Fritz Kleinmann pushed a heavy concrete block into place when he was removed from the scaffolding. & # 39; Kapo wants you. & # 39; Fritz feared the worst. Kapos – detainees assigned by the SS to oversee fellow prisoners – had the strength of life and death in Buchenwald, the concentration camp in which he had been able to survive for three long years.
& # 39; There is a list in the archives office of Jews to be transferred to Auschwitz, & # 39; the kapo said simply. & # 39; Your father's name insists. & # 39;
Fritz, 17, and his 53-year-old father Gustav had spent the whole time together in Buchenwald and helped each other to survive in nightmarish conditions. Now his father would be taken away. Everyone knew the name Auschwitz. There were disturbing rumors that special gas chambers were being built, in which hundreds of people could be put to death at the same time. Buchenwald was horrible, but a transfer to Auschwitz meant only one thing.
Shocking last portrait before the family was torn apart: the Kleinmanns pose for a family photo in 1938, just a few months before the Nazis Gustav and Fritz sent to a concentration camp
The list of those who went was long; the only exceptions were those like Fritz, who were needed for building work. The kapo looked Fritz in the eye. & # 39; If you want to live further, you must forget your father. & # 39;
& # 39; That's impossible, & # 39; he replied. After a few days of torture, he returned to the kapo with an extraordinary request: "I want you to take all the strings to get me to the transfer from Auschwitz."
The kapo was appalled. & # 39; What you ask is suicide. & # 39; But Fritz was adamant. & # 39; I want to be with my father, no matter what happens. I can not live without him. & # 39;
And so it was that two days later Fritz and Gustav were driven to a cattle truck – their destination a place that is synonymous with murder on an industrial scale.
There are many Holocaust stories, but not like the story of Gustav and Fritz Kleinmann. They have not only experienced the horrors of the Nazi concentration camps from the first mass arrests in the late 1930s to the final liberation, but they have gone through the entire inferno together, father and son. That makes them unique.
More than happiness or circumstance it was their love and devotion for each other that kept them alive. "The boy is my greatest joy," Gustav wrote in his secret diary. & # 39; We reinforce each other. We are one, inseparable. & # 39;
Together they have endured a six-year odyssey through the hell of the camps, starting with three years in Buchenwald, where Gustav was almost one of the tens of thousands who died in unimaginably harsh conditions. But no matter how remarkable their story would be, before the Nazis tore them apart, there was nothing special about Gustav's family.
Gustav, a decorated hero of the Great War, married his beloved Tini and they raised 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. Austrian Jews were deprived of their citizenship under the Nuremberg laws. In April of that year, Fritz, when 14 and training to enter into the business of his father, was expelled from the trade school. Gustav's workshop was confiscated. Those who were caught buying Jews had to have a sign: & # 39; I am an aryan, but a boar – I bought this in a Jewish shop. & # 39;
A month later, the family dressed in their best outfits for a photo. The photographer caught up Gustav's concern and the stoicism of Tini's dark eyes. It was Tini's insistence that had brought them to the studio. She had the ominous premonition that the family might not stay together much longer and that she wanted to capture the image of her children 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 neighbors. All were working men like Gustav – friends with women she knew, whose children had ever played with her.
We want your man, & # 39; someone said. & # 39; We have orders. If he is not there, we have to take the boy. & # 39; He nodded to Fritz. Tini felt as if she had been physically defeated. They grabbed her precious boy and pulled him out.
When Gustav returned and heard what had happened, he turned and walked to the door, intending to go straight to the police. Tini grabbed his arm. & # 39; Do not, & # 39; she said. & # 39; They will take you away. & # 39;
I will not let Fritzl in their hands, & # 39; he replied.
& # 39; No! & # 39; Begged Tini. & # 39; You have to run away, go somewhere and hide. & # 39;
But there was no disapproval from him. As Tini left in tears, Gustav quickly walked to the police station and said: "I am Gustav Kleinmann. I am here to hand myself in. You have my son. Take me and let him go. & # 39; The policeman looked around. & # 39; Leave here, & # 39; he murmured.
Bewildered, Gustav left the building. He went home to find Tini desperate that Fritz was still gone. & # 39; I will try again tomorrow, & # 39; Gustav said. But at two o'clock a flood of men poured into the apartment. There was weeping, there were supplications and final desperate words between husband and wife. And then it was all over. The door slammed shut and Gustav was gone.
Every morning, one and a half hours before sunrise, shaky whistles took the prisoners out of their sleep. Then the kapos came and called for a hurry.
Outside Buchenwald was on fire with electric light along the fence lines, on top of the watchtowers and in the walkways. People were driven to the square for their call, stood motionless and shivering in their pathetic clothes for two hours. When it was time to go to work, the sunrise began to lighten the landscape.
Gustav and Fritz were assigned to the quarry detail and worked as wagon transporters. All day long they and 14 other men were forced to push and push a loaded car with a weight of about four and a half tons up the hill, a distance of more than 800 meters, lashed and shouted by kapos. Traps were frequent, with broken limbs and broken heads. The wounded would go to the infirmary or, if they were Jews, to the Death Block – a barracks for the terminally ill.
Gustav and Fritz worked day in and day out and miraculously managed both punishment and injury. & # 39; We prove ourselves & # 39 ;, Gustav wrote in his diary.
But things changed very much in November, after a failed assassination attempt on Hitler in Munich. When the prisoners stood on the square, the kapos crossed the rows, grabbed every 20th man and pushed him forward. One of them was Fritz.
A heavy wooden table with hanging ties was dragged to the square. The Bock – the whipping bank. Fritz's jacket and shirt were removed and his pants pulled down. Gustav watched helplessly as the first whip landed like a razor through Fritz's buttocks.
