November 16, 2018

Survivor Fred Klein: ‘No name, no number’

The doorbell rang at 6:45 a.m. on Sept. 1, 1939, waking 17-year-old Fred (then Friedrich) Klein, who was at home in Pilsen, Czechoslovakia, on vacation from art school in Prague. He heard a male voice address his father: “Alfred Klein, born May 17, 1887. Come with us.” Confused, Fred pulled his blanket over his heard. But he soon emerged from his room, making his way to the open front door, where he saw four Gestapo officers escorting his father down the circular stairway of their apartment building. “This is only for an interrogation,” one explained. As Alfred, fully dressed though unshaven, tipped his homburg to Fred in a silent goodbye, Fred had a premonition: This was the beginning of the end, and he would be the only survivor in his extended family. 

Fred, the only child of Hedwig and Alfred Klein, was born on Aug. 11, 1922, in Pilsen, an ethnic-German area of Bohemia. Alfred was a dermatologist as well as a master of the Grand Lodge of the German Freemasons. The family was assimilated and upper-middle class.

When Fred was 4 years old, two boys in a public park shouted at him, “Jew, Jew, you killed our Lord.” 

Fred ran to his mother. “I didn’t understand. I didn’t know I was a Jew,” he said. 

He grew up an introverted and bookish boy. At 18 months, and again at age 6, he fractured his collarbone, and his overprotective father forbade him to participate in sports. Later, when Fred was 13, Alfred encouraged his son to swim and hike, but Fred felt clumsy. 

Alfred also tried to shield Fred from the events unfolding in Germany. In October 1938, Germany annexed the Sudetenland, whose border was only a mile from Pilsen. Fearing that Fred would be barred from high school, Alfred sent him to Officina Pragensis, a private commercial art school in Prague, beginning Jan. 1, 1939.

Then, on March 15, 1939, Germany occupied the provinces of Moravia and Bohemia, which included Prague and Pilsen, but Fred remained in school.

In September, Fred and his mother learned Alfred had been sent to Buchenwald after being taken by the Gestapo. They also discovered he had been arrested as a Freemason, not as a Jew. (Alfred would die in the infirmary at Monowitz/Buna, then an Auschwitz sub-camp, on Nov. 17, 1942.) 

Despite increasing restrictions on Jews, Fred continued his studies in Prague until August 1941, when he was sent to a labor camp in Sazava/Velka Losenice, in Bohemia.

The 500 prisoners there worked 12-hour shifts building a railroad. Fred, unaccustomed to physical labor, struggled shoveling dirt into small rail cars, but somehow managed.

The following December, Fred was granted permission to return home. He had learned that transports would soon be leaving from Pilsen. And, in fact, on Jan. 18, 1942, Fred and his mother were among 1,000 Pilsen Jews loaded onto a passenger train and shipped to Theresienstadt. 

There, Fred joined a team of draftsmen who worked on statistics, drawings and monthly reports. One of Fred’s assignments was laying out the official route that the Red Cross commission would follow during its inspection visit on June 23, 1944. Fred revised the document 30 times.

Several months later, Fred was one of 2,500 men assigned to a transport. But before leaving on Sept. 28, 1944, he warned his mother not to volunteer for future transports. “You won’t be with me,” he said. (After the war, Fred discovered that his mother had volunteered for a transport just three days later and was immediately sent to the gas chamber.) 

Around Oct. 1, Fred’s group arrived at Auschwitz-Birkenau, where strange men in striped uniforms hustled them out of the railway cars and into rows of five. As the men began walking amid the glaring lights and eerie quiet, Fred instinctively removed his eyeglasses, placing them in a pocket. Then, as the line dissolved into a single file, a German officer dispatched the prisoners to one side or the other. Fred was sent to the right. He noticed that many men were missing and that no one wearing glasses remained in his group.

As the men marched close to a barbed-wire fence, women prisoners shouted at them in Hungarian to throw their food over the fence. The SS began firing at the women, but they continued lunging for the food. “I was terrified. It was my first idea that this was a very bad place,” Fred said.

