Jeremy Dronfield’s 2020 book, The Boy Who Followed His Father into Auschwitz: A True Story of Family and Survival, chronicles the daily horrors of the Holocaust through the eyes of Gustav and Fritz Kleinmann — the father and elder brother of Harvey A.K. Whitney Award-winning pharmacist Kurt Kleinmann.
Kurt, the youngest of the four Kleinmann children, was eight years old and part of the large Jewish community in Vienna, Austria, when the country submitted to Nazi Germany in 1938.
Gustav and 16-year-old Fritz were arrested by the Nazi Schutzstaffel, or SS, in 1939 and sent to Buchenwald concentration camp in Germany. The book vividly describes the Kleinmanns’ experiences as they were transferred to a series of concentration camps over six years.
In the last years of their imprisonment, the two men remained together at Auschwitz after Gustav was selected for transfer to the notorious camp and Fritz refused to be parted from his father.
Dronfield’s haunting account of the two men’s years in the camps is based on the diary Gustav kept during his imprisonment and interviews with the surviving family members, including Kurt.
Kurt Kleinmann lived for three years under the Nazi regime in Austria while his mother, Tini, worked to save her children. Tini arranged for Kurt and his eldest sister, Edith, to flee the country.
“My mother had a realization right from the beginning, when Hitler arrived and felt that we needed to get out,” Kurt Kleinmann said in an interview.
But Tini and her daughter Herta could not leave, and they perished in a Nazi death camp.
“Herta and my mother, in 1942, were transferred with a lot of other women to Minsk, and within three days they were killed,” Kleinmann said. “I didn’t know any of this until after the war. And the reason I knew about it was because when my brother got back to Vienna, he researched everything regarding them. And the Nazis kept records of everything.”
Kurt Kleinmann’s passage to the United States in 1941 was secured through a friend of his mother who had emigrated to New England years earlier. Kleinmann said he remains grateful to this day to Judge Samuel Barnet of New Bedford, Massachusetts, for sponsoring his emigration and welcoming him into his home.
“The family was really wonderful,” Kleinmann said. “These were the individuals that saved my life. If I had stayed in Vienna, I would have been killed, I’m sure.”
In letters Kurt and his mother exchanged before she was taken to her death, he chronicled how he was adapting to American life under the care of his sponsor’s family.
“When I came to the United States, they put me into school right away. So I got very busy with schooling and when summer came, they sent me to . . . camp,” Kleinmann recalled. “And I made wonderful friends in New Bedford and went to high school there and so on.”
He said these experiences helped to temper the trauma of the separation from his family and the loss of his mother and sister.
Kleinmann was drafted into the U.S. Army in 1953 and stationed in Germany for 16 months. From there, he visited Vienna and was reunited with his father and brother.
“I was able to visit them at least once a month while I was in Germany and to redevelop my relationship with my father and my brother. And the beautiful part was, eventually they came to the United States for a visit. And I was fortunate, I took them to New Bedford, and they met my other family,” Kleinmann said.
He said Dronefield’s chronicle helps keep the events of the Holocaust remain in the world’s conscience.
“I don’t know to what extent it’s being taught in schools,” he said. “There are not many left of us who had any personal experience. So eventually the story will die out, unless it continues to be taught in the schools.”
[This news story will appear in an upcoming issue of AJHP.]