A story of brutality at its worst and family at its best

By telling the story of one family's struggle for survival under the Nazis, this book brings into focus the plight of today's refugees from terror, writes Jennifer Platt

09 June 2019 - 00:00 By Jennifer Platt

Published in the Sunday Times: 09/06/2019 

The Boy Who Followed his Father into Auschwitz: A True Story *****
Jeremy Dronfield, Penguin

The Boy Who Followed his Father into Auschwitz was a story Jeremy Dronfield could not walk away from. The author was approached by an agency to translate a diary written by Gustav Kleinmann, who had kept a journal describing the events of his five years in the Buchenwald and Auschwitz concentration camps. Gustav recorded the atrocities he and his son Fritz endured in a little pocket book that he managed to keep hidden through his years in the camps. The journal was published in 1995 as The Dog Will Not Die.

"I was driven by a sense of duty," says Dronfield in a telephonic interview. "It's a fascinating document but, however valuable Gustav's diary is as a historic document, it's incredibly difficult to read. When I got to the central moment when Fritz volunteered to go with his father into Auschwitz, I knew this was a story that had to be told. I figured the best thing I could do was to bring my abilities as a researcher and writer to tell the story in a way that could be accessible to everyone."

He continues: "Then when I had finished the proposal, I couldn't find a publisher. They all acknowledged how important it was but said they would not be able to market a Holocaust story. I just had to write the book and bite the bullet. It took me about three years of work, and it was only after it was completed that Dan Bunyard, the brilliant publishing director at Penguin UK, offered to publish it."

The story Dronfield was driven to tell was that of the Kleinmanns, an ordinary family living an ordinary life in Vienna. While Gustav was a gifted upholsterer, he was not the best businessman, but the family got by. He married Tini during the Great War and they had four children. We meet 18-year-old Edith, 15-year-old Herta, 14-year-old Fritz and eight-year-old Kurt just before the Nazis annex Austria. What happens next to this modest family is one of the millions of stories about the suffering Jewish people endured under the Nazis.

The day after Hitler marched victoriously into Vienna, Edith is noticed by an old school friend while walking in their neighbourhood. The betrayal is quick. Called out by him for being a "Jewess", a brush is shoved into her hand and she is pushed to the ground and ordered to clean the streets.

"The suddenness with which genteel Vienna had turned was breathtaking - like tearing the soft, comfortable fabric of a familiar couch to reveal sharp springs and nails beneath. Gustav was wrong; the Kleinmanns were not safe. Nobody was safe."

After Kristallnacht in early November 1938, Gustav and Fritz are arrested as part of the 6,500 people who are taken that day across the city. They are released soon after because of Gustav's credentials in World War I. A year later, however, they are arrested again and taken to Buchenwald.

It is difficult and seems inconsiderate and unthoughtful to summarise here the horrors of what they went through in the concentration camps. It has to be fully read. Gustav and Fritz survived, but came close to death on several occasions.

After working in construction detail under Robert Siewert, one of the more decent kapos in the camp, Fritz learns that his father is on the list to be transferred to Auschwitz. Through Dronfield's poignant writing, we feel Fritz's emotions as he agonises over his father's leaving.

"The prospect of being parted forever was unbearable," Fritz says and asks the kapo to put him on the list."

Siewert was aghast.

'What you're asking is suicide. I told you, you have to forget your father,' he said. 'These men will all be gassed.' But Fritz was adamant. 'I want to be with my papa, no matter what happens. I can't go on living without him.'"

Fritz follows his father to what everyone believes will be a certain death. "They went through so many instances where they were going to be killed," says Dronfield. "It was when I came across the incident where Fritz was singled out in Buchenwald and almost beaten to death that it hit me how incredible it was that they both survived.

"As far as I'm aware, Gustav and Fritz's story is unique in that they survived over five years in the camps and that they stayed together. They also left a written record."

There is much debate at present about telling another person's story, and Dronfield worried about this and about writing the story in the form of a novel. But he received approval from the family and was careful to thoroughly research everything to get all the facts right.

"It took a lot of hard thinking on how to approach it. At first it didn't seem as if I had enough solid factual material to make it a coherent story. And this was long before The Tattooist of Auschwitz appeared on the scene. I didn't feel comfortable writing it as a novel, but as I researched I uncovered more and more material: interviews from friends; I tracked down Kurt Kleinmann, the last surviving member of the family, and I uncovered archive material. I realised I had more than enough to tell the story as non-fiction without having to invent anything.

"And I had material that through my storytelling abilities could be used to tell it in the form of a novel - because as a novel it would have a dramatic structuring of the narrative, but without having to invent anything at all. It was intensely complex."

Kurt Kleinmann writes in the foreword: "The Boy Who Followed His Father into Auschwitz is a sensitive, vivid yet moving and well-researched story of my family. It is almost difficult for me to describe my gratitude to Jeremy Dronfield for putting it together and writing this book . I am grateful and appreciative that my family's Holocaust story has been brought to the public's attention and will not be forgotten."

The story of the Kleinmann family still reverberates. Dronfield realised that by telling their story he could also bring to light the horrors immigrants and refugees face across the world today.

"I was conscious while writing how important it is to remember the Holocaust, but I was also struck by how relevant it is to what is happening now in the world," says Dronfield. "I took the decision early on to tell the story of the whole family; the panorama of different experiences. I wanted to tell what happened to Kurt and Edith. Their escape to America and England.

"I was struck by the experiences of Jewish refugees because the reaction to them, the hostility towards them, and the way they were treated, was in many cases word for word the way refugees and migrants are treated now in the US and across Europe. I wanted to underline and dispel the myth that Britain, America and other countries around the world welcomed Jewish refugees. It's vitally important that we recognise this now and understand the rise of the far right and that it begins with dehumanisation."

He continues: "People are desperately reluctant to accept that there are parallels. You just get the reaction that this is different; that there are no gas chambers here; that this is not like the Nazis. Not realising that Nazism didn't begin with gas chambers in Auschwitz; that it began with the dehumanising of a minority."

In the end, even though The Boy Who Followed his Father into Auschwitz is an important book about the atrocities of the Holocaust and the parallels we see today, it is also a poignant and touching story of the Kleinmann family and the love they shared.

As Dronfield says: "This story has moved people. What really resonates is not just the suffering, as it is a harrowing story, but the fact that it's an uplifting story about love, devotion, courage and, ultimately, survival." @Jenniferdplatt