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Sunday, Jun 24, 2018
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Steve Otto Columns

Otto: Surviving the death camps: a story of resilience

Simple choices. Life is literally like that. Get into the line going left and you go to the gas chamber. Get in the one going right and you have a chance — not much — but a chance.

Dr. Jill Klein, a USF graduate, is here because her father, Gene, was placed in the line to the right. And he had no choice in the matter.

His father, on the other hand, was in the wrong line and was killed that very afternoon and not too long after the family's arrival at Auschwitz.

“I was 16,” says Gene Klein. “We were living in the eastern part of Czechoslovakia when Hitler came into the Sudetenland. We felt fairly safe because there were few Germans in our part of the country. And then the killings began. My father was told to close his store, and I was told to come home from school.

“Then one day the Hungarian soldiers came and told us all of the Jews were going to be moved. We were packed into cattle cars and we had no idea where we were going until we arrived at Auschwitz, and even then we had no idea.”

Split from his mother and sisters, Gene learned the ropes of survival, hanging around with the tougher teenagers, keeping a low profile.

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One day he was moved from Auschwitz to another labor camp where he was put on a road construction gang. “There was almost no food in the camp, but I was befriended by a German civilian who was an engineer. He slipped me a little food and that kept me alive.”

Then came the day the camp was evacuated. “We were told to march to the next camp. If you could not walk you were shot. At the next camp there was no food. It was a place to go to die. We could do nothing but stand around. Then we heard that the Russians were coming. The guards had left and we were all alone until the first Russians came into the camp and we were liberated.''

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After the war and reunited with his mother and sisters, the family wanted to go to Israel but were unable to come up with the papers. Instead they made it to the United States. With his knowledge of German, he eventually joined the Army and worked in intelligence.

Skipping over the years, Gene married and along came Jill, who grew up in Miami and did her graduate work at the University of South Florida. Today Dr. Klein is a social psychologist and she has written a book, “We Got the Water: Tracing My Family's Path Through Auschwitz.”

“It's really about resilience,” she says. “I did chronicle the family experience as best as possible. We went back to Auschwitz and I visited other camps. But I've tried to apply it to today.”

Speaking of today, I asked Gene Klein if he saw any similarities to what is happening in the Ukraine and what happened in the former Czechoslovakia. “It is striking,” he says. “Of course, you have to look at motivation and what (Vladimir) Putin's goals might be. I do not believe he will ever leave Crimea. The question, of course, is how far he will go into the rest of the Ukraine.”

These days Dr. Klein lives and works in Australia, coming to the states several times a year. Gene Klein, now in his late 80s, lives in the Villages near Ocala. Currently the two of them are going around the country giving lectures on resilience and techniques for dealing with the pressures of bigotry in our modern world. The fact that he went in the right line instead of the left has made a difference in so many lives.

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