Wednesday, Dec 8, 2021

The Last Surviving Witness

At the age of 91, Yosef Zalman Kleinman still vividly remembers the trial of Adolf Eichmann, where he was one of over 100 witnesses who delivered testimony. He also remembers the day the Germans took over his hometown. “The Satmar Rebbe had come to us to celebrate the sheva brachos of his orphaned niece. In the middle of the meal, someone handed him a note. The Rebbe bolted out of his seat and instructed everyone to flee.” At the age of fourteen, Yosef Zalman and his family were deported to Auschwitz. He and his brother Shlomo miraculously survived and came to Eretz Yisroel after the war.

Decades after the Eichmann trial, Yosef Zalman is still telling his story.

 

 

Yosef Zalman Kleinman has no doubt about the zechus that led him to be saved from the jaws of death in Auschwitz: the mitzvah of kibud av.

Today, Kleinman is 91 years old. He was born in 1930 in a small village known as Zeliozovce, on the border between Czechoslovakia and Hungary. In the Jewish world, Zeliozovce had a claim to fame: It was the home of the Spinka Rebbe, Rav Yitzchok Isaac Weiss, the author of Chakal Yitzchok. In our conversation, Yosef Zalman seemed to imply that his family davened in the Spinka Rebbe’s bais medrash every year on Rosh Hashanah. (It is possible, though, that he was actually referring to the Sassover Rebbe’s bais medrash; I couldn’t fully understand this point.)

On May 19, 1944, the Nazis began deporting the Jews of Zeliozovce to Auschwitz. The fourteen-year-old Yosef Zalman was on the first transport, along with his older brother Shlomo, his younger sister Toiba, and their parents, Meir and Breina. The family had brought along all the personal effects that they could carry; they couldn’t possibly have imagined the fate that awaited them. “We didn’t know that three days later, most of the people on the train would no longer be alive,” Yosef Zalman recalled. Of course, everything that they had brought with them was confiscated by the Nazis.

“The train arrived in Auschwitz on May 22, 1944,” Yosef Zalman related. “The doors opened with a loud noise, and there were terrible screams of ‘Get out! Fast!’ in Hungarian, Yiddish, and German. I helped my father out of the train. He was barely able to stand; the Germans hadn’t given us water during our journey, and he was severely weakened. He had given the rest of us all the water that we had brought; he didn’t take any for himself. It was raining lightly outside, and I left my father next to the door of the train and hurried to a large pile of personal effects that had arrived on a previous train and hadn’t yet been taken away. I leaned forward and picked up a cup, and then I hurried back to my father. I was afraid that he would lose consciousness at any moment; I lifted the small cup and managed to catch a few raindrops, and then I gave the water to my father to moisten his lips. I believe that that mitzvah of kibud av was the reason that I survived Auschwitz. After all, the Torah says, ‘Honor your father and your mother so that your days will be lengthened.’”

Yosef Zalman’s parents and younger sister were sent to the crematoria, while he and his brother Shlomo were taken to a barracks that held about a thousand young men. He could not understand why the large group of boys had been brought together and placed in a separate barracks. The Nazis, especially Mengele, took care to make sure that they remained healthy. “Unlike the pairs of twins on whom he performed medical experiments,” Yosef Zalman said, “we were not subjected to his experiments. We were not given numbers, and we weren’t put to work.”

At the age of 91, Yosef Zalman is quite famous in Israel. Several years ago, he participated in a torch lighting ceremony on Yom HaShoah. The footage of his testimony at the Eichmann trial is studied in Israeli schools today, and until corona he often spoke to students in schools. He accepts requests for interviews whenever he feels capable of it, although his strength has waned over the past year. He has been interviewed in the media many times; five years ago, he was featured in the Israeli Yated Neeman. This week once again, in honor of the 60th anniversary of the Eichmann trial, he was the subject of a lengthy article.

My meeting with him was an incredible and memorable experience. His memory is outstanding, and he is an avid collector of mementos. He has an extensive collection of old newspaper clippings, seforim, and, of course, various items that bear silent witness to the Holocaust. “I even kept my hat from the camp,” he told me.

