After a conversation with Nathan Kleinberger – supplement to the materials about him contained in „Jews of Wieliczka and Klasno”

Napisany 07/02/2014


The passing of people unrelated to me plagues me, especially in the case of the Survivors of the Shoah. There still live among us people as if from another planet, when they die, there will be none like them. But Nathan Kleinberger is not an ordinary Survivor of the Shoah, however that sounds. His autobiographical statements, oral and written, can be found in Wieliczka’s Inhabitants in Captioned Photographs and Jews of Wieliczka and Klasno, both of which we published. In the introduction to the latter book I wrote, with my wife, Ula:

After reading Wieliczka’s Inhabitants in Captioned Photographs, Judge Nathan Kleinberger phoned us to say he would like to meet us personally, but that we would have to go to him, because he would certainly be unable to come to us. If it were not for these words, we would not have travelled to Israel more than two years after they were spoken. Our two meetings at the home of the Kleinbergers – Hela from Oświęcim and Nathan from Wieliczka – were highly emotional. You can see it in the statements the Kleinbergers made in our anthology. They also joined in with finalising the text based on their memories. It was in their house that we saw clearly the transition of the dignity of the Polish Jew to the dignity of the Israeli Jew. The absence of both hands and one eye, and impaired second eye and hearing, did not prevent Nathan Kleinberger from showing us the cordial and enthusiastic spirit of someone who had started a normal family and professional life and followed a serious career after, in his childhood and youth, he experienced his father’s death, parting with his mother and younger siblings clearly transported to their deaths, several German camps, the death of his beloved brother, who had often saved his life, active participation on the front in the Arab-Israeli War, and finally such serious surgery. His wife Hela, who seems to be a person of similar disposition and fortitude, had not had much of an easier life. Nathan Kleinberger’s comments are among the most important in the book because of their emotional charge and the extraordinariness of his fate. Nathan, and Uri Shmueli, consulted with us on the content of the inscription on the above-mentioned plaque. They agreed together that the placement of their names on it, and two others as „Wieliczka Holocaust survivors” next to the caption „wieliczanie” [inhabitants of Wieliczka], which we proposed to them, would be superfluous because „they were just lucky to be alive”.

The other planet from which someone might come is, in my eyes, a planet linking Dante’s Inferno, which requires the existence of God, and the absence of God. Nathan, I can call him that, is from this other planet not only because he passed through Dante’s Inferno. He is also this way thanks to his experience of a normal, happy, family life full of citizenship in a country built on the rejection of a fate other than combat, such as the avoiding or succumbing to the Holocaust. I speak of a country in which until the Eichmann trial one did not want to hear about being the victim of anything. In Israel, there were only two survivors of the Holocaust who were judges, Nathan Kleinberger and Moshe Bejski – saved by Schindler. Nathan Kleinberger’s co-judges mostly did not know his history. His career ended in the chairmanship of the District Court. He didn’t reach the Supreme Court, which would have fit – for him to crown his career, for me – to crown his story. As he said, working, especially with his physical indispositions, „would not be possible without a very good wife”. His wife Hela, one of the two women fighters actively engaged in the Arab-Israeli War as part of the Palmach Special Forces, is the subject of one third of a school textbook. Those who studied it at school included Hela and Nathan’s children, Rami and Miriam. I’d like to read this text translated from the Hebrew, and we will probably also post it on our website. Nathan didn’t tell Hela not to fight, although he could have. She fought, because, as she says, „she thought it the right thing to do,” because she wanted to show that earlier, during the war in Europe, she didn’t avoid fighting out of cowardice, but because of the lack of opportunity. She fought, although in the camp at Bergen-Belsen, immediately after the liberation, she didn’t take part in the stoning of one of the guards by former inmates. When she visited Poland for the only time after the war in 1995, in her home town of Oświęcim, someone threw a stone at her.

This time, Nathan began his story with the pre-war and wartime negative attitude of Poles towards Jews in Wieliczka, as if seeing in us, not necessarily fairly, people seeking the history of ancient Poland, which was arithmetically only a small part of his life. The general atmosphere changed after Piłsudski’s death, Rydz-Śmigły and Beck proved to be anti-Semitic. In Wieliczka the Jews were not liked, were beaten, were boycotted in trade, were not chums, or played with, not played football with, not invited home. You could hear from a Pole, that „he prefers the evil German to the good Jew”. From Krakow, students came to disrupt Poles from entering Jewish-owned shops. In nearby Gdów, more than a year before the outbreak of war, one of the Jewish families was given „a small pogrom”, that is, several members were killed. After this event, some of the Jews of Gdów moved to Wieliczka, among them the Küchler family, who began running a confectionery shop in the „Cloth Hall”, thus were called the shops under arcades located on Słowackiego Street. Despite this atmosphere, or perhaps because of it, Nathan grew up in an affectionate family circle. Mother would play the piano at home. A tooth to be extracted meant that she took him to the specialists at the Bonifraters’ hospital in Krakow. For a cold, his grandmother brought him an orange from the grocery owned by a man named Flachs. He was often in Krakow, but also in Podłęże with his aunt, and Sosnowiec, where his uncle had a small factory making Shabbat ovens.

