Howard Kleinberg survived for two days packed into a train wagon “like sardines” with dozens of other Jews.
It was October 1942 and they were headed to Auschwitz concentration camp in Nazi-occupied Poland. When they arrived, those who were “wobbly” were immediately killed, recalled the 91-year-old Kleinberg. But those who could still walk were marched to the showers, where they thought they’d be gassed.
“As we were marching to the showers you see bodies being shoved into the oven,” he said. “You can’t help thinking that you’d be next.”
Kleinberg, who now lives in Toronto and spends the winter in South Florida, told his story at Miami Jewish Health Systems’ May Center on Thursday. His speech was part of the Holocaust Commemoration Ceremony, one day before International Holocaust Remembrance Day. The day marks 72 years since the liberation of Jews from Auschwitz and honors the more than six million killed by the Nazis during World War II.
“It is our duty never to forget the horrors of the past so that we can build the hopes of the future,” said Rabbi Israel de la Piedra. “We owe it to those who perished in the Holocaust so that we can keep their blessed memory alive.”
The ceremony included a candle-lighting by six survivors, between the ages of 88 and 98, who live in Miami Jewish Health residences. Each of the six candles represented one million people killed.
“We came out from the shower, and we were given a uniform,’’ Kleinberg said. “We were marched over to a station to put a tattoo number on your arm and you vanished. Your name did not exist anymore. You were a number.”
Despite getting typhus, Kleinberg survived. He had been transferred to Bergen-Belsen, a Nazi concentration camp in Germany, and in 1945, he was set free. But he didn’t think he had the strength to survive, as he had lost all his family.
A girl, however, spotted him and tried to nurse him back to health. He finally made it to a hospital. A couple of years later he moved to Canada and wound up in Toronto.
He had always tried to find “the girl” who saved him. He found her in Toronto, but when he showed up at her door with flowers, he wasn’t sure what to do. He wanted “to make something of [his] life,” before he asked her to marry him. He got a job, saved money and three years later, they married.
He has been married to that girl, Nancy, who also survived the Holocaust, for 66 years. Together they have four children, 14 grandchildren and five great-grandchildren. The couple told their love story on what was then Live! With Regis and Kelly in 2011.
“I am a lucky man,” he said.