The Hat from Auschwitz

About 1600 documents were presented at the trial of Adolf Eichmann, which began in Beit Ha’am in Yerushalayim on April 11, 1961. There were 108 witnesses who took the stand, one after another. The trial captivated the entire State of Israel and millions of Jews throughout the world. It was also watched closely in Germany and in Poland. To this day, it is considered a landmark event in the battle against anti-Semitism and the ongoing effort to bring the Nazis to justice.

Last week, I mentioned the dramatic moment when K. Tzetnik (the pen name of Yechiel Dinur) collapsed on the witness stand after describing Auschwitz as a “different planet.” The next witness was a thirty-year-old man who appeared pale and gaunt but sat ramrod straight, occasionally adjusting the black yarmulke on his head. He spoke eloquently but in a trembling voice. This witness was Yosef Zalman Kleinman. A resident of Yerushalayim, he had made the trip to Beit Ha’am on foot from his home. He remembers today that the heat outdoors was fierce, and he was exhausted by the time he arrived in the courtroom. He claims that the heat and the long walk had drained his energy; I am sure that the emotionally charged occasion also played a role. It is no secret that many witnesses, including those who had actually seen Eichmann murdering Jews—the type of firsthand account that the prosecutor was particularly eager to solicit—were afraid to testify. They feared that they would not be able to withstand the onslaught of emotion that it would trigger.

Where did you live when you walked to the court?

“I lived in Geulah, near the Chevron yeshiva.”

Were you a talmid in the Chevron yeshiva?

“No. I was older already. But my brother and I lived in a room on that street.”

So why did you walk to the court?

“I don’t know,” he admitted. “It wasn’t very far away. The problem was that Rechov Strauss was an incline, and it was hard to walk up that hill in the heat.”

Like the other witnesses at the trial, Yosef Zalman recounted everything that he had seen and experienced in Auschwitz. He testified for forty minutes, answering questions from prosecuting attorney Gideon Hausner. He left listeners shaken to the core as he described the horrors he had witnessed. His account included a description of Mengele’s brutal and sadistic behavior toward young Jewish men.

Sixty years after delivering that testimony, Yosef Zalman still remembers looking into Eichmann’s eyes in the courtroom. “I didn’t see him before the trial; we didn’t even know who he was during the war. We weren’t aware of who was overseeing the camps. It was only afterward, when they started to speak about him at the Kastner trial, that I became aware of his name and I began recognizing his face in pictures. When I took the stand in that courtroom, I looked at him and thought about everything that they had done to the Jewish people, and I felt that this was my vengeance. When I was in Auschwitz, I was one of 3000 young Jews there between the ages of 14 and 16, and only fifty of us survived. I was very emotional,” he recalled. Yosef Zalman added that he had had another brother, Shimon, who was also killed by the Nazis.

If I understood correctly, Shimon was a half-brother to you. Is that right?

“Yes. He was my brother through my father. He disappeared during the war, and we understood that he had been killed.”

Whom were you named after?

“A relative. My brother Shlomo was named for my maternal grandfather.”

Until recently, Yosef Zalman made a point of telling his miraculous story of survival in many venues. When the coronavirus pandemic began, he was unable to keep up that practice. Even now that the pandemic is subsiding, he does not have the strength to continue speaking as frequently and vigorously as in the past. But he still feels obligated to continue sharing his story. “I must never stop telling the world about my experiences,” he declared. “Young people must also read about the Holocaust as much as possible; they must never forget what happened there. As Dovid Hamelech says, ‘I will not die, for I will live and I will recount the deeds of Hashem.’”

Yosef Zalman has kept a collection of items from the war, which serve as chilling visual evidence of the horrors he experiences. There is a striped prisoner’s hat, which he wore in the camp, as well as a striped jacket bearing a prisoner’s number, which he took from a storeroom in the camp as soon as he was informed about the liberation. He also has a penknife that he received from a veteran prisoner, and a checkered shirt that he was given by a Jewish army officer who encountered him the street dressed in tattered clothes.

The Satmar Rebbe Is Informed of the German Invasion

As I spoke with Yosef Zalman, I marveled at his mental clarity and his exquisite power of recall. He revealed that he hadn’t been feeling well, and that he had left his home only twice that week. He had gone to see his doctor in the local medical clinic on Monday, and he had returned to the clinic on Tuesday morning for a blood test.

I have long been familiar with Yosef Zalman Kleinman’s name, and I thought about trying to meet him in the past. I imagined that he lived in a nursing home or some other such facility, or perhaps in an upscale residential neighborhood. When I finally looked into the matter, I was surprised to discover that he lives only two blocks away from my own home, in the neighborhood of Kiryat Moshe, which is adjacent to Givat Shaul. His wife, Chaya (nee Schwartz) is also a Holocaust survivor, who lost her own large family during the war. His brother Shlomo also lived in the vicinity until his petirah four years ago. Yosef Zalman and his wife have been blessed with three children, as well as grandchildren and great-grandchildren.

He remembers the harrowing discovery that his town had been taken over by the Nazis, who were beginning their systematic persecution of the Jews. “At the beginning of 1944, we still thought that the war would pass over us,” he recalled. “The Russian front was closing in from the east, and everyone knew that the Americans planned to invade Europe. We felt that we could see the light at the end of the tunnel. But then came March 19, 1944, and our lives were turned upside down.”

That date has been seared into his memory on account of its traumatic events. “The Satmar Rebbe had come to the town to attend a sheva brachos for his niece, who was an orphan,” Yosef Zalman said. “My brother and I weren’t allowed to attend the celebration, but we managed somehow to sneak into the room. We watched the Rebbe; it was the first time we had ever witnessed a seudah like that. Suddenly, a man came into the room, approached the Rebbe, whispered something to him and handed him a note. The Rebbe read the note and then stood up in alarm. He pounded on the table and announced, ‘Rabbosai, we are ending the seudah now, and everyone must go home!’ That announcement sparked a major commotion, and then we learned that the German army had conquered Hungary.”

What was his exact connection to that niece?

“I don’t remember. You must keep in mind that I was only 14 years old at the time. All I know is that she was his niece, and she was orphaned of both parents. Her parents had been killed in 1941, along with another 20,000 residents of her town.”

Yosef Zalman’s account continued, “A week later, the first orders began to come. At first, we were instructed to wear yellow patches, but our lives were able to continue as before. We all went to shul, we continued learning, and we baked matzos before Pesach as we had planned. But on the Sunday after Pesach, all the Jews were ordered to enter a ghetto. We wept as we were herded into the ghetto together—about 4000 residents of Zeliozovce, along with another 6000 Jews form the surrounding area.”

Before long, the deportations to Auschwitz began, and the Kleinman family was placed on the first transport. It was less than two months after they had been confined in the ghetto that the Germans announced the deportation. “They took us out in a large procession,” Kleinman recalled. “I will never forget the sight of all the bundles of belongings that lined the sides of the road, bundles that had been dropped by children who weren’t able to carry them. There were many small bundles, and many crying children. We thought at first that they were moving us away from the front lines, but when we realized that we were being taken to Poland, we were horrified. Still, none of us could have imagined that two thirds of us would die in the gas chambers.”

Surviving a Selection

The following is an excerpt from Kleinman’s testimony at the Eichmann trial, on June 7, 1961:

“On erev Yom Kippur, rumor spread through the camp that there would be an additional distribution of bread. Rations of a quarter of a loaf of bread and a small quantity of cheese were brought to our barracks. Nothing of the sort had ever happened in Auschwitz before! We were pleased that we would be able to eat on erev Yom Kippur and to fast on Yom Kippur itself. Everyone gave thanks for this unexpected gift. Little did we know what awaited us.

“A few hours later, the block was closed, and then the order came for all of us to go outside to the soccer field. Yes, there was a soccer field in the camp. It seemed to have been built by the Gypsies, who were exterminated a few weeks earlier. We all became very tense, and all the boys began running in every direction. We were ordered to organize ourselves into groups of one hundred. A rumor ran through the group that we would be put to work harvesting potatoes. By then, there were 2000 of us in all. Suddenly, we all began trembling. The angel of death, Dr. Mengele, had appeared before us.

