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Holocaust heroes: The father and son who together defied the Nazis

Fritz Kleinmann with his father, Gustav, after they were reunited. Photo/Supplied

The inspiring true story of a father and teenage son who survived Auschwitz was little known for 73 years, but even after all that time, the author had to fight to find a publisher.

“I take Gandhi, the Indian freedom fighter, as my model. He is so thin yet he lives. And every day I say a prayer to myself: Gustl, do not despair. Grit your teeth – the SS murderers must not beat you.” – From the diary of Gustav Kleinmann

‘Three years ago, no publishers wanted to touch this story,” says Jeremy Dronfield, British novelist, biographer and ghostwriter, on the phone from the UK. He’s talking about his new book, The Boy Who Followed His Father into Auschwitz. It tells a remarkable story of devotion and survival. “If you want to keep living, you have to forget your father.” This advice from an older prisoner was delivered to 17-year-old Austrian Jew Fritz Kleinmann at Buchenwald concentration camp.

It’s an eloquent expression of the sort of obscene calculations those targeted for destruction by the Third Reich were forced to make. Fritz’s father, Gustav, with him in Buchenwald, was to be transferred to Auschwitz. By then, they both knew exactly what transfer to Auschwitz meant. Fritz didn’t take the advice.

The Boy Who Followed His Father into Auschwitz would end up a Sunday Times bestseller, but first came the rejection slips, “from every publisher in Britain, every publisher in America. The answer was always the same. It’s a good story, but it’s almost impossible to market.” In other words, not another Holocaust story.

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Finally, a small US publisher took it on. Then Penguin in the UK became interested and the book triumphed over what Dronfield calls “widespread Holocaust fatigue” among publishers. “It was just after [the novelised true story] The Tattooist of Auschwitz suddenly, out of nowhere, became colossally popular.” Such books sparked renewed interest in stories about the Holocaust. “And this is such an exceptionally moving one and, unlike Tattooist, is also entirely factual.”

The book follows the Kleinmann family, living a modest, contented life in Vienna, from the Nazis’ November 1938 Kristallnacht attacks on Jews, Jewish-owned stores, buildings and synagogues, through the hell that followed. Upholsterer Gustav was a decorated Austrian soldier who fought in World War I. With his wife, Tini, he had four children: Edith, Herta, Fritz and Kurt.

“The family’s experiences give you a kind of panorama of the Holocaust,” Dronfield says. “Gustav and Fritz’s experiences take you through the concentration-camp development from before the Final Solution, when they were still essentially camps for political prisoners, right through to the very end.”

In 1938, Gustav was beaten, interrogated, betrayed by his non-Jewish neighbours and, in 1939, deported to Buchenwald for the crime of being Jewish. His elder son, Fritz, was sent there, too, and they stuck together through beatings, starvation and crushing slave labour. When his father faced transfer to Auschwitz, Fritz asked to go, too. “Shobert shrugged,” Dronfield writes. “It was all the same to him how many Jews were sent to be exterminated, and he granted the request.”

German SS men selecting Hungarian Jews in 1944. Photo/Getty Images
Dronfield started out as an academic archaeologist before becoming a writer. He brings an eye for gruelling detail to a true story of extreme human experience written in a novelistic style. He set himself an audacious task: to imagine the unimaginable. “It’s because of my background as a novelist,” he says, of the book’s “narrative non-fiction” style. “I think visually. Whenever I write any kind of story, I’m seeing it in my head. It was quite harrowing, as you can imagine, to research and write.”

It helped that he had an unusual quantity of first-hand material to draw on. After the war, Fritz wrote a memoir. Throughout the most dreadful circumstances, incredibly, in a world in which words on paper could be a capital offence, Gustav Kleinmann kept a diary. “Fritz had no idea Gustav was keeping a diary at the time. It was only after the war, back in Vienna, that he admitted it. I think Fritz was quite annoyed with his father for doing that, because he not only risked himself, but also everyone who was close to him, who could have been implicated in what he’d done. It’s an enormously valuable document, but what an enormous risk to take.”

