The Wire @ WPI Online
VOLUME 12, NO. 1     JUNE 1998

Saved by Schindler, Michael Klein Got on With His Life

as published in the Spring 1994 WPI Journal

It took more than four decades for Michael W. Klein, professor of physics, to feel ready to talk in public about his experiences as a prisoner in Nazi concentration camps during World War II and about Oskar Schindler, the man to whom he owes his life. Since the release of Steven Spielberg's Oscar-winning film about the German businessman, Klein has been talking about it a good deal as local groups ask him to come and tell, yet again, his compelling tale of horror, tragedy and survival.

Klein's journey into the Holocaust began in Janoshalma, Hungary, not long after his 13th birthday, when the Germans occupied his native country. Like all Hungarian Jews, Klein's family, including his father (a rabbi), his mother, and his 10 brothers and sisters. were ordered into the overcrowded ghetto of Baczalmas. For about six weeks they endured hardship and hunger.

The men were eventually sent to work with a Hungarian forced labor battalion. Then one morning the women and children were lined up and marched three miles to waiting cattle cars. Without water and with only the meager food they had carried with them, they rode for five days. "Conditions in the cars were horrible," Klein says. "It was June 24th when they loaded us in and it was very hot. But the worst part was that there was no fresh air-there were just two small openings at the ends of the car."

On the fifth day the train stopped. The doors of the cars were opened in unison as capos (prisoners who worked for the Germans) jumped aboard. With cries of "Raus! Raus!" ("Out! Out!"), they swung clubs with brutal force, beating the prisoners and driving them from the cars. This was the "welcome" all prisoners received to Birkenau, part of the infamous German concentration and annihilation camp in Auschwitz, Poland.

"The German SS were all around with dogs and machine guns," Klein says. "They said old people and women with children should go to the right and women without children and men should go to the left. We marched down a 10-yard path made by the train on which we had arrived on the righthand side and high-voltage barbed wire on the left-hand side."

Being tall for his age, Klein went with the men. He noticed that his younger brother, David, was walking beside him. Remembering the SS officer's instructions, he sent him back to find their mother. Only later did he learn that in doing so he had sent his brother to his death, for, not fit for hard labor, the children and their mothers were taken immediatly to the gas chambers.

Klein was assigned to Barracks 16 - the children's block-where a thousand children, their heads shaved, were crowded together, sleeping on the concrete floor and subsisting on a starvation diet. After seven weeks, Klein's father also arrived at Auschwitz and was assigned to the same camp as Klein. Auschwitz provided labor for nearby German factories and two days after his arrival the elder Klein was selected to go to work in the cement factory at Golleschau.

"I cried very hard," Klein says, "that just two days after I met up with him again he was going away. He said, 'I am not saying goodbye to you. We'll see what we can do.'

"The Germans wrote down the names of the people they selected - we didn't yet have our numbers tattooed on our arms. I went around and asked every prisoner if they wanted to change with me. There was a prisoner who had a brother in Auschwitz and wanted to stay with him. So I took his name - Goldberger, Arnold." [Klein says he appears on Oskar Schindler's list under this name.]

In leaving with his father, Klein escaped certain death, for the occupants of the children's block were gassed on Rosh Hashanah. But survival was by no means certain at Golleschau. which was a work-annihilation camp. Half of the workers died, were killed or were taken back to the gas chambers at Birkenau every three months. Klein's father would not survive his time at the camp and Klein worked with a broken hip to avoid being killed.

At Golleschau, rocks were mined from a mountain for use in the cement factory. Klein and his father, working side by side, helped build a cable cart line that was to be used to carry the stones to the factory. Not long after his father was taken back to Birkenau, Klein was injured when a lorry ran over his foot. He ended up in the camp hospital -- in reality a room with no medical equipment or supplies where injured and sick prisoners were held.

Normally the hospital was a temporary way station for prisoners destined for the gas chambers. But by late December 1944 the Germans, preparing to evacuate Auschwitz in advance of the arrival of Russian troops, stopped using the chambers. In January 1945 everyone in Klein's camp was evacuated-except for the 94 prisoners in the hospital.