“Someone approached him with great deference, took his bicycle, and leaned it against the wall of one of the barracks. Mengele approached our group with his hands clasped behind his back and his lips pursed. He raised his head in order to take in the entire field in a single glance, and his gaze fell upon a boy of about fourteen or fifteen years of age who was standing beside me. The boy had come from the ghetto in Lodz; he was blond-haired, gaunt, and sunburned. He was standing at the front of the first line. Mengele approached him and asked, ‘How old are you?’

“The boy tried to look mature and answered in a trembling voice, ‘I am eighteen years old.’

“Mengele was infuriated and began shouting, ‘I’ll show you! Bring me a hammer, nails, and a wooden rod!’ Someone hurried to comply. We were all petrified as we watched him. A deathly silence hung over the court.

“Mengele turned to a tall boy who was standing in the first row. He was a young man with a round face, who looked healthy and strong. Mengele grabbed him by the shoulder and led him to one of the goalposts. They were followed by the man who was carrying the tools and the wooden rod. The boy was placed next to the goalpost, and Mengele gave the order for the rod to be nailed to the goalpost above his head. A shudder ran through the boys standing in the front row. I realized immediately that anyone who didn’t reach the height of the rod would be slated for extermination. We all stretched ourselves to the best of our ability, struggling to stand at least a centimeter taller, then another half a centimeter. I tried to stretch myself as well, but I knew that it was hopeless. Boys who were taller than I was couldn’t reach the rod. And anyone who didn’t reach it was sent to the other side.”

Escape from Certain Death

It was very clear that the boys who were sent to the other side had all been condemned to die. Sitting on the witness stand in 1961, Yosef Zalman looked at the judges and continued his testimony.

“I was so preoccupied with my own plight that I didn’t even think about my brother. My brother was a tall young man, about sixteen years old. Just as I was thinking that the end of my life had arrived, my brother whispered to me, ‘If you want to live, do something!’ And then I regained my wits. I saw some pebbles scattered around me, and it occurred to me that those pebbles might be the key to my survival. I bent down and gathered a few rocks, and then I untied my shoelaces and placed them inside my shoes; I was wearing large military shoes that were much too big for me. But then I saw that I wouldn’t be able to stand at attention with the rocks in my shoes. ‘It isn’t working,’ I said to my brother. ‘I have to get rid of the pebbles.’

“‘Don’t do that,’ he replied. ‘Come here; I will give you something.’ He gave me his cap, and I tore it into two pieces and placed the soft cloth inside my shoes, so that I would be able to stand normally. I remained standing that way for about ten minutes, and I began to regain my hope. Meanwhile, the selection continued. Some of the boys reached the ruler and others did not. My brother looked at me again and said, ‘You are still not tall enough.’ He asked the boys around us to evaluate my chances, and they all agreed that I didn’t stand a chance of being spared.”

Kleinman’s account mesmerized his listeners. He spoke in an even tone, without exuding hatred or vengefulness, even though the wicked Eichmann was sitting directly across from him. Eichmann was listening through a pair of earphones as an interpreter translated the testimony from Hebrew to German. He blinked from time to time, but he wore an air of indifference.

Kleinman continued describing how he faced the threat of certain death. “It suddenly occurred to me that it might be better for me to hide among the boys who had already passed the selection. The tall boys were standing directly across from me; the short ones who hadn’t reached the rod had been sent to the other side. I quickly slipped into the ranks of the taller boys. For a moment, I thought that I had succeeded, but then another boy copied my actions, and Dr. Mengele noticed him. He shouted at the guards, ‘What are you doing there? This is sabotage!’ Then he forced the entire group to pass under the rod again. When we were brought back, I snuck into my previous place again. This time, I managed to hide among the taller boys unnoticed.” Once again, his life was saved.

