Emerich Klein speaks to a student following his recent talk at King David High School. (photo from KDHS)
For decades, Emerich Klein kept his story of survival during the Holocaust to himself. While raising two children in Vancouver and making a life, he shared nothing of what had happened to him after he, together with his family, was deported to Auschwitz.
After years of cajoling, Klein shared his experiences with Russ Klein, his son, who is principal of King David High School. In 2019, he also sat with interviewer Hodie Kahn and recorded almost four hours of testimony for the Vancouver Holocaust Education Centre.
On Feb. 14, with his son the principal at his side, Emerich Klein spoke of his survival story for the first time to an audience, addressing students in a Holocaust studies class. The students had viewed the recorded testimony in advance of the visit.
Klein was born in Uzhorod, Czechoslovakia, in 1930, and lived with his sister Judith and their parents Isidor and Rose on the site of the electric power plant where Isidor worked. They had a large extended family and Emerich remembers Shabbat dinners at his grandparents’ home, with throngs of cousins. His grandparents, who were very traditional, were in charge of the mikveh and his grandfather was a melamed, a teacher.
Emerich’s early childhood was largely uneventful, except for being taunted and beaten up on his way to and from school by non-Jewish kids. At one point, on the advice of a teacher, he loaded his school bag with rocks and took revenge on his tormentors. When one of the bullies dragged the police to the Kleins’ door urging assault charges, Emerich’s father explained how his son frequently returned from school bloody. The cop apologized and left. The father of the bully beat his own son – not for bullying, it would seem, but for being bested by a Jew.
While older people may have sensed the shifting social climate, for kids like Emerich, things seemed pretty good for a time. By 1941, though, Jewish businesses could operate only with an Aryan partner and so an uncle had to close his small bakery.
When Isidor was conscripted – first into the army and then, when Jews could no longer serve in the military, in a work battalion – the family’s fortunes suffered. His boss at the power plant eventually convinced authorities that he was an irreplaceable employee.
One day, a stranger showed up in town, speaking a language Emerich did not understand. The boy took the man to a rabbi and, after the rabbi shooed Emerich away, the man explained that he had escaped Poland and told the rabbi what was happening to Jews there. The man’s stories of ghettoization, forced starvation and worse was unimaginable to the Jews of Uzhorod.
Under the 1938 Munich Agreement, which British prime minister Neville Chamberlain signed with Hitler to partition Czechoslovakia, Uzhorod was returned to Hungary, to which it had belonged until the First World War. (It is now in Ukraine.) In 1944, the Nazis occupied Hungary, and things got much worse for the Jews living there. When they heard the word “ghetto,” the words of the Polish stranger who had shown up in town returned to them.
Emerich’s grandfather was stopped on the street, beaten up and had his beard cut off. Jews were ordered to report to a cordoned-off area but, because this ghetto was so small, it served mostly as a deportation area. The Kleins remained there only for a couple of days.
They were packed into railway cars, with only room to stand. One big drum served as a potable water supply and another as a toilet. Children were crying, people were moaning.
After several days – Emerich doesn’t know how long – the train stopped. People were banging on the outside of the cars and the doors were flung open. People in striped clothes screamed at them to get out. They had arrived at Auschwitz.
Once they got down off the train, the women and children were separated from the men. The old and sick were yanked across the tracks and packed into big waiting trucks. Rose pushed Emerich to join the men. The boy didn’t want to let go of his mother but she screamed at him to leave. He ran and found his father.
While waiting for the next step in their processing, Emerich saw what he thought were piles of cordwood but he soon realized they were human bodies. The new arrivals were taken to a building for a cold shower, then they were shaved, doused in disinfectant and handed clothing in random sizes.
When an army officer called for metal workers, Isidor volunteered and a fellow prisoner advised Emerich to step forward or risk being separated from his father. Despite his lack of knowledge in the field, Emerich passed himself off as an apprentice. Together, the father and son were separated from the rest of the group and transported out of Auschwitz, on a train again for days, until they arrived in France.
Isidor and Emerich worked at a mine in tolerable conditions, with survival rations for a time, until they were moved again, to a salt mine in Germany. There, they were joined by 1,000 inmates from Poland and Emerich and the others learned the horrors of what was happening further east.
At the salt mine, their job was to break boulders to make gravel and then level out the ground, so concrete could be pored over it. After a time, Emerich was put on burial duty, which was less physically onerous work. A Russian prisoner assured Emerich that the war would soon be over and to keep up his strength. He would move on to factory work, cleaning the floor and cutting aluminum.