"We were hoping that the Germans had all left and that we were free," Klein says. "But that same afternoon SS guards with machine guns walked in, so we knew our hopes were dashed."

Two days later the prisoners were loaded into cattle cars. The train moved intermittently for about three days. Then the locomotive was unhitched and the cars were abandoned on an isolated siding. A capo beat the other prisoners and forced them to scream for help every half hour. Several more days passed before a railway worker heard their cries and informed Oskar Schindler's brother-in-law, who worked for the German railway.

The brother-in-law notified Schindler and the next day a locomotive pulled the cars to the village where Schindler had his factory. Prisoners working for Schindler used blow torches to unfreeze the locks on the cattle cars. When the doors were opened, the 34 prisoners who had survived were fed hot farina. "Apparently Schindler knew that if we ate regular food we would die from diarrhea, because we had not eaten in eight days."

Hot farina arrived again the next morning and then the prisoners were led or carried to Schindler's camp. Klein threw off his filthy prison clothes and jumped into the hot showers Schindler provided. "I just enjoyed tremendously the sensation of hot water flowing over my face and over my body," Klein says.

The new prisoners were quarantined for three weeks. Still weak, Klein went to work in Schindler's factory making bullet casings. Klein says Schindler's "was the heaven of all camps." Workers were not beaten and were fed adequately. Each prisoner had his or her own bunk. But there were no medical facilities and most of the Jews who'd survived the trip with Klein to Schindler's camp ultimately died.

By spring, it was becoming clear that the war was winding down. On May 8 Schindler gathered everyone together to tell them it was finally over. "We were all standing on the machines trying to see him," Klein says.

"He said, 'I know what was done to you. And I know what you went through you will never forget. But I hope you remember that this German did what he could.'"

The next day the Russians came and the prisoners were on their own. Klein developed a fever of 103, which he would endure for two years. He traveled in the back of a horse-drawn cart to Brno, Czechoslovakia, where he was hospitalized. He learned there that he had contracted tuberculosis.

Because he was Hungarian, he wasn't allowed to stay in the Czech hospital. With great difficulty, he worked his way back to Hungary, where he learned that two of his sisters had also survived the war. His older sister took him to the American Zone in Germany; he would remain there in a hospital for five years.

After two years, his temperature was low enough for him to begin to read. "I concentrated all my energies on trying to educate myself," he says. "I taught myself German, which became my best language. I got books on math and physics and taught myself fractions and algebra."

When he was well enough, Klein came to the United States. The Korean War had started and many colleges were admitting as special students qualified young men and women who had not completed high school. Klein earned a bachelor's degree in engineering physics at the University of Colorado, graduating at the top of his class, and went on to earn a Ph.D. in theoretical physics at Cornell.

While at Cornell he met another Holocaust survivor, who would become his wife; today they have two children and eight grandchildren. A professor at WPI since 1979, he has also developed an international reputation for his work in theoretical physics, especially his pioneering work on explaining certain anomalous low-temperature properties of glasses.

"I have taken on as my motto, 'Never Look Back,'" he says. "I have looked forward and tried to establish for myself a normal life. It is this attitude that has helped my wife and me become active and useful members of society, rather than crying over the past."

But Klein has looked back, too. In addition to his talks, he has written several articles about his experiences at Auschwitz and is at work on a book about his life. To verify his memories, he has taken trips back to Poland and Hungary. On a visit to the cement factory with his oldest son, he found it unchanged after nearly 50 years. "I could close my eyes and take him from place to place," he says. "I remembered every detail so well. These are things that are engraved in one's mind."

Since Schindler's List opened, Klein says he has been frequently asked his opinion of its central character. "He clearly started out as someone trying to profit from the Jews by using their money to enrich himself," he says. "But as time went on he became more and More dedicated to saving the Jews who worked for him. He did that by drinking and womanizing with the SS - with the murderers.

"People ask me, 'Did this make him a good man or a bad man?' I say if he hadn't done what he did he couldn't have saved anyone, so it doesn't really matter. I think he was a great man."

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Last modified: Mon Jun 22 17:50:01 EDT 1998