A childhood destroyed

A childhood destroyed

Bergen-Belsen survivors to address Teaneck Holocaust commemoration

Nancy and Harold Kleinberg have been married more than 65 years. Both are camp survivors.

Speaking to Howard Kleinberg on the phone, after the wedding of one of his grandchildren, I got the impression of an extremely sweet man with a wonderful demeanor who is thankful for all that he has and was marveling in the fact that another grandson, this one a rabbi, had officiated at the wedding.

This perhaps is no wonder because Mr. Kleinberg’s harrowing tale of surviving the Holocaust is filled with twists of fate. As he says, a number of miracles have brought him to where he is today.

Mr. Kleinberg was born in Starachowice, a small town in central Poland, the youngest of 10 children. His first encounter with fate came when he was 3, in 1928, when an uncle tried to get the family visas that would allow them to emigrate to the United States. Unfortunately, the doors to the States were closed, so he went to Toronto and obtained permission for the Kleinbergs to come to Canada. When the family got to Warsaw, though, there had been an outbreak of typhus. Canadian immigration officials were screening potential immigrants for the disease. Because Howard’s father was of slight build and under the weight limit, they told his mother that she could come with the children, but that Mr. Kleinberg could join them later. Not wanting to leave her husband, Mrs. Kleinberg opted to send the four oldest children by themselves. She would go later, with the rest of the family, she thought. As fate had it, Canada then closed its doors. Of the remaining Kleinberg children and their parents, Howard was the only one to survive the war.

Anti-Semitism began to surface in Poland in the 1920s, as the Christian clergy, who controlled many of the schools, painted Jews as Christ killers and spread rumors of blood libel. As a 5-year-old, Howard looked forward to his first day of school, and went in his finest clothes – only to be beaten and bloodied there by a gang of older students. It was his first real taste of the plague that would dominate the next 15 years of his life.

In 1938 as rumblings about atrocities in Germany began to circulate, the local Poles took the cue and began beating Jews in the streets. When Germany invaded Poland in 1939, the Jews were forced into factory labor. Life as they knew it ceased to exist. In the middle of 1941, the Germans created ghettos in the center of the city and rounded up all of the Jews, forcing them to live together, sometimes 20 people in a one-bedroom apartment. When they decided to empty the ghettos and send the Jews to concentration camps, they began a selection process, choosing only the able-bodied people to work in the factories. “We thought that we could stay together as long we worked in the factory, but in October of 1942, we were awoken to the sounds of dogs barking and bullhorns blaring telling everyone to get out of their apartments with just the clothes on their back,” Mr. Kleinberg said. “Parents were separated from their children and sent to Treblinka. It was the last time I saw my parents.”

As the younger ones were shepherded to another factory, they were made to run on the roads and witnessed the local Poles applauding their misery. “They dehumanized you and took away all of your self-esteem,” he said. “If you didn’t run fast enough, you were shot, and to prove their point, they randomly shot six people as we started to leave the town.” Mr. Kleinberg’s group was sent to a camp named after the notorious Hermann Goering. “The Germans made everyone line up every morning, and if one person was missing or escaped, they would kill 20 of us. We were given a tin and a slice of bread with some water to last us an entire day, and if you could find a paper bag from the cement, that became your insulation.”

Due to pestilence and unsanitary conditions, many people died of starvation, and others, like Mr. Kleinberg, came down with typhus. “It was January, 1943 and the commander was doing a health inspection,” he said. “I knew that if he saw me, I would be killed, so I hid in the back in the snow, and he passed me by. The next morning, miraculously, the typhus went away.” The SS finally took over the camp. There were too many prisoners dying, and they needed the manpower.

Mr. Kleinberg spent the last two years of the war going from one concentration camp to another, including Auschwitz and Mathausen, eventually arriving in Bergen-Belsen. The war was coming to an end, and even though much of the work ceased in Bergen-Belsen, the prisoners were starved, and many died out in the yards. One of Mr. Kleinberg’s jobs was to take blankets and drag corpses into a pile. As his own health deteriorated, he could no longer stand. Instead, he lay down among the bodies, waiting to die.

Then the next miracle occurred. The British had liberated the camps. A young woman, who had been in the women’s section of the camp, saw Howard lying there. She couldn’t believe he still was alive. She and a friend helped nurse him to health; then a British soldier took him to a hospital, where he recuperated for six months. Both he and the young woman independently made it to Toronto, where they reunited. Howard Kleinberg married Nechama Baum, the woman who saved his life. Today Nancy, as she is now called, and Howard Kleinberg have been married for more than 65 years and celebrate holidays with children and grandchildren.

We, the members of the Teaneck Holocaust Commemoration Committee, search each year to find survivors to bear witness to the atrocities of the Shoah and speak to the community, so that their stories are never forgotten. As the numbers of survivors diminish, we count our blessings as we continue to have survivors speak at our event, which will take place this year on April 16 at Teaneck High School. It is a privilege that all in the community should take advantage of.

What: Teaneck Holocaust Commemoration

When: April 16, 2015 at 7:30 p.m.; reception for survivors and their families at 6

Where: Teaneck High School, 100 Elizabeth Ave.

Free and open to the public

read more: