In his gripping book, THE BOY WHO FOLLOWED HIS FATHER INTO AUSCHWITZ (Harper, May 26, 2020), Jeremy Dronfield relates the true story of the Kleinmann family of Vienna. Like much of Europe, Austria was caught in the winds of the gathering Nazi storm. Early on, her citizenry became the newfound weathercock friends of the Third Reich. There had been a time when people could sit and discuss and even debate their differences over a cup of coffee. But that was before the Anschluss of March 12, 1938, when the barbarians breached the gates of civility. And Austria open her doors to the invading horde.
In the early years of the Nazi terror campaign against the Jews, escape by emigration was still possible if you managed to obtain an affidavit from two people to sponsor you and a guarantee of financial support. Failing that, the hapless victims were imprisoned in their apartments, prior to their transfer to a death camp.
Gustav and Fritz Kleimnann, father and son were inseparable. Together they endured what neither man nor beast should suffer. Their story has been told a million-fold, but it is Gustav’s meticulously kept diary that bears witness to the greatest crime against humanity in history, The Holocaust.
Dronfield’s prose, at times gruesome and grotesque, accurately and meticulously details the conditions of Auschwitz, Buchenwald, Mauthausen; places paradoxically shared by perpetrators and victims, tethered to a destiny bound on divergent paths. Their condition was as different as the uniforms they wore, black and white striped tattered rags as opposed to neatly pressed SS uniforms sporting highly polished hobnail boots. The systematic dehumanization of Jews by their tormentors, transformed the victims into livestock, while the savage beasts of Germany and their European accomplices prowled the countryside hunting down their fleeing prey.
The Kleinmanns, like millions of their fellow Jews had both their property and dignity confiscated, before being tossed into the jaws of the baying hounds of the Third Reich. And the steady refrain of clanging, banging wheels of steel, carting victims of tyranny across Europe in boxcars was callously ignored by those who ‘knew nothing’.
In time the Kleinmann family was cast asunder, some to England, others to the States and the remaining hapless ones, to the camps. Fritz, ever resourceful managed to secure a job as a skillful brick layer in one of the camps, but when he learned his father had been sent to Auschwitz, he did the unthinkable; he requested to be transferred there to be with his father.
Since Jews were forbidden to hold supervisory positions inside or outside the camps, the Nazis had a work management problem. They needed Jews with language and construction skills to fill some positions of authority, like a job foreman. To solve that dilemma, they designated the supervisory Jews as Aryans, thus proving the idiocy of Nazi racial ideology. Dronfield accurately opines, “The mind of a Nazi’s was beyond fathoming, let alone reasoning.”
As the allies closed in on the Third Reich and defeat was deemed inevitable, the genocidal Nazis tried to bury their crimes along with their victims. Murders accelerated at a feverish rate and it seemed only a matter of time before Gustav and Fritz would join the millions of victims.
This is a story of family loyalty, courage, and determination to survive in the face of the most inhumane of conditions. The lesson father and son learned, during their years of being transported from work camp, to concentration camp, to death camp, was this one incontrovertible fact, the key to survival in the camps was not good luck, not fate, nor God’s blessings. It was the kindness of others.