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The Last Witness

Aharon Granevich-Granot

Fifty years ago this week, Yosef Kleinman became a surprise witness at the Eichmann trial, sharing a little-known piece of Holocaust history with captivated international listeners. That testimony made Kleinman a celebrity of sorts, and he’s spent the last five decades telling his story to soldiers, camps, schools, yeshivos, and documentary filmmakers.

Wednesday, June 01, 2011

Wednesday, June 7, 1961, was another tense day for the citizens of the fledgling State of Israel. Israelis had been glued to the radio for the past two months, riveted to the trial proceedings of Nazi arch-murderer Adolf Eichmann yemach shemo.

Eichmann, the engineer and supervisor of Hitler’s “Final Solution,” shared the primary responsibility for the systematic murder of six million Jews in the Holocaust. After the war he went into hiding and then made his way to Argentina, where he was captured by the Mossad in 1961 and hauled off to Israel to stand trial for genocide.

The trial, which publicly rehashed the horrors that the Nazis had perpetrated against the Jews, elicited a torrential emotional response in Israel and around the world. Until the trial, survivors often met with a conciliatory, humiliating, and even scornful attitude, blamed for going “like sheep to the slaughter.” Suddenly, as the entire nation sat glued to the proceedings, the survivors’ stories took on a new legitimacy — and a new deference.

Repressed memories burst forth into the standing-room-only courtroom. People screamed, cried, and tried to lunge at Eichmann, who was ensconced during the proceedings in a bulletproof glass box.

The day’s live broadcast was to be the testimony of “Ka-Tzetnik 135633,” the popular and somewhat controversial author who had written shocking bestsellers about the Holocaust. This time, the public was told, the author would testify under his real name. No one knew that Yechiel Dinur was the famed Ka-Tzetnick [Katzetnik is the Yiddish diminutive of concentration camp inmate], writing under the identity he had been given by the guards at Auschwitz.

Only the testifying witness was permitted into the air-conditioned hall in Beit Ha’Am on the corner of Betzalel Street in Jerusalem. The alternate witnesses in line to testify waited in a hot, small side room. Next in line after Dinur was Reb Yosef Kleinman, the youngest witness at the trial — who was just fourteen when he was deported from Hungary to Auschwitz.

Following his opening statement, in which Dinur described Auschwitz as the “planet of ashes,” he lost himself in the intensity of his memories. Listeners around the country were waiting for him to describe, in horrifying graphic detail, the hell of Auschwitz as he so vividly portrayed in his books.

But they would be disappointed.

Struggling to address the first question posed by chief prosecutor Attorney General Gideon Hausner — Dinur fainted. And so, without prior warning, Kleinman — the alternate anonymous witness who might not have had an opportunity to take the stand — found himself keeping an entire nation captivated with his testimony.

“Usually the testimonies were kept short,” Kleinman relates. “Gideon Hausner, the chief prosecutor, would cut them off so the witnesses wouldn’t ramble. But when I began to speak and Hausner tried to cut me short, the judges asked to hear my entire story.” [The three-judge panel included Moshe Landau, Benjamin Halevy, and Yitzchak Raveh. Justice Moshe Landau passed away last month at the age of ninety-nine.]

Since that fateful day fifty years ago, Yosef Kleinman has been invited repeatedly to army camps, schools, yeshivos and even family reunions, to relate — in his inimitable manner — his war diary.

“My story is really an unknown chapter of Holocaust history. I was one of about 3,000 teenage boys who wound up together in Auschwitz in the summer of 1944. We were considered too young to work, and so we spent the entire summer in our barracks, waiting for the end and hoping somehow to survive.”

Kleinman has managed to pass his Holocaust legacy down to his progeny in a meaningful way. The Kleinman children and grandchildren grew up with their father’s Holocaust experiences playing an unusual role in their lives. “It wasn’t odd for us to come home to find a host of tape recorders, photography equipment, camera crew, and an audience who had come to listen to our father’s speeches,” his daughter, Tova Strassberg says.

“Do you know what it feels like to come to Saba’s house and find fifty people in the dining room listening to his story? You are filled with pride and say to yourself, ‘My grandfather is passing on the torch,’ says grandson Nir Strassberg.

“I’m not the type of person who bemoans what a miserable soul I was,” Reb Yosef says. “While our situation was dire, looking back I can still find the thread of ironic humor, because I was a very curious person and all sorts of things that no one else bothered with interested me.” So it’s no wonder that the entire family was involved in publishing the book Chilatzta Nafshi Mimaves (You Saved My Soul From Death), which details his Holocaust experiences and multiple miraculous salvations.

 

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