& # 39; Count! & # 39; They called to their victim. & # 39; One, & # 39; said Fritz. The male clip again cut through his flesh. "Two, he gasped. Fritz struggled to concentrate, knowing that if he lost count, the lashes would start again.
Finally the count reached 25; the belt was loosened and he stood upright. Before the eyes of his father he was helped away, bleeding, his body burned with pain, his mind stunned when the next unfortunate was dragged to the Bock.
Despite his agony, Fritz was more concerned about his dad than about himself. Dysentery and fever teased the camp, and now the older man had picked up the disease.
During the roll call he waved, trembling, his senses failed. He was unconscious before he hit the ground. When he woke up, he was on his back. In his hazy, feverish state, Gustav vaguely realized that he had to be in the block reserved for hopeless things, from which people rarely came to life. The Death Block. The air was thick, stifling, full of moans and an atmosphere of hopelessness.
As the days progressed, Fritz visited his dad whenever he could. The dysentery could not have killed him, and the worst had passed.
However, it was clear to Gustav that he would never get better in this environment. After two weeks, Gustav begged to be fired, but doctors would not let him go. He was too weak to survive. Gustav was determined and asked Fritz to help him get up. While Fritz led the pausing steps of his dad, father and son together slipped out of the dead floor.
It was October 1942 when they arrived at the most notorious of all camps. Fritz had been given permission to go with his father and on his journey to Auschwitz Gustav wrote: "Everyone says it is a journey to death, but Fritzl and I do not let our heads down. I tell myself that a man can die only once. & # 39;
Fritz saw the traces of ill-treatment and the signs of impending death in all of his fellow prisoners, including himself: bruises, broken bones, ulcers, scabs and chewed teeth.
The prisoners could take a shower once a week, but it was a test. After showering only the first men got dry towels, so if you stayed behind you got nothing but a soaked rag and you had to walk back to the barrack that dripped, even in the coldest winter weather. Pneumonia was endemic and often fatal. Food was distributed in the barrack. There were only a few scales provided, so the first ones who had to help soup had to suck him up to keep the others from waiting. If you manage to get your own spoon, you would guard it with your life.
Having a decent pair of shoes was essential. If they were too big or too small, they shaved and caused blisters. Socks were rare, and many substituted strips of fabric tore off the tails of their camp-issue shirts. This in itself was risky because damaging SS property was classified as sabotage.
Gustav and Fritz were sent to a subcamp in Auschwitz called Monowitz. Within a few weeks most of their comrades from Buchenwald had been sent to their deaths, but – against all odds – the couple had managed to survive as a result of their useful work skills. Fritz had built the new camp, while his father had worked as a carpenter and upholsterer.
Despite the overwhelming danger, Fritz became involved in a hidden resistance against the SS, passing on information to other prisoners about the progress of the war, details he had picked up from the citizens he worked with.
One day he was confiscated, expelled from the camp and accused by the head of the Auschwitz Gestapo of planning a large-scale escape, of which he knew nothing.
He was beaten again, this time 60 times. Yet he refused to mention friends who were involved in the resistance.
Fritz, 17, in Buchenwald in 1940
Fritz was allowed to return to the camp, but for fear that the Gestapo would come back to find him, his comrades came up with a daring plan: they hid him in an isolation room in the hospital and registered his death with the authorities. Weeks passed when Fritz recovered, now with a new identity – taken over from a deceased typhus patient – and a new job as warehouse manager. So horrible was the mortality rate in Auschwitz that few prisoners were easily identifiable.
But without knowing the truth, his father's pain continued.
One evening a friend came to visit Gustav. & # 39; Follow me, & # 39; he indicated, leading the older man away from the road and to the bath block.
In the low light inside he saw the outline of a man standing in the shade. The figure came forward and his features disappeared in the face of Fritz. It was wonderful. For Gustav, to hold his son in his arms again, to breathe the smell of him, to hear his voice, was above hope, above all.
Together they stayed until January 1945, when Auschwitz was evacuated when the Russian troops approached. 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 that were on their way to camps deeper in the Reich. Their destination was Mauthausen in Austria, but father and son had decided to seize the opportunity to escape.
When it came to it, Gustav, 53 years old and exhausted, did not have the strength to try it. Yet he could not deprive his son of the chance to live. It would be a painful pain to part, but he urged Fritz to go alone.
Fritz hugged his dad and with his help climbed up the slippery side wall of the car. He gazed anxiously at the brakes on the adjacent cars, occupied by armed SS guards. The train thundered with its maximum speed. Fritz put his courage down and launched himself into the night and the rushing, freezing air.
The concentration camp Auschwitz-Birkenau in Poland was notorious for the horror that took place inside
Fritz's brave escape, however, would not succeed. Despite the fervent prayers of his father, he was recaptured and imprisoned in Mauthausen – although the train itself was diverted and Gustav was taken to another camp, Mittelbau-Dora. Father and son spent three months praying the other could have stuck to life.
And their prayers were answered. Mittelbau-Dora was liberated in April by American troops; Mauthausen in May. When Fritz was first checked in an evacuation hospital, his weight was recorded as 5th 7lb, but gradually he regained strength. He returned to Vienna, but found himself alone: his mother and sister Herta had been murdered by the Nazis, while Kurt had found a refuge in America and Edith in England. He had no idea if his father was still alive.
It was September by the time that Gustav finally went home and went to the apartment building where his workshop was. There he found the only person he wanted most: his beloved boy.
They cried tears of joy. They were at home and together again.
© Jeremy Dronfield, 2019
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