Holocaust Survivor Recalls an Act of Kindness

Apr 25, 2017

Gene Klein in Austria after the war. A liberated man.

The bottom line at Auschwitz is, eighty percent of the people who were sent from Hungary, Jews, upon arrival in the gas chambers.  The other twenty percent will be sent to slave labor camps all over Nazi occupied areas.  I see people dying all around me.  They’re dying of hunger, dying from diseases, accidents on the work sites from really hard labor.  They’re going to kill you.  One morning we are standing at attention when an S.S. Sergeant stops about five feet in front of me.  Looks around the front.  The young prisoners were always in the front row.  He asks, “Does anybody speak fluent German?”  I put my hand up.  They were killing me in the slave labor work sites, what could be worse than what I’m doing already?  Plus, why should they pick on one person?  If they wanted to kill two-hundred today, they can do it, so I take a chance.

He takes me outside of the camp.  There’s a civilian person.  He dismisses the Sergeant.  I’m standing at attention.  I take off my hat, tell him my prison number.  He’s a German, I’m at his mercy but he told me his name, which was really odd.  He says, ‘I’m a civilian engineer and for the next two weeks I’m going to survey the road that has to be built and I need somebody to help me with my equipment.’ 

With that, he gives me this wooden board that has the numbers on it.  He has his tri-pod with the equipment, a notebook, and we walk away from the camp. 

All of a sudden I am looking around and I’m seeing beautiful forests.  I’m just with one human being.  The silence is so wonderful because I’ve been all of these months with screams, and yells, and dying, praying and now I’m just with another human being.

Jill and Gene Klein. Jill wrote the book 'We Got the Water: Tracing my Family’s Path through Auschwitz'. They travel the country inspiring people with Gene's survival story.

Next morning the first thing he says to me, “I see what terrible situation you people are in.  What he says is this, "I'm going to bring you back to meet up with your work party to march back to the camp a half hour early.  Where I'm pointing to my left, you’ll see a barracks. This is where the S.S. guards and civilian engineers have their lunch.  This is way past lunch time, don’t worry about it.”  He says to me, “I’m going to stay outside, you go inside, go as far as the kitchen is.  Look under the table of the very first table next to the kitchen, under the bench.”

I go there, a piece of paper napkin has a piece of chicken, a piece of real bread which I haven’t seen after all of these months, a piece of cheese, and a cup of milk.  I drink the milk because I can’t carry it, but I put the rest in my picket because I want to share it with a couple of young prisoners whom I made friends with because for moral support we had to find somebody.   The young prisoners were more optimistic than the older ones.  The older ones had a chance to just give up which was very easy.  You die really fast once you give up.

I come out and I thank him.  I’m fluent in German so I can tell him what a wonderful thing he was doing.  He is a German, he is a Christian, yet he took this chance.  If he would have been seen giving me food, he could have wound up in the same camp.  The S.S. would not put up with that kind of stuff, very strict rules.  He saved my life, not only because I was able to replenish my physical self to continue, but mentally it was such a fantastic thing knowing that my enemy, supposedly, helped me out.  This thing kept me going.  If there’s one human being I would have liked to have found after the war, it would have been him.  As we call it either in German, or in Yiddish which is the language of the Jews, he was a real 'mensch'.  Which is a real human being.

Now 89-years-old, Gene Klein tours the country talking about his life with his daughter Jill, who documented her families story in the book We Got the Water: Tracing my Family’s Path through Auschwitz.