The life of Irving Klein of the Nipomo Mesa was dramatically changed March 19, 1944, when the Nazi S.S. troops entered Budapest, Hungary.
April 19 is Holocaust Remembrance Day, memorializing the 6 million Jews and 5 million others who perished in the Holocaust.
The Jewish Community Center is sponsoring a free program marking the day. Bianca Rosenthal and Klein will tell the stories of their incredible survivals. It begins at 7 p.m. April 19 at Congregation Beth David, 10180 Los Osos Valley Road, San Luis Obispo.
Klein — then named Ivan Kis — had a father who died when he was just 3 years old. His mother, Olga, needed to work full time in a restaurant owned by her uncle, Mihaly Hebel. Hebel was like a father to her and a grandfather to Klein. Klein went to live with the Roman Catholic Miskloszy family while his mother worked. Maria Miskloszy had no children of her own and became Irving’s second mother.
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In June 1941, Hungary entered World War II as an ally of Germany. Despite the alliance, Regent of Hungary Miklós Horthy was less than enthusiastic about Adolf Hitler. He didn’t share the “death to all Jews” rantings of the Hungarian Nazi-like movement, the Arrow Cross, whose leader, Ferenc Szálasi, he had imprisoned . Horthy’s policies led Germany to invade and take control of Hungary in March 1944.
In three months, the S.S. shipped 550,000 Hungarians, starting with those in the countryside, to death camps in Poland.
Klein’s undoing was going to the funeral of his beloved uncle, Mihaly Hebel. The cemeteries were in the countryside. Klein and his mother were arrested at the burial. They were herded into an old brick factory that had been converted into a ghetto. Irving was allowed to return to his apartment building to say goodbye to the Miskloszys. His “Catholic father” had tears in his eyes.
He could have escaped, but he decided to return to his mother.
Soon, they were on the train for Auschwitz. Klein tried to escape and was beaten by the guards. He never saw his mother again. He was a strong 14-year-old. After spending several days at Auschwitz, he was sent to Buchenwald in central Germany.
Irving was assigned to crews building concrete bunkers to protect munitions factories from American bombings. He worked from 7 a.m. until 7 p.m., carrying 50-pound sacks of cement. If someone slowed or fell down, they were shot and left for dead.
Klein witnessed at least two people electrocuted by the electric fence. Their bodies were left at the fence as a lesson to others. But diseases such as typhus took the greatest toll.
“Naked bodies were piled up higher than a house because people were dying faster than the small crematory could, manage,” he recalled.
Klein said survival was his only friend. Combined with great physical strength, a spirit of endurance and a facility with languages, Klein was rescued from Buchenwald by American forces and, unlike some, had a good experience in an orphanage at Kloster Indersdorf.
San Luis Obispo attorney John Belsher has worked closely with Klein, discovering full documentation of his ordeal in 2008. Together, they have published “Surviving Auschwitz to Buchenwald: The Autobiography of Irving Klein.” The book will be available for signing at the Holocaust Remembrance event.
The autobiography and Bianca Rosenthal’s account of survival in Romania are testimony to events in times past that can never be forgotten.
Dan Krieger is a professor emeritus of history at Cal Poly and president of the California Mission Studies Association.