In April 1945, the workers were forced on a death march. Planes were flying so low that the prisoners could see the pilots. As the march continued, Isidor insisted he couldn’t go on, but Emerich and two of their friends stuck together and forced the father to keep moving. Eventually, they were loaded onto a train and provided food for the first time in nine days. Then, in the midst of a great commotion, the incarcerated passengers realized that the German army was in full retreat. The guards abandoned the prisoners.
Emerich and his group walked into the nearest town, which was already overrun with freed prisoners. They were put up in a German army base that had been repurposed as a repatriation centre. Tables had been set up for each country and people registered their names and hometowns.
Emerich and Isidor eventually made it back to Uzhorod, but Emerich’s mother Rose and sister Judith never returned. All the extended relatives but two cousins were gone. Emerich spent most of the time crying.
After a few weeks, Emerich left by himself for Prague and registered with the Joint Distribution Committee, after which he was transferred to a displaced persons camp in Germany. He intended to go to Palestine with members of his youth movement, but word came that the British were halting migration.
A friend told him of an opportunity to go to Canada, so they signed up. Six months later, Emerich docked in Halifax and made his way to Toronto, where he stayed for two years. The Jewish community there was highly supportive and Emerich became an apprentice jeweler. Isidor, who in the new world would be known as Robert, and his new wife arrived during this time.
Isidor/Robert had remarried a fellow survivor from Uzhorod, who had a sibling in Chilliwack, B.C., so the family headed to the West Coast. Emerich met his wife, the Vancouver-born Jenny, in a bowling alley during a B’nai B’rith event.
In the King David classroom last month, students asked thoughtful questions and Klein responded. His son told students they were lucky to see the elder Mr. Klein at his most talkative, as getting a sentence from the soft-spoken senior is considered by family members to be an accomplishment.
A student asked if he ever lost faith that he would survive.
“Yes, definitely,” said Klein. “We lived not from week to week or day to day, but from hour to hour. Life didn’t mean a thing.”
About liberation, he said, “I felt wonderful. I felt that I’d been given a chance to live again, to be human again.”
Asked how his experiences under the Nazis and their collaborators had affected his attitudes toward religion, Klein was blunt.
“It sort of turned me against it,” he said. Nevertheless, he insisted that his two children attend Talmud Torah elementary school. Why?
“To learn about Judaism and to learn about the Holocaust,” he said, turning to his son. “I was not able to talk about it, but you had to know about it. That was the only way that I could get my children to learn about it. They couldn’t learn it through me.”
His decades-long refusal to discuss the past with his children was intended to prevent the next generation from anguish, he said.
“Why should they suffer my pain?” he asked. “That was a terrible thing to think about. Bad enough that I suffered, [why should] they suffer the same thing through me?”
Reflecting on his postwar return to Uzhorod, Klein was again straightforward.
“I went back to see who came back from the family. I spent a month, maybe six weeks there and then I left, never to return,” he said. “It was very difficult. I came up against reality there. Up until then, we did not know what happened to the rest of our family. We were separated and that’s all I knew. I had hopes that everybody was coming back. Nobody came back. So there was no point in me staying there.”
Coming to Canada was wonderful and difficult, he said.
“Wonderful just to get out of Europe – doesn’t matter where,” he said. “I just wanted to get out of that country that was soaked in Jewish blood.” But, he added: “It was difficult – difficult to get used to a new life, a new way of living, a new language, a new country. I was 17 years old. It was very difficult but you make do. You do the best you can. You adjust.”
Settling into life in Vancouver, Klein made family and stability his focus.
“A normal person would try to make a living and get themselves a better position, work your way up in life,” he said. “To me, that was not important. To me, the important thing was family. I concentrated on one thing only. Just to give you an example, all my friends went into business – I did not. They asked me, why don’t you go into business? I said … what happens if it doesn’t go right? These children cannot be hungry. I knew what hunger was. It was so important for me to stay just at a low level but make sure that my family will not go without. That was an effect of what happened to me.”
A student asked why, after all these years, Klein decided to speak.
“Because I was convinced after an awful long time that to be silent is being complicit in what happened,” he said. “You’ve got to talk about it, even if it hurts, you’ve got to talk about it.”
He is concerned by some of the political developments he sees in the world today.
“Most of humanity is very good,” he said. “There are parts of society that are not good. Let’s face it, people can be influenced very easily. If you get a charismatic person, [they] can convince people of almost anything they want.”