The Courageous Journey of a Father and Son in Auschwitz

A Story of Survival and Defiance

The compelling photograph that opens this profound book captures what could possibly be the final gathering of the Kleinmann family, who were based in Vienna. The year is 1938, and it was during the infamous November pogrom, which started with Kristallnacht, that Gustav Kleinmann, a decorated war veteran and a peace-loving upholsterer, along with his 15-year-old son Fritz, were rounded up based on the eager testimonies of their non-Jewish neighbors.

A year later, Gustav, in his relentless effort to save his son from a second arrest and immediate deportation, was taken forcibly from his family home during the night. It was an act of extraordinary courage that he refused to abandon his home. In October 1939, he was sent to Buchenwald. By a twist of fate, Fritz ended up there too.

During the Holocaust, amidst the planned genocide, families often found each other and clung together as they journeyed through the numerous work camps and extermination sites in Germany, Poland, and Austria. But few managed to document their experiences with as much defiant care as Gustav Kleinmann.

While enduring five years of systematic and brutal incarceration, Gustav drew inspiration from Gandhi and managed to maintain a sparsely kept diary, which forms the foundation of Jeremy Dronfield’s novelistic retelling of those harrowing years. The diary was published alongside Fritz’s memoir as “The Dog Will Not Die” in 1995.

Tales of Horror and Irony

As a reviewer, it almost feels inappropriate to dwell on the daily horrors that were inflicted upon the innocent victims during this dark period. However, certain bizarre details remain etched in our minds: meticulously maintained flowerbeds amidst the chaos, garish Teutonic halls built for the pleasure of brutal guards by an army of enslaved workers. In Buchenwald, even Goethe’s Oak, situated along one of the great writer’s favorite paths, was used for crucifixions. Nearby hills, once the site of deer hunts, became hunting grounds for men, with prisoners tricked into crossing invisible boundary lines, becoming fair game for guards seeking to kill. Ironies abound, intellectuals and artists were made to collect excrement without gloves, and applause was given when a determined journalist successfully threw rocks faster than a stone-crushing machine. His reward? Serving as secretary to the illiterate kapo who tried to kill him. Meanwhile, Gustav was forced to join a choir, drowning out the sound of shots fired at Russian prisoners of war.

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A Fateful Decision

It was when Gustav was abruptly transferred from Buchenwald to Auschwitz that Fritz Kleinmann made the most momentous decision of his young life. Despite being granted relative safety, Fritz chose to join his father, believing that it was a journey towards certain death. As Gustav wrote, “Everybody says it’s a one-way ticket, only Fritz and I don’t mope… you can only die once.” Little did they know that the worst was yet to come.

Auschwitz’s Hidden Objective

For those new to Auschwitz’s history, it may come as a surprise, as it did to me, that one of its objectives was to establish a local camp at Monowitz. This camp would serve as a workforce to expedite the construction of a nearby chemical factory for the faltering war effort. When Fritz and Gustav arrived, Monowitz was merely a fenced and mud-soaked field of sheds, lacking basic necessities like kitchens, sanitation, and heating. Every day, they were marched for three hours to reach the uncompleted factory, where they put their bricklaying and stitching skills to use. Through this, the Kleinmanns managed to stay alive, while up to 150 of their less skilled comrades were sent daily to be gassed at Birkenau. It is worth noting that Primo Levi, another survivor, was also present at Birkenau during this time.

Yet, the ironies persist. Gustav found an unexpected ally in Monowitz, an ex-soldier and coworker who simply couldn’t fathom that Hitler would imprison Jews without any valid reason. But even Gustav was astounded by the number of closed trains he witnessed, carrying thousands of Hungarian Jews to their deaths. “And all this in the 20th century,” he wrote incredulously. A year later, at Mauthausen, a camp in Upper Austria, Gustav narrowly escaped being massacred by violently antisemitic Hungarian guards. In contrast, the Russians treated all camp inmates with respect.

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A Leap of Faith

It was during their journey to Mauthausen that Gustav convinced his son to take a leap of faith. As they were on a train filled with starving men and corpses, Gustav urged Fritz to jump into a snowdrift. This daring act saved their lives. It is essential to remind ourselves that while at times, Dronfield’s extraordinary book reads like a particularly gruesome thriller, none of it is fiction. These horrors were real, and witnesses like Gustav and Fritz survived in order to ensure that their past should never be repeated. The onus is now on us.

This article was written for 5 WS, a brand dedicated to providing insightful and engaging content.

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