Timeline - William Klein
William’s oldest brother was born.
March 25: William Klein was born in Ungvar (Uzhhorod), Czechoslovakia (now Ukraine) to Meyer Klein and Freida Chunowitz Klein. He was from a very Orthodox family. He was one of eleven children: eight brothers and three sisters.
When the war broke out William was eight years old and living in the Carpathian Mountains. He worked at a candy factory next door to his home, which was owned by a Jewish man.
Ungvar was annexed by Hungary.
Hungary joined the Axis powers.
William’s older brother was drafted to the eastern front, and other brothers were taken to the newly established Ungvar Ghetto.
March 19: German soldiers arrived in Ungvar. William, who was a professional soccer player, lost his job. The German Army would take young boys, including William, and have them clean the streets. His Orthodox parents lost their home; they were moved into a brick factory to await their transport to Auschwitz.
William and his brother were put on a train to Poland. When they wanted to use the restroom, they left the train and used a field. When the train stopped each morning, all the healthy people on the train would take the dead bodies and throw them out of the car. He was told on the train that everyone who went to Auschwitz died there. William arrived in Krakow, and was then sent to Warsaw.
William was put on a clean-up crew in the abandoned Jewish ghetto in Warsaw. The German soldiers would say, “Take this one here. Clean it up and put it on a train.” They were taking Jewish possessions back to Germany. When the SS guards were not looking, William would take things. Once he found gold coins. He traded them for two loaves of bread.
William was then sent to Auschwitz from Warsaw. The guards showed them the chimneys where people were killed. A kapo approached William and asked him “Do you want to live?” and in response William said, “You must be smart or stupid. I think it’s stupid. Why do you ask me a stupid question?” He said, “Answer me: yes or no?” And I said, “Yes, sure. I want to live.” So then the kapo told him, “The first thing you do is volunteer to get out of here.” The kapo said, “That’s your life. Take it or leave it.” William then joined the forced labor battalion, bringing along his twelve-year-old brother Sol. Their sister Rose was taken to the gas chamber, which looked like a shower. The building next to that was the oven where they burned the bodies of the people who were gassed.
January: William and his brother Sol and were forced to march from Auschwitz on the “Death March” toward Germany. They were sent to Dachau. There they worked at the Muhldorf underground aircraft factory. He knew that if he followed all of the guards’ instructions, even if they hit, stamped, or cut him, that he would survive, as long as he wasn’t shot. April 14: When Allied troops advanced, prisoners were loaded into a railway car. The train was bombed. The brothers escaped and hid in a ditch, then walked to a farmyard. The farmer gave them food and clothes, telling them that the German Army had left and the Americans were coming. A captain in the American Army, who liberated them, spoke a little German. William spoke Hungarian, Polish, Czech and Russian, but he didn’t speak English. He asked the captain in his limited German if he could go back to Czechoslovakia.
The Americans sent him by train to Prague, where he asked about his brother, Herman. Herman was a staff captain in the Czechoslovakian Army, and was supposed to be stationed in Slovakia. But he was told that there were millions lost, with no way to find them. He then returned to Ungvar. He located his sisters in the local police station. He traded a leather coat for their freedom. He was told that his brother, Bela, died fighting the Germans as a partisan. William, his brother and his sisters went to Budapest, where he had an uncle, an aunt and cousins. All of them decided to leave, but when his family got to the border, they stopped because they were afraid. William convinced them to go to Germany to a displaced persons camp near Munich. At the camp they were given clothes, food and an apartment. One of his brothers decided to go to the United States. He was there three years before William arrived.
William moved to Chicago, where he had a cleaning store and did alterations. He also worked as a candy maker.
William met Shirley, and they married.
William moved to Tennessee because his wife was from Chattanooga. He became a grocer, but also helped with Jewish burials. He became involved in the Chevra Kadisha (Jewish burial society) for the next 27 years, including serving as chair. He continued to be religious, attending B'nai Zion Synagogue every day, and serving on the board there.
Initially hesitant about talking about his experience in the Holocaust, William later understood the importance of making sure that no one ever forgot. He gave his oral history to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum as well as to Steven Spielberg's Shoah Project. He gave numerous interviews to local newspapers, TV, and radio and volunteered in schools talking to students about the Holocaust.
William and Shirley moved to Florida.
William Klein died November 17 in St. Lucie, Florida.
His obituary may be read here: http://www.legacy.com/obituaries/tcpalm/obituary.aspx?page=lifestory&pid=98805300.