Fritz Kleinmann was shifting a heavy concrete block into place when he was summoned from the scaffolding. ‘Kapo wants you.’ Fritz feared the worst. Kapos – inmates assigned by the SS to help oversee fellow prisoners – had the power of life and death in Buchenwald, the concentration camp in which he’d managed to survive for three long years.
‘There is a list in the records office of Jews to be transferred to Auschwitz,’ the kapo said simply. ‘Your father’s name is on it.’
Fritz, 17, and his 53-year-old father Gustav had been together the entire time they’d been in Buchenwald, helping one another to stay alive in nightmarish circumstances. Now his father was to be taken away. Everyone knew the name of Auschwitz. There had been disturbing rumours about special gas chambers being built, in which hundreds of people at a time could be put to death. Buchenwald was horrific, but a transfer to Auschwitz meant only one thing.
Poignant last portrait before the family was ripped apart: The Kleinmanns pose for a family photo in 1938, just months before the Nazis sent Gustav and Fritz to a concentration camp
The list of those going was a long one; the only exceptions were those like Fritz, who were required for building work. The kapo looked Fritz in the eye. ‘If you want to go on living, you have to forget your father.’
‘That’s impossible,’ he replied. After a few days of agonising, he returned to the kapo with an extraordinary request: ‘I need you to pull whatever strings you can to get me on the Auschwitz transfer.’
The kapo was aghast. ‘What you’re asking is suicide.’ But Fritz was adamant. ‘I want to be with my papa, no matter what happens. I can’t go on living without him.’
And so it was that two days later, Fritz and Gustav were herded on to a cattle wagon – their destination a place synonymous with murder on an industrial scale.
There are many Holocaust stories, but not like the tale of Gustav and Fritz Kleinmann. Not only did they experience the horrors of the Nazi concentration camps from the first mass arrests in the late 1930s all the way through to eventual liberation, but they went through the whole inferno together, father and son. That makes them unique.
More than luck or circumstance, it was their love and devotion to each other that kept them alive. ‘The boy is my greatest joy,’ Gustav wrote in his secret diary. ‘We strengthen each other. We are one, inseparable.’
Together, they endured a six-year odyssey through the hell of the camps, beginning with three years at Buchenwald, where Gustav so nearly became one of the tens of thousands to die in its unimaginably harsh conditions. Yet, however remarkable their story would prove to be, before the Nazis tore them apart there was nothing unusual about Gustav’s family.
A decorated hero of the Great War, Gustav had married his sweetheart Tini and they were raising their four children – Fritz, Edith, Herta and Kurt – in a small apartment in Vienna, where he worked as a master upholsterer. Everything changed in March 1938, when Austria was annexed by Nazi Germany. Under the Nuremberg Laws, Austrian Jews were stripped of their citizenship. In April that year, Fritz, then 14 and training to enter his father’s trade, was expelled from the Trade School. Gustav’s workshop was seized. Those caught buying from Jews were made to stand with a sign: ‘I am an Aryan, but a swine – I bought this in a Jewish shop.’
A month later, the family dressed in their best outfits for a photograph. The photographer caught Gustav’s apprehensiveness and the stoicism of Tini’s dark eyes. It had been Tini’s urging that had brought them to the studio. She had a foreboding that the family might not be together for much longer and wanted to capture her children’s image while she had the chance.
The hammer blow came on a Sunday in September 1939, when Tini was in the apartment with Herta, Fritz and Kurt. Four men arrived, all neighbours. All were working men like Gustav – friends with wives she knew, whose children had once played with hers.
‘We want your husband,’ one said. ‘We have orders. If he isn’t here, we’re to take the lad.’ He nodded at Fritz. Tini felt as if she’d been physically beaten. They took hold of her precious boy and marched him out.
When Gustav returned and heard what had happened, he turned around and headed for the door, intending to go straight to the police. Tini grabbed his arm. ‘Don’t,’ she said. ‘They’ll take you.’
‘I’m not leaving Fritzl in their hands,’ he replied.