The diary is indeed harrowing. “Every day another death. One cannot believe what a man can endure,” Gustav wrote. At Auschwitz: “The stench of burning corpses reaches as far as the town. We know everything that’s going on … They are all Hungarian Jews – and all of this in the 20th century.” The diary is also heartbreakingly hopeful: “The boy is my greatest joy. We strengthen each other. We are one, inseparable.”

Gustav wasn’t necessarily writing for posterity. “He seems to have done it more to preserve his own sanity.” This is a world where he is forced to sing in a choir, the music used to cover the sound of Russian prisoners of war being shot.

He had a naturally positive disposition. “They weren’t visibly Jewish, they weren’t Orthodox. He imagined that the Nazis would leave Jews like that alone,” Dronfield says. “Tini was more realistic. She could see what was coming.” Gustav was also tough, defiant. “But still the dog just will not die,” he wrote in a poem in his diary, a man in his fifties refusing his fate, hanging on to life.

17-year-old Fritz Kleinmann’s 1939 Buchenwald identity card.

Fritz took his own risks, claiming skills he didn’t have, learning fast, fuelled by fury. “There’s a surviving photograph from his identity card, taken in 1939. He’d been made to strip for the photograph and he’s got this blazing expression in his eyes.” In January 1945, forced on a death march with other inmates, Fritz and his father ended up on a train bound for Mauthausen concentration camp, in Austria. He jumped, rolled through the snow and took off.

The book is a rebuke to the myth that Jews went to their deaths like sheep to the slaughter. Dronfield’s recounting of life in the camps reveals a story of resistance and refusal, through endless tiny acts and some big ones. “Yeah, that was something that really struck me,” he says. “I didn’t know a huge amount about the Holocaust, the minutiae of it, before starting to research the book. I was surprised by the extent of prisoner resistance. I didn’t know that it was quite that extensive or that influential or that geared towards helping fellow prisoners survive.”

There’s also the story of those who didn’t survive. Tini Kleinmann worked hard to ensure her children’s safety. Edith, the oldest, escaped to England in 1939 to work as a maid. Tini arranged for Kurt, nine when his father was arrested, to be sent to the US by the German-Jewish Children’s Aid Society, which was based in America. Tini and her teenage daughter, Herta, unable to find a way out, were deported in 1942 to Maly Trostenets extermination camp near Minsk. Their story proved a challenge to Dronfield’s novelistic method. “I struggled with writing that, because there were no survivors from that transport. There’s no way of knowing exactly how they died, whether they were gassed or shot. My commitment to writing the story as completely truthful forbade me from imagining anything [for which] I didn’t have certain evidence.”

So, the story becomes historical at that point. “It’s based on the eyewitness evidence of a tiny handful of people who survived other transports. No one survived the one of June 9, 1942.” There’s an account of mass shootings of men, women and children forced to strip to their underwear and line up along the edge of a pit, and of gassings. Dronfield had the transport list for the day Tini and Herta were murdered. “There were children Kurt’s age and younger on that transport, who would have died in that ditch.”

The Kleinmann family in Vienna in April 1938, from left: Herta, Gustav, Kurt, Fritz, Tini and Edith.

Dronfield sets that horror against the letters Tini had been sending to her youngest, Kurt, safe in the US: “Herta is always thinking of you … I am afraid every day … A thousand kisses from your Mama,” she writes. “I still find it quite difficult even to talk about, thinking about that,” says Dronfield.

Kurt Kleinmann is still living in the US with his wife of more than 60 years. “It upset Kurt. I know that reading the book was the first he knew of exactly what had happened to his mother and sister. He knew they’d gone to Minsk and been murdered there, but he didn’t know the details of it and that really broke him up,” says Dronfield. In an interview after the book came out, Kurt said, “It hit me like a brick on my head.”