Leaving Auschwitz

On October 5, 1944, a train pulled out of Auschwitz carrying a group of Jewish laborers. Shlomo and Yosef Zalman Kleinman, along with a number of other youths, managed to sneak onto the train. At that moment, the dreadful Auschwitz chapter of their lives came to an end.

“I left Auschwitz on a train, instead of through the smoke coming out of the chimneys,” Yosef Zalman said. “Out of the 3000 boys in our barracks, only about one hundred had survived. Ten of them, including me, snuck onto that train.” The laborers on the train were assigned to build bunkers for the production of German aircraft, not far from the Dachau camp in Germany. They suffered from brutal violence and terrible hunger. On April 27, two days before the liberation of Dachau, their camp was liberated.

“The fact that we were able to leave Auschwitz was one of the greatest miracles,” Kleinman related. “Everyone knew that people who went into Auschwitz did not come out alive, especially not children or youths. When they arrived in Auschwitz, they were sent directly to the crematoria. On the day I arrived in the camp, I heard two people talking, and one of them said to the other, ‘Do you see those chimneys? It’s not a factory or a bakery. They are burning your family there right now!’ I didn’t believe them, but I soon found out that it was true. There were four chimneys in Auschwitz from which smoke billowed constantly. Since the chimneys were constantly active, the smoke sometimes didn’t even reach the sky and covered the entire area of the camp instead. The acrid smell of the burning of hair and bones constantly filled the air. We felt as if we were in a giant graveyard.

“We knew that the Nazis planned to exterminate everyone after Simchas Torah, but b’chasdei Hashem, we were saved from the selection on Simchas Torah. We managed to escape behind Mengele’s back. We were standing in rows next to the gate along with about twenty other youths, and the chief kapo began counting us. When he reached my row, he stopped, looked at me, smiled, and ignored me.”

Just a few days from now, Yosef Zalman will celebrate the 77th anniversary of the fall of the Auschwitz death camp on Pesach Sheni. By the time Auschwitz was liberated, he already knew that he would survive his voyage through the valley of death. “Auschwitz was liberated on Pesach Sheni, but my personal liberation was on Chol Hamoed Sukkos 5705/1944. It was one of the greatest moments of my life. Out of 3000 young men, only one hundred had survived, and about ten of us managed to escape without Mengele noticing; he had planned to exterminate us all. We arrived at the labor camp near Dachau on the night of Hoshana Rabbah. One month after we arrived in Germany, the extermination stopped and the Germans began scattering the healthy prisoners throughout the nearby labor camps. Camp 4 became a hospital camp, without roll calls and forced labor. My brother and I were able to receive work in that camp. On Pesach Sheni, we heard that Auschwitz had been liberated.”

*****

Beaten for a Siddur

During Kleinman’s testimony, the prosecutor, Gideon Hausner, asked him to repeat a specific story that he had discussed during their meeting. There was hardly a dry eye in the room as Yosef Zalman related the following:

“One day, I saw the barracks commander’s assistant walking with a rubber hose in order to flog someone. I climbed down from my bunk and went to see who was receiving the beating. I watched as he ordered one of the boys, who was about 14 years old, to climb down from his bunk, and he began beating him. We stood there, a group of a few boys, and we watched this scene. This was a common sight in Auschwitz, but this time something unique happened: The boy didn’t scream, cry, or even whimper. We stood around and counted the blows; we counted to twenty, then to thirty, and we were all astounded by the fact that he wasn’t making a sound. We had never seen anything of the sort before. After the fortieth blow, the deputy commander of the barracks turned him over on the ground and began beating him on the face and legs, but he still didn’t utter a peep. After the fiftieth blow, he left and we helped the boy to his feet. ‘What did you do?’ we asked him. ‘Why did they beat you?’

“He replied, ‘I brought my friends some siddurim so they could daven.’ Then he looked at us and added, ‘It was worth it.’ That was all he said.”

“That is an unbelievable story,” I murmured when Yosef Zalman repeated it to me.

“If not for my testimony,” he replied, “that young man’s heroism would never have been revealed to the world.”

 

 

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