When Kurt Kleinmann first read Jeremy Dronfield’s The Boy Who Followed His Father into Auschwitz, he had no idea that his family’s story of living through the Holocaust had been documented in such depth and detail. At 84 years of age, he is the only living member of the Kleinmann family. He was just eight years old when his childhood took a severe turn and his homeland of Austria was occupied by the Nazis and the institutionalised persecution of Jews began. He was, however, more fortunate than the rest of his family; his mother Tini’s relentless efforts to get him to safety bore fruit and he found himself on his way to the United States, to the home of a Jewish judge, Samuel Barnet, and his family. Kurt’s eldest sister, Edith, too, was spared a horrible fate when she managed to get employment as a housemaid with a well-to-do Jewish family in Britain, where she eventually married and started a family.

Much of what Kurt came to know about his father, mother, brother and other sister is through this book. His father had categorically decreed, when they first reunited after the war in Vienna in 1953, “No talking about politics or religion.”

The Kleinmann family had not been practising Jews and identified themselves as Viennese above anything. The father, Gustav, though born in what is now Poland, had lived most of his life in Vienna. It was here that he met his wife Tini and had his four children: daughters Edith and Herta and sons Fritz and Kurt. An upholsterer by trade, Gustav was a decorated war hero and was let off when the first wave of rounding up of Jews began in Vienna in 1938. With several Aryan comrades vouching for his bravery and service to his homeland, he and his family felt quite confident that they would be spared being sent off to one of the notorious “Konzentrationslager — concentration camps — which had been a feature of Nazi Germany since the beginning.” Still, the sword of being Jewish continued to hang over their heads and the family suffered systematic abuse on the streets of their beloved city.

A true account of the harrowing ordeal and journey to eventual survival of a father and son is one of the finest historical accounts of the Jewish Holocaust

A year later, the neighbours came after Gustav again; he was Polish by birth and considered enough of a security threat. Not finding him at home, they whisked away his 16-year-old son Fritz instead, on the pretext that Fritz would be freed once Gustav turned himself in. Despite Tini’s unrelenting insistence to run away and save himself, he was determined to save Fritz. That didn’t happen and, as fate had it, both father and son “arrived in Buchenwald on [Oct 2] 1939 after a two-day train journey.”

Tini and Herta did not survive the Holocaust. In 1942, they were transported to Minsk and were shot dead at Maly Trostinets along with several hundred others.

Gustav’s iron determination and their unfaltering bond helped the father and son through the daily physical ordeal and death marches. Gustav kept his mind by periodically, albeit briefly and sometimes cryptically, writing in a diary that he was miraculously able to preserve. Both he and Fritz were prone to taking risks; had Gustav’s diary been discovered, it would have meant certain death. Fritz risked his life several times, too, especially when he joined the resistance effort.

The most crucial test of their love came when Gustav was selected for transfer from Buchenwald to Auschwitz, which meant certain death. Fritz insisted on joining his father, giving up his comparatively more secure position as a builder in Buchenwald. “I want to be with my papa, no matter what happens. I can’t go on living without him,” he insisted.

“If they were indeed going to die here, at least it would not be alone.” However, luck remained on their side. For a boy who came of age living in a concentration camp, Fritz developed incredible strength of mind and determination. On instruction of the prisoner resistance front against the SS, he was caught colluding with civilians. The physical blow of the ensuing torture would have been too much to bear, but as providence had it, he cheated a painful death when a change in camp administration gave him a new lease of life.

Dronfield’s book is a true account of the harrowing ordeal and journey to eventual survival of a father and son. Spanning six years and painstakingly researched, it is as much their love story as it is a historical account of their time together at Buchenwald, Auschwitz and later Mauthausen, Mittelbau-Dora and Bergen-Belsen, where they were briefly separated when Gustav convinced Fritz to jump off the train when on their way to Mauthausen, a camp inside Austria.

Based primarily on Gustav’s secret “battered little notebook” and the 1997 detailed interview of Fritz Kleinmann, much of the specifics have been corroborated and pieced together through official surviving records from the various camps they stayed at, newspaper articles and official historical documents. The depth of the research is as amazing as it is incredible. It allows the reader to delve deep into the minds of the concentration camp prisoners and their harrowing day to day ordeals.

What makes this story remarkable is, in the words of the author, “Very few Jews experienced the Nazi concentration camps from the first mass arrests in the late 1930s through to the Final Solution and eventual liberation. None, to my knowledge, went through the whole inferno together, father and son ...”

Undoubtedly, this is one of the finest historical accounts I have read. If one is to read one book on the Holocaust, this should be it. It’s easy to sense the difficulty of the task that was writing this book. Dronfield, a historian, biographer and ghostwriter, excels in portraying the goings-on of the concentration camp with careful respect, honouring the memory of the survivors and those who lost their lives in this unspeakable brutality.

The reviewer is a former member of staff

The Boy Who Followed His Father into Auschwitz
By Jeremy Dronfield
Penguin, US
ISBN: 978-0241359198

“The horror still registers. If I didn’t feel the horror, I wouldn’t have been able to tell the story with authenticity” — Jeremy Dronfield

How did you come across Gustav and Fritz’s story and why did you want to preserve it?

I first heard of the story when I was asked to help find a publisher for an English translation of Gustav’s concentration camp diary. That didn’t work out, because the diary is mostly very difficult to read — Gustav wrote it sketchily, and it contains many oblique references to people, places, events and so on. I felt it was such an unusual and important story — especially because of Fritz’s choice, which gives my book its title — that it needed to be told. I figured that the best way I could do that would be to bring my skills as a researcher and writer to it and tell the story in a way that would be accessible to everyone.

How did you cope with the horror of what you discovered about the concentration camps during your research?

Part of it is technical. The complex task of assimilating huge amounts of research — detailed data, eyewitness accounts, historical background and so on — presents so many technical challenges that it tended to act as a buffer between me and the horror of the story. However, that only helps a little. The horror still registers. Indeed, if I didn’t feel it, I wouldn’t have been able to tell the story with authenticity. The fact that the research and writing were spread over three years meant that I didn’t experience the horror in the way a reader does, in one intense rush, so that probably helped a little.

Now, two years on from finishing the final draft, I’ve come to perceive The Boy Who Followed His Father into Auschwitz as a book more than as a huge project, and the horror and emotion of it gets to me more than it did then, I think. Certain parts are very hard to talk and think about. The terrible, tragic fate of Tini and Herta Kleinmann is one of those episodes.

If you were to meet Gustav and Fritz, what’s the one thing you would ask them?

First I’d have to get over my anxiety about what they thought about how I had told their story. Would they feel I had done justice to it and to them? As to questions, the one thing I would want to know about Gustav is how he had the force of will to keep believing that he would survive, even when men were dying around him in their thousands. Fritz dedicated much of his life to teaching about the Holocaust. I would want to know his thoughts about where the world is headed now, with the rise of the far right in so many countries.

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, December 8th, 2019