Jewish G.I., Angel of Life: Memorial Day 2007
Nowadays, USA military recruitment posters portray square jawed men and women of all races. Will they ever have one with a little Jewish soldier guy on it? Maybe with a great headline:
Join up today!
Ok, maybe not. But if they made a poster of U.S. Army Lieutenant Kurt Klein, they might consider adding wings to his shoulders, and running a line at the bottom which reads â€œOur soldiers might be small in stature, but theyâ€™re huge in soul.â€
Auschwitz. 1998. Bumping along on a bus through dark gray rain in Poland near Oswiecum…. We were all going back to one of the mass death tombs on earth, a place where still, it is never night and it is never day. Polish-American, Gerda Weissmann Klein, an elderly, well known holocaust survivor, was speaking to us about her liberation by the U.S. Army back in 1945.
As she spoke, her elderly husband, Kurt Klein, stayed in the background. He was ‘the quiet one,’ of the two. Yet wherever he sat or stood during the next few days, he did it with consummate calmness, his head most often cocked and a sweet smile on his lips as though listening to a little bird somewhere….
And… no matter how fearful or angry or screaming-sad anyone became during the next many hours back down into the gas chambers and to the black ovens… Kurt Klein supported his wife with his eyes and his arm. He also patted distraught strangers who were sometimes doubled over in sadness. He bent and murmured to them; giving out a strange kind of unrelenting patientia, “suffering with.” El hombre con pechos, a man with the strange gift of motherâ€™s milk, a strong male who nourished, mended, allowed others their due. A rare, finessed being.
Kurt Klein shouldn’t have been this way. Stark travails and huge losses early in life and war strife, sometimes make men and women into angry, seething, sneering creatures, so despairing, so having set aside their once beloved ideals… they not only bite others constantly… even in their rages, they bite themselves as well. Some do that even when the challenges have been much smaller.
But something else took up all that wilderness inside him. Something that is more than just forbearance, more than tolerance. Something with the weight of a surprising one-of-a-kind fate.
Kurt was born in Germany in 1920. By the early 30s, the Jews were curtailed and being crushed there. He left school shortly after his bar mitzvah, that time of life when in 20th century Judaism, a boy who has lived a mere 13 years on earth, declares for the first time to his family and community with deep, not merely ceremonial, commitment: â€˜Today I am a manâ€™… and he means it. Thus, Kurt crossed into manhood, taking care to enact the Commandments, and becoming a major protector of his family.
But Kurtâ€™s parents wanted still to protect him, their blessed child. Theyâ€™d already managed to send one of their daughters to the USA. Now, when Kurt was seventeen years old in 1937, his parents, through many channels, managed to find him passage to safety too. He entered the United States as an immigrant. His parents found a way to send Kurtâ€™s brother a year later.
In the US, Kurt worked and worked at menial jobs, saving and saving up the money to fulfill the dream of bringing his parents across the ocean and to safety in the States too. During Germanyâ€™s Kristallnacht, the â€˜night of shattered glassâ€™ which unleashed sanctioned government violence against Jews, their homes and shops, the Klein familyâ€™s house was attacked. Later they were forced from their home. In 1940 they were deported to a detention camp in France.
The Klein children struggled for the money required to bring their parents, and the U.S. Embassy officials spun out red tape which egregiously delayed issuing visas for the couple… for many, many other Jews who petitioned the USA for asylum at that time, also.
The same year Kurt was drafted in 1942, his beloved parents disappeared. It was too late. They were rounded up by the Nazi machine. In time Kurt would find they’d been forced to Auschwitz. They were murdered there.
The young man who had dedicated himself to be a protector of his family. Imagine. Suddenly, silence. No matter what communiquÃ©s, letters. More silence. It must have broken every spirit bone this son possessed.
But Kurt would avenge his parents and all they had endured. He would avenge them with the most peculiar high-end weaponry…
…he would avenge them by keeping his heart intact and by going forward with fierce Love.
Lieutenant Kurt Klein became an intelligence officer, and fought against the Nazis with everything in him. He was 25 years old in 1945 when he and his G.I. Army compatriots were startled to come across a large group of starving women who were being force-marched to Czechoslovakia. As the Nazis fled in retreat, they’d dumped the emaciated women in a booby-trapped warehouse.
Kurt spoke German and English fluently. As he entered the warehouse compound, there was amongst the women, one creature with gray hair. She weighed 68 pounds and was barely recognizable as a human being, barely able to move.
As Kurt told it to me in his gentle accented English, the skeletal woman was covered in filth. When he asked if anyone spoke German or English, this creature used a horribly slow and sad voice, inferring with her words that she was warning the G.I’s that they might not want to touch the women, for the women were considered, by birth, to be so reprehensible “… Because,” the starved creature said in German, “We are Jews you know…”
To which Kurt replied immediately. SO AM I!!! he cried. His cry was not that of a person distraught– but seemed in a mysterious way, some part kâ€™velen, some part pride and some part destiny met.
I had to turn away from Kurt a moment then. My father used to say this old country proverb which translates awkwardly into English as: â€˜How has it went?â€™ It is more the plaintive amazement in the tone of voice used rather than the words themselves, that convey this proverbâ€™s meaning.
A proverb is just a few words that if you shake them, sometimes pages of meaning fall out. This proverb meant there are tiny apertures in the universe, but far more walls than openings. It means that it is a miracle when water traveling overland and underground from the west… finds its way to meet water traveling overland and underground from the east. One slight turn, one delay or rush, could have made the waters miss one another entirely. â€˜How has it went?â€™ means that the exact atomic point where the miracle is met and marked.
So it was for U.S. Army Lieutenant Kurt Klein. Met and marked. The emaciated woman was Gerda, 21 years old. Pages and pages of events happened next, but she and he were eventually married, came back to the US. They had children and roamed the world, telling her story, giving of themselves, writing books, speaking… all the things that many people do to transform horror into ever so many warnings and treasures to help the future.
Kurt Klein, war vet. Protector of Gerda and their children for so many years. Unable to protect his mother and father, but able and willing, especially that, willing to protect something else entirely: Decency despite travail.
My grandmother taught us that a certain number of angels always walk the earth in the guise of regular men and women who sometimes know, and sometimes do not know, that they are of angelic stock.
Did Kurt Klein know if he was one of that rare breed on earth, sometimes also called the lamed vovnik; those thirty-six just and righteous souls who hold up the world in each generation, who may or may not realize they do?
Certainly you could ask at least one other soul who U.S. Army Lieutenant Kurt Klein also helped to reach the safety of American custody… you could ask the soul who was one of several men at first thought to be German prisoners, but who turned out to be concentration camp escapees. You could ask Oskar Schindler.
U.S. Lieutenant Kurt Klein passed from this life five years ago last month at the age of 81. Iâ€™m a Catholic and we say to those who have died whom we have respected greatly: â€˜May you live forever.’ My ability to spell in Yiddish is pretty tenuous, but for Lieutenant Klein Iâ€™d might also say: Lang leben zolt ir… May you live long… but that would be redundant. Some beings are already eternal.