The men were then assembled in a large room to be processed. Afterward, Fred was given a dirty black yarmulke, a black overcoat with a bullet hole through it and stained with dried blood, rags for socks, a shirt with red electrical wire for buttons and a tallit for underwear. 

The men, however, were not tattooed. Fred doesn’t know why. But without a number, he was not traceable.

 At Birkenau, Fred spent hours standing at appel (roll call) and enduring semiweekly selections. He also didn’t eat much. He was never given a metal cup and resorted to using his yarmulke, which the soup seeped through. 

Several weeks later, desperate to leave, Fred volunteered for a forced-labor detail. He and about 150 others were transported to Friedland, a sub-camp of Gross-Rosen in Lower Silesia (Poland). 

While most prisoners worked in Friedland’s propeller factory, Fred, having disclosed he was an artist, was invited by the commander to work in the administrative building. There, he re-inked numbers on the prisoners’ uniforms, watering down the bottle of black ink to ensure he would have to ink each number twice, guaranteeing himself extra work. He also numbered the latrines and barracks.

When he ran out of projects, the commander commissioned a watercolor rendering of the camp, without the barbed wire, to send to his wife. Fred complied. 

But late that night, he was awakened by an SS soldier who, grabbing his neck, escorted him to a sign outside that read: “It is strictly forbidden to draw or photograph. You will be shot without warning.” Fred was certain he would be executed, but his only punishment was a transfer to the propeller factory. 

There, Fred worked 12-hour shifts bending propeller blades on a hydraulic machine. He had a quota of six blades per shift, but because of his weakened condition, he could manage only two.

One day in early May, the commander called all the prisoners to appel. “You will now be handed over to the civilian guard,” he said. “I hope you cannot complain about bad treatment.” Civilians manned the watchtowers, and the SS distributed the remainder of the food: a loaf of bread, two pounds of cooked potatoes, a liter of thick soup and a pound of margarine for each prisoner.

Then, on the night of May 7 or 8, the prisoners discovered that the civilian guards had also departed and the barbed wire was no longer electrified. They cut a hole and escaped. 

Fred, who weighed just 70 pounds, fled to the nearby hills with his cousin Bobby. “I was barely able to walk. I was dying,” he said. The next day, they walked into Friedland, which was deserted except for a young Soviet soldier who directed them to a German house where they found clothing and food. But Fred, too ill to eat, slept for 24 hours. When he woke, Bobby was gone. 

Eventually, Fred moved into the commander’s house. There he found a piece of paper, dated weeks earlier, ordering the commander to destroy the camp and its inhabitants, an order he had disobeyed.

 “He was very decent,” Fred recalled, adding that he has always wanted to nominate him as one of Yad Vashem’s Righteous Among the Nations but does not have his name or corroborating evidence.

Several weeks later, Fred returned to Pilsen, the only survivor, save for Bobby, of his extended family of 35 who had not emigrated before the war. He remained in Pilsen until the communist coup in February 1948, when he decided to leave.

With a 10-year wait for a U.S. visa, Fred contacted cousins in Argentina, and immigrated to Buenos Aires in June 1949. He worked as a commercial artist and later as a general manager for Hochtief Construction.

On Jan. 26, 1955, Fred married Susi Kaminski. Their daughter, Helen, was born in September 1957.

In 1963, the family immigrated to Los Angeles, where Fred worked as a commercial artist before joining Agnew Tech-Tran, where he specialized in machine translations. The company was acquired by Berlitz, and Fred became head of the German Department of Berlitz North America. He retired in 1990. 

In his semi-retirement, Fred volunteered at UCLA’s Dashew Center for International Students and Scholars, assisting German students to settle in Los Angeles. Fred, now 93, also wrote a book, “No Name, No Number,” which is available on blurb.com.  

“I don’t live in the past,” he said. “The past lives in me.”