Monday, August 7, 2017

Meeting Leslie Kleinman and Walking the Krakow Ghetto

"I need some time to process all this, but Leslie Kleinman -who spent 8 months in Auschwitz as a 14 year old- has sent me in a more hopeful direction. His story is in the library of congress and everyone should listen to this man. (Something I don't often say. ­čśë) — with Benjamin Heim Shepard at Krakow Jewish Ghetto."

Krakow is a stunning city, never bombed. But lots and lots of lingering memories

We’d spent the day walking through the old Krakow Jewish neighborhood of Kazmiriz.  Memorial after memorial sit there. “In the memory of the Rosac Family, Residents of Kazmiriz, 1666-1944.”  We explored the old synagogue, looked around the shops, and wondered about what came before, slightly overwhelmed and relieved after the trip to Auschwitz the day before.  Even just walking through the space was hard, just being in that horrible space, facing the worst we can see or imagine.  The next day, we walked through the old Ghetto, where the Jews were rounded up, forced to live in squalor, before the Nazis liquidated the camps, shooting and forcing the Jews onto the trains.  We walked these streets, taking in the view of the Oskar Schindler’s office and the old wall, surrounding the place, designed to look like grave stones. The only way out was up to heaven. 

Yet, people did get out.  There were those who did survive.  

Later in the afternoon, we went back to the hotel.  I walked downstairs to pay our hotel bill.  And there stood an older gentleman in a suit talking with the woman at the desk.
I greeted him.
“I’m Ben.”
“I’m Leslie. I’m a Holocaust survivor. We were talking.”
“Ok, I’ll just listen.  We spent yesterday in Auschwitz.  I’m so glad be away.” 
“The rain was horrible yesterday,” noted Leslie.
“Oh I know.  But you can’t complain.  If you complain about the rain at Auschwitz, you are a real asshole.”
“I know,” he laughed. “I lived there.”  But he was smiling and really laughing. 

So we talked for the next hour.  And Leslie Kleinman told me about his childhood in Romania before his family were sent to Auschwitz for being Jews. He showed me his tattoos. 88-years-old, he told me his story.
“They spent three days on a train, standing room only, with nothing but a bucket.  Kids were on top of us.”
“You are 17 now,” he was told  by a man in line, when they finally got to the camps.  He was put in one line. The rest of his family in another line.  His family went in one direction.  He went in another.  They were told they were going to live together in a work assignment.
“They always lied to us, every day.”

It was not long before he learned that his entire family had perished.

He’d spend the next eight months there.
“I prayed to God saying, ‘Oh god.  I have no one now.  Will you be my friend?’” 
Most days he wondered about god.  He did not blame god.  Men had created this mess.  Just like he did not blame the Germans.  Hitler had created that mess.  “We hear a lot about miracles in Egypt from 2000 years ago.  How about a miracle now?”
“Its our choice whether we believe in god.”
“What did think about all day when you worked ten hours a day?”
“We just wondered about food.  That was all we talked about.  The people who survived came from Canada.” That was the job for people who surveyed the supplies everyone had brought the camp. They had to go through it all.   They found a lot of extra food.  Nothing else helped, no gold, or clothes.  It was food.  The other two jobs that helped people survive were around the toilets.  The Germans never came around there.  They stank too much.  And the musicians survived.”
“I knew one musician who asked if his brother could live.  The Germans told him he could go with his brother to the gas.  But his brother could not stay with him. So the brothers agreed that at least one of them would survive.  My friend told his brother to try to be in the middle when they sent him to the gas.  You die faster.”

“A German soldier asked me my name.  I said Juddah, pronounced Youda. The German said to me.  ‘You can’t be Juddah.  Everyone around here is Juddah.’”
“They told us there was only one way out of this place.”  He gestured up.
Within eight months, Leslie was sent on the death walk to Sachsenhausen and then onto Flossenb├╝rg concentration camps.  “I saw men die every day.  They fell down and the Germans shot them.  When we finally got there, there was no room for us.  So they sent us to Dacchau.  I was wearing sandals in my pajamas.  I ate only grass.”

“We were liberated in April of 1945.  There was a man in a uniform who asked me if I was Jewish.  I couldn’t tell if he was American.  I did not know the uniform.  He was from Brooklyn.  I said, ‘Yes, I am.’  He said, ‘So am I.’  We were both crying.  He gave me his uniform.  And a blood infusion. All the Americans gave us blood to help us come alive again.”