‘No!’ Tini pleaded. ‘You have to run away, go somewhere and hide.’
But there was no dissuading him. Leaving Tini in tears, Gustav walked quickly to the police station and announced: ‘I’m Gustav Kleinmann. I’m here to turn myself in. You have my son. Take me and let him go.’ The policeman glanced around. ‘Get the hell out of here,’ he muttered.
Bewildered, Gustav left the building. He went home to find Tini distraught that Fritz was still gone. ‘I’ll try again tomorrow,’ Gustav said. But at 2am, a tide of men surged into the apartment. There was weeping, there were pleas, and final desperate words between husband and wife. And then it was all over. The door slammed, and Gustav was gone.
Each morning, an hour and a half before dawn, shrill whistles yanked the prisoners from their sleep. Then came the kapos, yelling at them to hurry.
Outside, Buchenwald was ablaze with electric light along the fence lines, atop the guard towers and in the walkways. People were herded to the square for roll call, standing motionless and shivering in their pitiful clothes for two hours. When it was time to go to work, sunrise was beginning to lighten the landscape.
Gustav and Fritz had been assigned to the quarry detail, working as wagon haulers. All day, they and 14 other men had to heave and push a laden wagon weighing around four and a half tons up the hill, a distance of more than 800 yards, lashed and yelled at by kapos. Falls were frequent, with fractured limbs and broken heads. The injured would be taken to the infirmary or, if they were Jews, to the Death Block – a holding barrack for the terminally sick.
Gustav and Fritz toiled on day after day, miraculously managing to avoid both punishment and injury. ‘We are proving ourselves,’ Gustav wrote in his diary.
But things turned very different one day in November, after a failed assassination attempt on Hitler in Munich. When the prisoners lined up in the square, the kapos went along the ranks, grabbing every 20th man and shoving him forward. One of them was Fritz.
A heavy wooden table with straps dangling from it was dragged on to the square. The Bock – the whipping bench. Fritz’s jacket and shirt were removed and his trousers pulled down. Gustav watched helplessly as the first lash landed like a razor cut across Fritz’s buttocks.
‘Count!’ they yelled at their victim. ‘One,’ Fritz said. The bull-whip cut across his flesh again. ‘Two,’ he gasped. Fritz struggled to concentrate, knowing that if he lost count the lashes would start over again.
At last the count reached 25; the strap was loosened and he was forced to his feet. Before his father’s eyes he was helped away, bleeding, his body on fire with pain, his mind stunned as the next unfortunate was dragged to the Bock.
Despite his agony, Fritz was more worried about his papa than about himself. Dysentery and fever plagued the camp, and now the older man had caught the sickness.
During roll call he swayed, shivering, his senses failing. He was unconscious before he hit the ground. When he woke, he was on his back. In his hazy, febrile state, Gustav dimly realised that he must be in the block set aside for hopeless cases, from which people rarely emerged alive. The Death Block. The air was thick, stifling, filled with groans and an atmosphere of hopelessness.
As the days wore on, Fritz visited his papa whenever he could. The dysentery had failed to kill him, and the worst had passed.
However, it was obvious to Gustav that he would never get well in this environment. After two weeks, Gustav begged to be discharged, but doctors wouldn’t let him go. He was far too weak to survive. Gustav was determined and asked Fritz to help him to his feet. With Fritz guiding his papa’s faltering steps, father and son slipped out of the Death Block together.
It was October 1942 when they arrived at the most notorious of all the camps. Fritz had been allowed to go with his father and on their journey to Auschwitz, Gustav wrote: ‘Everyone is saying it is a journey to death, but Fritzl and I do not let our heads hang down. I tell myself that a man can only die once.’
Fritz saw the marks of abuse and the signs of impending death in all his fellow prisoners, including himself: bruises, broken bones, sores, scabs and gapped teeth.
The prisoners were able to shower once a week, but it was an ordeal. After showering, only the first men out got dry towels, so if you lagged behind you got nothing but a soaking rag and had to walk back to the barrack dripping, even in the coldest winter weather. Pneumonia was endemic, and often fatal. Food was distributed in the barrack. Only a few bowls were provided, so the first to get their helping of soup had to wolf it down so as not to keep the others waiting. If you managed to acquire your own spoon, you would guard it with your life.
