Somotor (Czechoslovakia), Auschwitz-Birkenau, Melk, Mauthausen, Gunskirchen, Death March
Isaak Klein was born to Simon and Pepi Klein in Somotor, Czechoslovakia in 1931. He, along with his twin brother Tzvi, were the eldest of the Klein’s eight children, including five sisters and one other brother. Isaak recalls a rather happy life with his family in Somotor, despite the ridicule Isaak’s father would receive from local gentiles who disliked the Jews living in their city. Upon the German annexation of Czechoslovakia in 1938, the Kleins were stripped of their farmland and citizenship by the occupying Hungarian military government. Soon afterward, Isaak and his family were deported to Poland in the same year.
Isaak’s family spent some time in his mother’s native city of Turiysk, Ukraine, before moving back to Czechoslovakia, where they attempted to scrape out a living. There, working under Hungarian military officials in Logmotz near Somotor, they were forced work hard labor, chopping up rocks and spreading gravel to make roads. The amount of food they received depended heavily on the amount of work they accomplished in a day’s time. Eventually, Isaak’s family was rounded up with other Jews in the Hungarian ghetto at Satoraljaujhely. During this period, he remained close to his family, but all that changed when they were finally loaded onto cattle trains in 1944 and shipped to the concentration camp Auschwitz-Birkenau. Isaak was then only thirteen years old. After being forced onto the cattle trains, Isaak never again saw his parents, although he remained with his twin brother Tzvi.
After arriving at Auschwitz-Birkenau, only fifty percent of passengers on the cattle train were still alive, as they had traveled for nearly two weeks without any food and water. After the Nazis unloaded the surviving Jews from the train, they were split into groups: one group made of women, children, and the unhealthy and the other composed of men healthy enough to work. Among the Nazis present was the infamous Nazi doctor Josef Mengele, also known as the “Angel of Death.” Taking particular interest in Isaak and his brother, because they were twins, Dr. Mengele selected them to stay in the camp, instead of being placed in the gas chambers. Isaak and Tzvi were then placed in the D-Lager (D-Camp) with other sets of twins.
Isaak and his brother were subjects in Dr. Mengele’s medical experiments. Every day the Nazi doctors checked them over. For the duration of two to three hours, Isaak and Tzvi were experimented on: experiments which included skin grafts and injections, many of which were done under anesthesia (which is why Isaak fails to remember the specifics of them). One time Isaak remembers waking up with stitches on the back of his head; today a permanent scar remains, constantly reminding Isaak of the torture he went through at the concentration camp.
The daily routine in the camp included waking up around five in the morning for a head count, which could last as long as four hours. Afterwards, the work started; they transported materials throughout the camp and cleared the camp of dead bodies. Their daily ration of food included two slices of almost always moldy bread and a thin, watery soup that may or may not have had vegetables in it, such as turnips or beets. For insurrection, the prisoners’ punishment was lashings with a whip, usually ten or more times. While the punishment was being meted out, the prisoners had to count the lashings aloud to the flogger, and, if they failed to do so, the lashings would start over again from zero.
Two memories of Auschwitz-Birkenau still resonate vividly in Isaak’s mind even today. One night, Isaak remembers spotting of group of gypsies being brought into the camp. He recalls hearing ghastly screams emanating from the crematorium the whole night. The second memory, far more dreadful, occurred often during his visits to the latrines. The canal to the latrines, which served as a sewer for both the camps of the men and the women, was connected into one sewer line. Every now and then, Isaak remembers seeing the bodies of new born babies floating in the bottom of latrine that had traveled from the women’s quarters. These he knew came from the female inmates who were forced to abort their children in the camp, as the babies would never have been able to survive in these conditions, nor would the guards have allowed them to keep their children.
By the end of 1944, after spending nearly a year at Auschwitz, the Russian army began pushing into German occupied territory. Fearing that the Russians were coming too close to the camp, the German officials forced the prisoners to relocate to a different camp. The prisoners were forced on a death march south to Melk, Austria, which lasted two weeks. On the death march, the prisoners received no food, water, or shelter, and they barely had enough clothes on their backs to survive. Hundreds died from starvation, the freezing temperatures, and beatings they received from the guards. On one stop in German farmland, the prisoners noticed a farm, where a dead horse was lying outside. Isaak quickly entered the farm house where he ate out of a pig trough, a meal he considered the best he had had since being in the concentration camp. While returning outside, Isaak saw that his fellow prisoners had picked the horse carcass clean of anything edible.
Once arriving at Melk, Isaak remained there only one month. Next, he stayed another month at Mauthausen. Finally, the prisoners were sent to a camp called Gunskirchen, a camp that was located deep in the Austrian forests, the nearest civilization being almost twenty-one kilometers away. The conditions in this camp were far worse than any Isaak had yet experienced. The barracks had no roof, and many of the prisoners drowned in stretches of mud that were two to three feet deep. One night, the mud was so dangerous that Isaak laid five bodies down next to one another and placed a blanket over the top of them. He went to sleep on top of the pile of bodies to ensure that he did not drown in the mud while sleeping.
At last, hope arrived one night when Isaak noticed explosions in the distance; he knew that the Allied Forces were drawing nearer. Not long afterward, the German soldiers fled away from Gunskirchen, leaving the prisoners on their own. Isaak fled the camp with a large group of inmates the next morning, fearing night travel. On the road, Isaak and the others met up with American troops who gave them food, such as cakes, chocolate, and other candy. Unfortunately, Isaak, and also many others, fell ill from food poisoning, as the food that they had received at Gunskirchen was tainted. The following day Isaak was hospitalized in Linz, Austria along with forty other prisoners. Of those forty, only five, including Isaak, survived.
After his stay in the hospital, Isaak and his brother set out to their hometown in Czechoslovakia, seeking former friends or relatives who also might have survived the Holocaust. To their dismay, they found none. Afterwards, in 1946, Isaak and Tzvi went on a six-month trip through Europe, going through Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Austria, France, and finally to Belgium. After arriving in Boneffe, Belgium, Isaak and his brother made the journey to Palestine by boat. There, Jewish organizations tried to smuggle them into the country, but British officers would not grant them entry. Running out of food and water aboard the ship, the ship’s inhabitants surrendered to British officers, who afterwards shipped the detainees to a prison in the gulf of Haifa. After being detained for ten months, Isaak and the others were released to the Jewish population in Palestine.
Upon being released, Isaak attended an agricultural school near the city of Tel Aviv for a year. Soon afterward, the struggle to make Palestine independent began. Isaak remembers being arrested by British officers nearly a dozen times for participating in the events that led up to Israel’s independence in 1948. After Israel declared independence, Isaak joined the Israeli army and served for four years. In 1962, as his financial situation dwindled and as conflict erupted across Israel, Isaak decided to move with his new found wife (who he married in 1955) to the United States. They first moved to Brooklyn, New York, where he and his wife started a family. After living in New York only eight years, Isaak moved to Miami, Florida, where he eventually retired in 1996. Nowadays, Isaak volunteers to give speeches to students at a locale Holocaust Center in the Miami-Dade area every week. His message to the world is “never again.” He hopes that by passing his story on to others, people will learn to understand one another and live in harmony.
Date: August 21, 2008
Interviewer: Rabbi C. Rosenzveig
Length: 51 minutes
Format: Video Recording