Detroit (United States), Ebensee, Austria
Interview 1: December 26, 1995
Klein was born in 1924 in Detroit and attended Central High School, graduating in 1942. He is Jewish and was a member of the B’nai Moshe synagogue.
He was drafted into the U. S. Army on April 2, 1943, and served his basic training at Fort Gordon, Georgia, in the 3rd Cavalry. Subsequently he served at Fort Bragg and in July 1944 left for overseas duty in Europe. He landed in France on August 8, 1944, and was shot in the thigh on September 3, 1944, when his unit was strafed by German aircraft. Following surgery and recuperation, he rejoined his unit in February 1945.
While located in Gmunden, a town about 35 miles from Salzburg, Upper Austria, a detachment of his company was ordered to secure the village of Ebensee, a few miles to the south. There they discovered a labor camp used by the German to dig two tunnels into the mountain. Klein describes his own shock and amazement and that of his fellow soldiers at the sights and conditions they witnessed when the camp’s prisoners were freed by the American forces. Since they had not known of the existence of concentration or labor camps and had not been told about what they would encounter at Ebensee, the experience was a complete surprise to them.
The liberation was accomplished by F-Company, 3rd Cavalry, Task Force Polk, as a reconnaissance unit for the 20th Army Corps. Klein describes details of the initial efforts to save the approximately 16,000 inmates of the camp, mostly Jewish, who were dying at the rate of 350 per day. He makes specific mention of one of the inmates who spoke English and now lives in the United States, and of two Americans who were also inmates at the camp. Klein remained on duty at the camp for five days until military government and hospital units arrived to replace his unit.
Klein returned to Ebensee for a reunion of the inmates and the liberators, entering the former labor camp at exactly the same month, day and hour, forty-five years later. It was a very traumatic experience. He displayed a number of photos during the interview that were taken during the liberation and the reunion. He also displayed a painting of himself done by a Jewish inmate of the camp shortly after liberation when Klein confided to the inmate that he also was Jewish.
Date: December 26, 1995
Length: 44 minutes
Interviewer: Hans R. Weinmann
Format: Video recording
Interview 2: February 14, 2019
Samuel S. Klein was born in Detroit, Michigan on April 25, 1924 to Harry Klein and Gussie Klein. He had a twin sister, Rose (Taksier) and a younger sister, Madelyn (Greenstone).
After graduating from Central High School, Samuel was drafted into the US Army on April 2, 1943. He served his basic training at Camp Gordon, Georgia, in the Third Cavalry. Soon, he volunteered and was promoted to communication sergeant of E-Troop, where his job was to teach radio procedures to the troop, and how to pronounce and communicate with each other.
On July 4, 1944, he embarked from New York and landed in England. “When General Patton and the Third Army went to Europe, we were the first ones to go, along with them. Upon landing in France on August 8, 1944, immediately we were sent to the frontlines because we were assigned to the XII Corps. After a week, we were transferred to the XX Corps Reconnaissance Squadron. We were behind the front. Our job was to take prisoners, get information, and prevent the blowing up of bridges where we could. We were supposed to be non-combatant but we would go into an area and rile them up, get them excited, and then leave and let the infantry handle them. Eventually we were called Patton’s Ghost Troops because of the way we infiltrated the areas, got the information and left.
“I was shot in the thigh in Mars-la-Tour on September 9, 1944 and taken to Verdun where they operated on me; and then I was sent to Paris. As the ambulance pulled up to the hospital, German litter bearers were taking Germans out and putting Americans in. I was there for three weeks and they sent me back to England, where I remained until November 30th.… I received a letter from my captain and he said, ‘Insist upon coming back to the outfit as you go through the replacement.’ They sent me out to the wrong outfit three times and I refused… Finally, a jeep picked me up and took me to join F-Company in Perl because I already had been replaced in E-Troop. I was a communication sergeant with them until the end of the war.
“I went with the Third Cavalry F-Company (Captain Timothy Brennan commanding) into Germany and then Austria, where we liberated the Ebensee concentration camp.” The Ebensee concentration camp was part of the Mauthausen network and was established by the SS to build tunnels for armaments storage. The prisoners were only men or boys, who could labor in the tunnels.
“When we came into the town of Ebensee, we saw these skeletons walking around. ‘What was this,’ we asked the local people. They said, ‘There’s a camp over there.’ So, we sent a tank, a jeep, an armored car. When we went to the gates of the camp, there was only one Austrian guard. No Germans. The day the war ended was the day we liberated the camp, May 6, 1945.
