Villages resident helps trace family's path through Auschwitz
Between May 14 and July 9, 1944, more than 430,000 Hungarian Jews were deported to Auschwitz.
In a recent visit to the Orlando area former Miami resident Dr. Jill Klein, author of a newly released Holocaust memoir, “We Got the Water,” shared the details of her family’s path through Auschwitz, possibly as passengers on one of the first transports from Hungary to the infamous death camp.
Throughout her book, Klein, a social psychologist and faculty member of Melbourne Business School at the University of Melbourne in Australia, uses her skills as a social scientist, tracing her family’s path through the camps relying on first-hand survivor accounts from her father, Gene Klein, of The Villages. Gene’s sisters, Oli and Lilly, and brother-in-law, George, also share their harrowing accounts as prisoners of Auschwitz and various Nazi camps from 1944-1945.
Dr. Klein states, “Reconstructing an event that is as old as my father (84) is not an easy task.” Klein employs her professorial skills throughout the book, building suspense and engaging the reader in her research process, as she uncovers clues and documents that put together missing pieces of her family history throughout the Holocaust.
Klein notes that time and distance from the events created an added challenge in putting together her family’s story. She adds that a remarkable number of her family’s documents survived the war including photographs, diaries, identity papers and postcards. These artifacts served as primary sources and were backed up by reference books, maps and additional memoirs of prisoners, as well as guards.
Klein compared stories compiled from her father and his siblings in extensive interviews, working out discrepancies stemming from different perspectives of the same events and the passage of time by using surviving artifacts as well as transcripts, Auschwitz documentation and reference books. The author wrestles with accuracy, relying on hundreds of hours of documentation and notes. As Dr. Klein was concluding her research, George and Lilly passed away from ailments related to old age. Klein notes that she is fortunate that her research began more than 10 years before publication, when her family members were still in their 70s and 80s.
Lilly Klein pieced together a diary for herself and sister Oli in early 1945 while imprisoned in Sommerda, a German camp, creating a priceless archive of information recording daily life in the camps. The diary was made out of labels swiped from the munitions factory where the women were forced laborers.
Jill Klein includes excerpts from her aunt’s diaries in the book, which provide an inside look at Lilly and Oli Klein’s physical and emotional well-being, allowing the reader to develop affection for the two resilient and brave young women. The sisters report the details of the unspeakable abuse they endured while imprisoned at Auschwitz and Sommerda, as well as some lighter moments showing the resilience of the human spirit. In an entry marked Dec. 26, 1944, Lilly Klein recounts the horror she experiences upon arrival at Auschwitz when her head is shaved, and her long hair piles upon her shoulders and the floor. Lilly’s sense of humor endures as she describes the laughter among prisoners when they are absurdly dressed in men’s underwear (though she notes that they should be crying instead of laughing). The United States Holocaust Museum recently displayed Lilly’s diary, and it is now archived at the museum in Washington, D.C.
As Dr. Klein compiled the book, pieces of the past began to fit together. In 2009 she received an email from Lilly’s son, Tom. The enclosed attachment contained Lilly’s Auschwitz documentation forwarded from the United States Holocaust Museum. According to the document, Lilly’s date of transport to Auschwitz was May 15, 1944. Dr. Klein learned from the Holocaust Chronicle that transport to Auschwitz from Hungary began on May 16, 1944 (Yadveshem.com reports the transport began on May 14). Klein was able to deduce that her family was among the first Hungarian Jews to be deported to the Nazi death camps (despite the slight discrepancy in dates).
Klein shares that her father’s family and other passengers were approached by Jewish prisoners immediately upon arrival at Auschwitz. The haggard prisoners encouraged the new arrivals to look strong and fit for work. Much to the Klein family’s surprise and disappointment, they were quickly separated from one another. Women were sent in one direction and men in another. In addition her father, Gene (Gabi in Hungarian), aged 15, and her grandfather Herman were also split apart. Klein laments that patriarch Herman was sent marching off with a group that was sent to “the showers,” never to be seen again. The family is horrified to discover that Herman has been sent to his death.
Jill Klein painstakingly recreates Herman’s march, which the family learns is a death march to the crematorium. Klein says, “I had been able to get accounts from my father, my aunts and my uncle. Herman’s part of the story was missing. It was so sad that I was not able to interview him.” Klein adds, “I was able to use historical documents to recreate the facts.”
In the book Klein reveals that from the study of maps of Auschwitz, along with accounts from family, and testimony from prisoners and photographs, she was able to deduce that Herman most likely met his death in crematorium number two. Klein continues, “I was able to add additional facts about Herman’s story as they were uncovered. (For instance) I learned that he was carrying a comb from Lily, and added it to my account.” She writes, “Thus, throughout the book I attempt to reconstruct his passage…I do this so that in my imagination at least, I am able to accompany him.”
Teen-aged Gabi learned the power of resilience upon learning of his father’s death. Gene Klein states, “My goal was to stay alive. Once I learned that my father had been killed, I needed to stay alive for my mother and sisters. I worried about what would happen if my mother and sister survived, and my father and I were gone. How horrible would that be?” Later, Gabi found a reservoir of strength in the kindness of a German civilian engineer who supplied him with food, giving him the physical and emotional strength to carry on until liberation.
After the war, Gabi Klein moved to Florida, and is now called Gene. He attended art school, and designed window displays at a department store in Miami where he met his future wife, Barbara. Later, he became a sign painter. Barbara and Gene had two daughters, Monica and Jill, and have been married for 56 years. The retired couple has relocated to The Villages.
Gene and daughter, Dr. Jill Klein, teach resilience training to corporate executives worldwide based on Gene’s skills as a survivor and Jill’s background in social psychology. Professor Jill Klein received a doctorate from the University of Michigan, and currently resides in Melbourne, Australia, with husband and fellow academic, Andrew John, and daughter, Paris (12).
“We Got the Water” was released in 2013, and will be carried by the United States Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C. To find out more about the book, visit wegotthewater.com or visit amazon.com.
Pamela Ruben is an Orlando area author, educator and free-lance writer.