 “I spent the whole time hoping my sister was alive.  I was going to go back to Romania to look for her.  But afterward I ran into someone who knew her.  I asked about her. ‘She died two days after the war ended,’ he told me.  And now I was completely alone. At least I would have had one person if my sister was alive.  So I went to England.”

“I always told God.  If you let me survive.  I will study at the Yeshiva. So I put in my year in England.”

There he met a German woman, who he married.  The Orthodox hate me.  But it was my mitzvah.  I don’t care about them.  I always say as Jews we have to do better. We can’t hate.  No one should hate anyone.  My wife hated the Germans. I did not.”

“It’s a miracle I’m alive.  There have been four miracles in my life.  All I know is it happened to me. I brought up my kids to love each other.”

“Who am I to judge the Germans or anyone.  When we got out. The Americans said we could shoot any German we wanted for four days.  I said I can’t.  I cant tell who did it.  We need a judge and a jury to do that, not me. Instead when I go back to Auschwitz, I say a Kaddish for all the souls there.  There are still a lot of lot souls there.”

“I believe in reincarnation. I have seen it.  When I went back to Romania all the trees were gone.  But the seeds kept going, they kept growing more trees.”

“I tell students we should not hate each other. I lost all my family on one day.  We should not speak badly of each other. Everybody leaves a little story.”

Thank you Leslie Kleinman. Thank you for sharing your story.  And now I’ll share it.  And my kids will share it.  They will recall your tattoo, as I will for the rest of my days. 

Over the next few days, we explored the streets more and more.  Klezmir music played at night, streets full of graffiti.  We toured through Oskar Schindler’s factory and a Tadeusz Pankiewicz’s pharmacy where he defied the Nazis aiding those in need of support.  We walked through the Jewish Ghetto, where the Nazis put up walls shaped like grave stones, the message: there is only one way out, up, via heaven. 

It got a little darker in Poland. Lots and lots of darkness there still.  Even after leaving, I have a lot of dreams about being locked up in the ghetto, walled in by those walls, designed to look like graves, of trying to run before the liquidation, and being caught. It’s still chilling and not too long ago ever... Anytime anyone wants to make us great again, by limiting someone, I think of 1933... it just wasn't that long ago.

But meeting Leslie reminds me that we have to laugh, love and care for one another.  That’s our most important responsibility.  This is not a time to hate.  If Leslie doesn’t, I should not.

I'll really never forget meeting Leslie Kleinman.
A light moment during a couple of heavy days in Krakow.

Scenes from Oskar Schindler's factory, Tadeusz Pankiewicz' pharmacy that saved lives, the cemetery, Jewish Ghetto over three days in Krakow.

Leslie Kleinman 220
Leslie was born on 29th May 1929 in Ambud, a small village near Satu Mare in Romania, into an Orthodox Jewish family. He had four brothers and three sisters and his father was a Rabbi. The family's peaceful world was first disrupted when Hungary occupied this area of Romania in 1940. Worse was to come in 1944 when Germany invaded Hungary, arriving in Ambud on a Saturday, the Jewish Sabbath.  A German soldier cut off his father’s beard, which for a very religious man was a terrible insult. His father was then taken, supposedly to dig trenches on the Eastern Front but in fact to Auschwitz-Birkenau. In April 1944, the rest of Leslie’s family were forced to leave their home and enter the ghetto, where they were held for a month.
From the ghetto, Leslie and his family were deported. They were told that they were being sent to Germany to work, but instead they were taken to Auschwitz-Birkenau. Although Leslie was only 14, he said that he was older and was selected for work. He was separated from the rest of his family who were all taken straight to the gas chamber with the exception of one sister. At Auschwitz-Birkenau, Leslie worked building a railway and later worked unloading bags of cement from the trains.
Towards the end of 1944, with the Red Army approaching, Leslie was sent on a death march to Sachsenhausen and then onto Flossenb├╝rg concentration camp, where he stayed for approximately three weeks. From there, Leslie and the remaining prisoners were sent on a second death march towards Dachau concentration camp. During the march, while they were in a forest, all of the Nazis disappeared and Leslie was liberated by American troops. One of the soldiers arranged for him to be sent to an American-run hospital where he spent the next two months. Leslie was then sent to a monastery to recuperate for six months. During this time he learnt that his sister, who had been selected for work at Auschwitz-Birkenau, had died soon after liberation.
While Leslie was at the monastery, he was told that the British government were allowing 1,000 child survivors to come to the UK. Leslie was one of this group who became known as 'The Boys'. Leslie went on to marry and settled in Canada, having two children. He later returned to the UK and now regularly shares his experiences in schools and colleges across the country.

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