been build­ing the new camp, while his fa­ther had worked as a car­pen­ter and up­hol­sterer.

De­spite the over­whelm­ing dan­ger, Fritz be­came in­volved in a covert re­sis­tance against the SS, pass­ing in­for­ma­tion to other prison­ers about progress of the war, de­tails he’d picked up from the civil­ians he worked with.

One day he was seized, driven from the camp and ac­cused by the head of the Auschwitz Gestapo of plan­ning a large-scale es­cape, which he knew noth­ing about.

He was lashed again, this time 60 times. Still he re­fused to name friends in­volved in the re­sis­tance.

Fritz was al­lowed to re­turn to camp, but fear­ing the Gestapo would re­turn to look for him, his com­rades came up with a dar­ing plan: they hid him in an iso­la­tion room in the hos­pi­tal, and recorded his death with the author­i­ties. Weeks passed as Fritz re­cov­ered, now with a new iden­tity – taken from a de­ceased ty­phus pa­tient – and a new job as a ware­house­man. So hor­rific was the death rate at Auschwitz that few prison­ers were eas­ily recog­nis­able.

Yet not know­ing the truth, his fa­ther’s agony con­tin­ued.

One evening a friend came to see Gus­tav. ‘Fol­low me,’ he in­di­cated, and led the older man down away from the road and to­wards the bathing block.

In the low light in­side, he saw the out­line of a man stand­ing back in the shad­ows. The fig­ure came for­ward, his fea­tures re­solv­ing into the face of Fritz. It was mirac­u­lous. For Gus­tav, to hold his son in his arms again, to in­hale the smell of him, to hear his voice, was be­yond hope, be­yond ev­ery­thing. TO­GETHER they re­mained un­til Jan­uary 1945, when Auschwitz was evac­u­ated as Rus­sian troops neared. They and thou­sands of other prison­ers were forced to trudge through the snow, away from the ad­vanc­ing Red Army.

Then they were put on trains bound for camps deeper in­side the Re­ich. Their des­ti­na­tion was Mau­thausen in Aus­tria, but fa­ther and son had de­cided to seize the chance to make their es­cape.

When it came to it, Gus­tav, 53 years old and ex­hausted, didn’t have the strength to at­tempt it. Yet he couldn’t deny his son the chance to live. It would be a wrench­ing pain to part, but he urged Fritz to go alone.

Fritz em­braced his papa, and with his help climbed the slip­pery side wall of the wagon. He peered anx­iously to­wards the brake houses on the ad­ja­cent wag­ons, oc­cu­pied by armed SS guards. The train was thun­der­ing along at its max­i­mum speed. Screw­ing up his courage, Fritz launched him­self into the night and the rush­ing, freez­ing air.

Fritz’s brave es­cape would not suc­ceed, how­ever. De­spite his fa­ther’s fer­vent prayers, he was re­cap­tured and im­pris­oned in Mau­thausen – al­though the train it­self was then di­verted and took Gus­tav to a dif­fer­ent camp, Mit­tel­bauDora. Fa­ther and son spent three months pray­ing the other had been able to cling to life.

And their prayers were an­swered. Mit­tel­bau-Dora was lib­er­ated by US troops in April; Mau­thausen in May. When Fritz was first checked into an evac­u­a­tion hos­pi­tal, his weight was recorded as 5st 7lb, but he grad­u­ally re­gained strength. He re­turned home to Vi­enna, but found him­self alone: his mother and sis­ter Herta had been mur­dered by the Nazis, while Kurt had found sanc­tu­ary in Amer­ica and Edith in Eng­land. He had no idea if his fa­ther was alive.

It was Septem­ber by the time Gus­tav, too, fi­nally made his way home and went to the apart­ment build­ing where his work­shop used to be. There he found the one per­son he most longed to see: his beloved boy.

They wept tears of joy. They were home and to­gether again.

Ex­tracted from The Boy Who Fol­lowed His Fa­ther Into Auschwitz, by Jeremy Dronfield, which is pub­lished by Michael Joseph on Jan­uary 24, priced £12.99. Of­fer price £10.39 (20 per cent dis­count) un­til Jan­uary 20. Pre-or­der at mail­ or call 0844 571 0640 – p&p is free on orders over £15.

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