Having a decent pair of shoes was essential. If they were too large or too small, they chafed and caused blisters. Socks were rare, and many substituted strips of fabric torn from the tails of their camp-issue shirts. This in itself was risky, because damaging SS property was classed as sabotage.
Gustav and Fritz were sent to a sub-camp within Auschwitz called Monowitz. Within weeks, most of their Buchenwald comrades had been sent to their deaths, but – against the odds – the pair had managed to survive as a result of their useful labouring skills. Fritz had been building the new camp, while his father had worked as a carpenter and upholsterer.
Despite the overwhelming danger, Fritz became involved in a covert resistance against the SS, passing information to other prisoners about progress of the war, details he’d picked up from the civilians he worked with.
One day he was seized, driven from the camp and accused by the head of the Auschwitz Gestapo of planning a large-scale escape, which he knew nothing about.
He was lashed again, this time 60 times. Still he refused to name friends involved in the resistance.
Fritz, 17, at Buchenwald in 1940
Fritz was allowed to return to camp, but fearing the Gestapo would return to look for him, his comrades came up with a daring plan: they hid him in an isolation room in the hospital, and recorded his death with the authorities. Weeks passed as Fritz recovered, now with a new identity – taken from a deceased typhus patient –and a new job as a warehouseman. So horrific was the death rate at Auschwitz that few prisoners were easily recognisable.
Yet not knowing the truth, his father’s agony continued.
One evening a friend came to see Gustav. ‘Follow me,’ he indicated, and led the older man down away from the road and towards the bathing block.
In the low light inside, he saw the outline of a man standing back in the shadows. The figure came forward, his features resolving into the face of Fritz. It was miraculous. For Gustav, to hold his son in his arms again, to inhale the smell of him, to hear his voice, was beyond hope, beyond everything.
Together they remained until January 1945, when Auschwitz was evacuated as Russian troops neared. They and thousands of other prisoners were forced to trudge through the snow, away from the advancing Red Army.
Then they were put on trains bound for camps deeper inside the Reich. Their destination was Mauthausen in Austria, but father and son had decided to seize the chance to make their escape.
When it came to it, Gustav, 53 years old and exhausted, didn’t have the strength to attempt it. Yet he couldn’t deny his son the chance to live. It would be a wrenching pain to part, but he urged Fritz to go alone.
Fritz embraced his papa, and with his help climbed the slippery side wall of the wagon. He peered anxiously towards the brake houses on the adjacent wagons, occupied by armed SS guards. The train was thundering along at its maximum speed. Screwing up his courage, Fritz launched himself into the night and the rushing, freezing air.
Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp in Poland was infamous for the horror what went on inside
Fritz’s brave escape would not succeed, however. Despite his father’s fervent prayers, he was recaptured and imprisoned in Mauthausen – although the train itself was then diverted and took Gustav to a different camp, Mittelbau-Dora. Father and son spent three months praying the other had been able to cling to life.
And their prayers were answered. Mittelbau-Dora was liberated by US troops in April; Mauthausen in May. When Fritz was first checked into an evacuation hospital, his weight was recorded as 5st 7lb, but he gradually regained strength. He returned home to Vienna, but found himself alone: his mother and sister Herta had been murdered by the Nazis, while Kurt had found sanctuary in America and Edith in England. He had no idea if his father was alive.
It was September by the time Gustav, too, finally made his way home and went to the apartment building where his workshop used to be. There he found the one person he most longed to see: his beloved boy.
They wept tears of joy. They were home and together again.
© Jeremy Dronfield, 2019
- Extracted from The Boy Who Followed His Father Into Auschwitz, by Jeremy Dronfield, which is published by Michael Joseph on January 24, priced £12.99. Offer price £10.39 (20 per cent discount) until January 20. Pre-order at mailshop.co.uk/books or call 0844 571 0640 – p&p is free on orders over £15.