KMS students hear firsthand account of Holocaust from Ohio man who survived it

KMS students hear first-hand account of Holocaust from Ohio man who survived it Face to face with Dr. Joseph Mengele, Joe Klein gave the right answer. Can you work, Mengele asked, as he looked at the tall 15-year-old. Yes, the boy said. With that...

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Joe Kline, of Cleveland, Ohio, addresses students Thursday via a computer linkup at KMS High School in Kerkhoven. Kline survived more than a year in Nazi concentration camps. He told his story to some 50 sophomores at the school. Tribune photo by Ron Adams

KMS students hear first-hand account of Holocaust from Ohio man who survived it

Face to face with Dr. Joseph Mengele, Joe Klein gave the right answer. Can you work, Mengele asked, as he looked at the tall 15-year-old. Yes, the boy said.

With that answer, Klein was told to go to the right, while his mother and two sisters, one of them carrying her 3-month-old baby, were sent to the left. Klein didn't know it at the time, but he would never see them again.

He would find out later that they had been sent to their deaths.

Klein told his story of World War II and Holocaust survival to about 50 sophomores at Kerkhoven-Murdock-Sunburg High School Thursday morning in a live videoconference.


Klein, who now lives in Cleveland, sent the students away with a special assignment -- he asked them to remember and repeat his story.

"If you can pass it on to the next generation, to your grandchildren, that will make me happy, even if I'm long gone," Klein said.

While the students listened intently, Klein talked about spending more than a year in concentration camps before the war ended.

"How come I am alive today; there is only one answer for it -- I was lucky," Klein said. "He asked me if I could work. By good fortune I said, 'yes,' and I am here."

He talked about being crowded into cattle cars on a train to Auschwitz and told of the fear and starvation in the concentration camps. He described the terror of being forced to run while Gestapo guards shot at prisoners' feet and the horror of seeing people killed for no reason.

Klein also explained that not all Germans were Nazis. A German guard took prisoners into fields was kind and would let them pick apples or vegetables when no one was looking. The guard could have been killed for doing that, he said.

Klein went to England after the war and then moved to the United States. About a year later, he was drafted into the U.S. Army and served in the Korean War. He was proud to serve his new country, he said. After his earlier experiences, being in the Army was "like being at the Holiday Inn."

Klein told the students he harbors no ill will toward Germany but he can't forgive or forget those who took his mother from him.


Klein reserved his greatest anger for people who deny the Holocaust took place. "That's why history must tell the truth," he said. "I hope you will remember."

Teacher Dan Leritz thanked Klein for speaking with the students for more than an hour.

"We are incredibly grateful to you for taking the time," he said. While the teens have studied the war and the Holocaust, "it means something completely different to hear these things from someone that actually experienced it."

Many of the sophomores seemed a little shell-shocked after hearing Klein's story of what he endured when he was about their age. As they left the auditorium, they said they would remember and repeat what Klein told them.

Leritz said he was pleased with the way his students conducted themselves during the video meeting with Klein. "I have not been more proud of a group of kids," he said. He was pleased with the questions they asked and with the respect they showed to Klein.

In the school's commons area, several students talked about Klein and his message.

After studying and watching movies about the war, "you think you understand it," said Laura Rosemeier of Murdock, but Klein's talk brought it home in new ways.

Rosemeier said she didn't think she could have handled being separated from her whole family as Klein was.


"That would be hard," said Jesse Wilke of Murdock. "It's hard to imagine how you would keep your sanity." Wilke said he thinks he would have put up a fight in the camps, though he realized that would have been dangerous.

Anton Loevgren, an exchange student from Sweden, said he probably would have fought back, too.

The story would stick with him, he said, and he planned to tell his parents about it. Though Sweden is closer to Germany, he said, the Holocaust is not discussed in such detail in the schools.

Loevgren was impressed by the story of the guard who let the prisoners take food. "That guard put his life into saving a lot of people," he said.

Rosemeier said she had never met someone who didn't believe in the Holocaust.

Wilke said he has heard of them. His family has relatives in Germany who are Holocaust survivors, he said, and they say they still see Nazi symbols there.

The videoconference was provided by the Little Crow Telemedia Network using a signal streamed over Internet2.

In 42 years in the newspaper industry, Linda Vanderwerf has worked at several daily newspapers in Minnesota, including the Mesabi Daily News, now called the Mesabi Tribune in Virginia. Previously, she worked for the Las Cruces Sun-News in New Mexico and the Rapid City Journal in the Black Hills of South Dakota. She has been a reporter at the West Central Tribune for nearly 27 years.

Vanderwerf can be reached at email: or phone 320-214-4340
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