“We were never informed about concentration camps. We were completely surprised and horrified.… The camp was built for 700 to 1000 prisoners. When we got there, there were 16,000 prisoners. They were dying at about 350 a day. Most of them were in their bunks; they could hardly move.… Bodies were stacked up all over…. The Germans had left them the day before we got there. They turned their water off. And they just left the camp. And it was terrible. The Austrian guards couldn’t keep the prisoners in and some of them broke out and went into the town of Ebensee looking for food. We just herded them up and sent them back to camp…. We couldn’t give them medical care…. We gave them a piece of bread and they would take one gulp and drop dead. It was terrible… We notified headquarters and they sent the First Infantry Division and a hospital unit who took over after about a week.
“When we first had approached the gates, Max, a man of about 19-years-old, asked in English, ‘Do you have a Camel? I haven’t smoked one in years.’ The tank commander gave him a cigarette and he took two puffs and fainted. He turned out to be a young man who spoke seven languages. So, we used him as an interpreter and to get things in town…. The residents in town, like the baker, refused to release any food. But we brought a tank up and aimed at the bakery and he gave us everything he had. So, that’s the way we got them food.
“In the camp, there was an artist. Since this was an area where artists came to paint, we asked the mayor of the town, ‘Do you have paints? Do you have brushes? Do you have canvases?’ He said, ‘Oh yes, oh yes.’ We said, ‘Well give this man all the paints he needs,’ and he said, ‘No.’ We said, ‘Why not?’ He said, ‘He’s a prisoner.’ Well, we convinced him to give the artist all the paints he needed…. He was painting my captain’s picture and I happened to come into the orderly room. I stood next to the artist and he looked up at me and I said, ‘I’m Jewish.’ When he heard that, he said, ‘I want to paint your picture.’ In two sittings he painted my picture” – a portrait that still hangs on the wall of Samuel’s home.
Later, Samuel learned that, the artist was Mieczyslaw Koscielniak, who had been studying at the Academy of Fine Arts in Krakow when he was sent to Auschwitz. Having seen human suffering every day, he created 300 shocking drawings that he smuggled away from the concentration camp with help of his friends from the underground organization. These drawings remain on exhibit in the Museum in Oswiecim as one of the most shocking evidences of Hitlerite crime. (http://mieczyslawkoscielniak.com/index-e.php)
From Ebensee, Samuel’s troop went to Yugoslavia to settle things down with Tito, but when they got there, Tito changed his mind, and they were sent home via Austria and then Camp Lucky Strike in Janville, France.
After Samuel returned home, talking about his wartime experience was difficult. “You started talking about it and then you’d start crying…. It was worse than anything else we saw during the war. In fact, when I was wounded, I went to a hospital. That was not as bad as what we saw and felt about the survivors of the camp…. I have a picture of a prisoner who was a 12-year-old boy telling us what he went through and you can see his veins. He was so emotional…. What we went through was worse than anything, any battle, injuries. Our men just broke down crying. Just couldn’t believe what they saw or what they smelled. The worse part of it was what the camp smelled like the death.”
The liberators, including Samuel, held annual reunions for many years after the war and shared further stories with each other. “Max, the man that asked for cigarettes, came to our reunion in El Paso, Texas. He had wanted us to sponsor him to come to the United States to become an architect. He even hid in one of our tanks when we were going to Yugoslavia and we had to send him back to the infantry outfit. But he was able to convince the colonel of the infantry to sponsor him. He came to the United States and did become an architect.”
Max told the liberators that the survivors celebrated the liberation every year and wanted to meet their liberators. So, 90 of them, including their wives, decided to go back together with the survivors. “We started at the beaches where we landed in France. We went our whole route that we went during the war and we ended up walking through the gates of the camp at the same hour, the same day, 45-years later (May 6, 1990). We were told that people – survivors and their families – are going to want to hug you and kiss you. Let them. And that was a feeling you can’t really describe…. There was a group that sang at the cemetery, a cantata. And they were just celebrating the liberation with us.”
From Ebensee, the liberators went to Mauthausen and joined the survivors there. One of the survivors, now a doctor from Israel, had been a medical student before being imprisoned. He had operated on Max, when he had an attack of appendicitis and a German doctor refused to operate. He saved his life.
At another reunion, one of the survivors was a cantor from Toronto, Canada. “The first thing he said to me was, ‘We were hungry. We wanted food and all you gave us was your candy.’ I told him, ‘That’s all we had. We gave you everything we had.’ He said, ‘I never realized that; never thought of that.’ But we just gave them whatever it took to survive.” At that reunion, a visiting general walked up and took a medal off his chest and gave it to the cantor.
After the war, Samuel studied under the GI bill and became a CPA, his life work. He married Harriet Heller in 1947 and they had two daughters, Rosemary Lee and Kay-Ellen, and three grandchildren.
Date of Interview: February 14, 2019
Length of Interview: 51 minutes
Interview & Synopsis by: Zieva Konvisser
Videographer: Mark Einhaus