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Surviving the Holocaust: A man's tale of an infamous place, time

KERKHOVEN -- Joe Klein was 15 years old in 1944 when his family was among the last Jews in a Hungarian ghetto to be loaded onto a train headed for Auschwitz.

Klein had been born in a part of Czechoslovakia later taken over by Hungary.

When Hungary collaborated with the Nazis, life changed, he said. Jews could not go to public school or hold jobs, and they had to wear yellow stars on their clothing.

Klein told his story to sophomores at Kerkhoven-Murdock-Sunburg High School this week, through a live videoconference.

"We were like cattle in a car, or sardines in a can, on top of each other," Klein said in a lightly accented voice. "I hope none of you will ever experience anything like it."

After several days on the train they arrived at Auschwitz, where the infamous Dr. Joseph Mengele was sorting prisoners.

Klein's mother and two sisters were sent directly to the gas chambers. Klein's life was spared when he told Mengele that he was able to work.

From Auschwitz, Klein was taken to the Buchenwald concentration camp.

Food was hard to come by in the camps, where prisoners slept in wooden bunks, three to five people in a bunk, usually on bare boards, he said.

When prisoners were alone in their barracks at night, he said, the talk turned to how to stay alive and how to find food but not how to escape. "The one thing our group was trying to do was stay alive," he said.

His job was to tend to the camp's latrines. Prisoners were taken to a nearby field to dump the buckets. "We were lucky to be guarded by a guard who was not a Nazi by choice," Klein said. The guard, "a good German gentleman," would let them bring vegetables or apples in from the fields. It supplemented their meager rations of watery soup and an occasional hunk of bread.

As the war grew closer to the camp, he said, prisoners were moved again, crowded into open coal cars. Allied bombers attacked the train. Many prisoners died in the attack, but more were killed by the Nazis when they tried to run from the train.

Klein and some others got away, but the Gestapo had them rounded up by the end of the day. Klein told of prisoners being forced to run while soldiers on bicycles shot at their feet. Those who were wounded or fell were shot in the head.

"People were killed right in front of me for no reason at all," Klein said.

As the prisoners were marched back to the train, anyone who stepped out of formation was shot. Some people committed suicide by deliberately stepping out of line. Klein said he was ready to step out, too, but "a hometown man who was next to me wouldn't let me do it."

After his liberation by Russian troops in May 1945, he contracted typhoid fever. It was August before he was able to find what was left of his family.

Along with his mother and sisters, dozens of aunts, uncles, cousins and other relatives perished in the camps, he said.

Three older brothers survived. The Hungarian Army sent them to work camps but not to concentration camps. One sister survived as well.

His father had died a year before the Nazis came for the family, Klein said. "We are happy today; we know where he is buried."

--Linda Vanderwerf

Linda Vanderwerf

I cover education issues for the West Central Tribune and have worked for the paper since 1995. I have worked in journalism since 1981.

Follow me on Twitter: @lindavanderwerf

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