Dronfield’s research uncovered an anomaly. “There’s this discrepancy between the day the train arrived in Minsk and the day that the SS officer recorded carrying out the executions.” He turned up the reason. “The German railway workers in Minsk had won the right not to have to work at weekends. The train arrived on the Saturday and wasn’t unloaded until the Monday, which really throws into sharp relief the absolute horror for the people who were trapped in those carriages. A lot of them did go insane during that weekend. It also accounts for the two-day discrepancy.”

In an age when research shows many know little about the Holocaust, when the number of living eye-witnesses is declining and when anti-Semitism is resurgent, the devil is in this sort of detail. “It’s the sort of crazy thing the Holocaust deniers seize upon.”

Jeremy Dronfield. Photo/Supplied

Speaking of absurdity, a subtext of the book is the craziness of the Nazi project. “I was just struck by the insanity. One example was the Aryanisation of 17 Jews in Auschwitz.” At one point Gustav is declared Aryan so he can do a job forbidden to Jews. “As far as I could tell, the SS, once they’d done that little ritual, firmly believed those Jews were now Aryans.”

Having taken upon themselves the godlike role of deciding those who deserved life and those who were for the fire, it seemed there was no limit to what they thought they could control. “They were kind of sociopathic bureaucrats, as much as anything,” Dronfield says, “and they had the incompetence of bureaucrats, the pig-headedness and blundering stupidity. Combine the stupidity of incompetent bureaucrats with the racial hatred, the insane ideology, and you end up with what the Nazi regime was like in practice.”

On the train to Mauthausen, Gustav writes, “One man will kill another for a little scrap of bread. We are veritable artists of hunger … we fish for snow with a mug tied to a string dangled out of the wagon.” But in the camps there was comradeship, intensely human interactions going on in monstrous conditions. A former German soldier working as a civilian helps them survive. As did fellow inmates.

“Gustav and Fritz wouldn’t have survived that first year in Buchenwald without the network of support they had,” Dronfield says. “Fritz was really acutely conscious of that and he tried to pay it forward in Auschwitz. He was more experienced and he was able to help the young boys who had lost their fathers.”

There’s the black comedy of denial. When Gustav and Fritz return to their home after the war, a neighbour complains to Gustav, “Your son won’t say hello to me.” The neighbour was one of those who betrayed the family. “These people seemed to think they were completely innocent. They didn’t think there was anything wrong with it. I suppose that’s how they managed to turn on their friends in the first place. It’s bizarre.”

Kurt Kleinmann, left, with his brother Fritz.

The original American edition of the book was titled The Stone Crusher, for the rattling, lethal crushing machine that Gustav was forced to feed in Buchenwald’s quarry and about which he wrote a poem. “And those who feed it with toil and care/They know it just eats, but will never be through …” It’s a powerful metaphor for the dumb, demonic Nazi machine. The title was changed by Penguin to one that focused on the human moment at the heart of the story. “In the face of death, they chose to stay together.”

In stories like this there is no completely happy ending. After the war, there are meetings between Kurt and the father and brother who survived, but there was a gulf. “Kurt adopted these very patriotic American values and his brother was not only a communist but also an atheist. Gustav declared no politics in the house.”

Kurt remained in his new life in the US and struggles to remember how he felt there at first. “He was still struggling when he was over here talking about the book. He knows perfectly well that he must have been traumatised and unhappy and missing his family, but he can’t remember any of it. It drives him to distraction to this day. Those memories are just lost.”

In Vienna, the survivors, their very existence against such odds miraculous, set about starting again. “The Kleinmann family had not only survived but prospered,” Dronfield writes. One reviewer suggested that, after such horrors, such loss, the book’s ending is too upbeat.

Dronfield disagrees. “It would be wrong to say they aren’t troubled by it, but it hasn’t prevented them developing and expanding and being happy,” he says. “These families – the ones who came back, the ones who survived, the ones who escaped – have carried on. Life won in the end.”

The Boy Who Followed His Father into Auschwitz, by Jeremy Dronfield (Michael Joseph, $38).

This article was first published in the March 16, 2019 issue of the New Zealand Listener.