Nathan still has various outstanding issues in Poland, which he does not recognise as his country. Of these assets, Poland owes him a property belonging to him as the sole heir after his grandfather Einhorn, and transferred after the war by an unconscientious court to someone who impersonated a family member using the name „Einchorn” and immediately sold it to someone else, the buyer probably in good faith. Nathan’s son, Rami, co-owner of one of the largest law firms in Israel, declares that he will address the claim if his father so chooses. But Nathan, born in 1929, speaks with a hint of boyishness, a Cracovian inflection and not very Jewish accent, in Polish: “I don’t care about the money, but I would like the garden where I played as a boy. My grandfather liked it, repaired the fence, moved among the trees, sold grass for hay”. Rami is probably only willing to change his quite negative attitude towards Poland, for example, get a Polish passport, for Nathan, who instilled this attitude in his son.

The B. family of Wieliczka, I will not mention the full name because it is still present in the town, still owes Nathan the money that his mother Maria Kleinberger left for safekeeping with Mrs. B. on the eve of the expulsion or even violent ripping out, uprooting – which even they themselves today thoughtlessly call „displacement” – of the Kleinberger family from Wieliczka, a few to the Bełżec to their deaths, and two to Stalowa Wola to a labour camp. But neither Nathan nor the B. family think about it this way, if at all. In the above-mentioned Jews of Wieliczka and Klasno Nathan talks about that last night:

The night of 26 to 27 we barely slept, we were preparing our packages, wondering what to take, what to leave, could we try to take some food for the road, to spend our last pennies. Mum took the money and left it with the Poles, the B. family. 

Only he and his brother Zygmunt saved themselves from Bełżec, thanks to the fact that they were taken to a camp, from which they escaped:

The first place that we could think of was Wieliczka and Mrs. B., we wanted to find out as soon as possible whether perhaps even just my youngest brother had managed to jump out of the train, but alas. We also wanted to ask her for the money my mother had left with her, because we did not have enough to eat. We arrived in the evening, Mrs. B. took us in, gave us something to eat, but when we demanded the money, she said she needed mother’s signature and refused. We got half a loaf of bread and were told not to come again, because it was very risky for her. We decided to go back to Krakow, we walked through the fields, not far from the road.

The Kleinbergers left the money with Mrs. B. that remained after the previous sale of half the home to that lady. Selling property and movables to Poles at prices probably more or less forced, the Jews gained the means to pay those same Poles for survival. What would the fate of the Kleinberger family, consisting of grandmother, grandfather, mother with two younger children and two independent youths, have looked like were they not able to obtain the money from the sale of the property? In the absence of these measures would they have separated earlier and differently than on the tragic August 27 for the weaker five, sent by the Germans at once to be murdered, and the stronger two able to survive? Perhaps the lack of funds would have forced them to separate earlier and the strongest two would have survived the war, instead of Nathan alone? Or perhaps in that case, none would have survived? And what would have happened to the two young men after escaping from Stalowa Wola, if Mrs. B. had given them their deposit or helped them to a greater extent? Is it possible, and are we allowed to digress, and say that if all these people had acted according to different principles, the fate of the Kleinbergers would have been different? Nathan himself suggests that his fate and that of his brother Zygmunt was negatively influenced by them being sent out of the barracks in Wieliczka’s Zadory to the camp in Stalowa Wola. Those who were sent in the same circumstances to Krakow’s Kabel had a much better start in German captivity.

Zygmunt Kleinberger, born in 1922, died on 17 March 1945, in a camp in Flößberg, beaten to death in front of Nathan by a German Lagerältester. He had only a month and a half to liberation. Earlier in the war he had had enough energy and initiative to save himself and others, including the younger Nathan, from death many times. Zygmunt escaped from the Germans in September 1939 at the Russian border, but after about a year he returned to the family. He worked as a messenger for the Judenrat of Wieliczka, as did Ryszard Lax. Zygmunt has been dead for so long. In January 2014, visiting the home of Zofia and Izaak Birnbaum in Haifa, we talk to Isaac, born in 1922, about Nathan’s brother: “Zygmunt Kleinberger! Oh yes, I went to school with him; he was a very good friend and a great learner”.

Had it not been for transactions such as the one between the Kleinbergers and Mrs. B., at first glance depicting the latter in a bad light, even fewer Jews would have survived. The Germans gradually denied human rights to Jews in Poland, but did not entirely forbid them forced sale of their assets to Poles. Does this provide evidence of their haste and lack of a plan for Jewish property, since the General Government confiscated it after the Holocaust? If such a ban had taken place before 1942, the scale of subsequent German seizures could have been higher. The Nazis also did not ban the Poles from buying property from the Jews, despite the fact that it strengthened both groups: Poles by getting rich easily, and Jews by obtaining the money they needed for survival.

After the war, Nathan never went and never will go to Germany; only once in his lifetime did he speak to a German on business, formally and only as much as he had to. He also rejected war compensation from the Germans, and would do the same today. “In my eyes nothing can cleanse them, they were the only ones who could end the war.” Hela decided to take compensation from the Germans, who, with their own eternal meticulousness, reduced it to 20% due to the fact that she didn’t consent to a medical examination.

Nathan has been wavering for a long time over an operation on his weakening right eye, which has served him alone since 1948, when, in the monastery of Mar Elias, a mine exploded in his hands, taking both his hands up to the elbows and his left eye. He states factually and almost jokingly: “Statistically, 98% of this eye surgery is successful, but I’m afraid of those two percent. During the war, too, 96% of mines were safe (for a sapper), but I got one of the 4%.” At about the same time at night at which the explosion occurred, he woke up terrified for many years.

Nathan and Hela abandoned Polish forever in favour of Hebrew shortly after arriving in Palestine in 1945. After that, like when between August 1942 and liberation from the camp, „he did not see a piece of printed paper,” Nathan read Polish books for about a year, and then Hebrew. Moreover, as mentioned by Zofia Birnbaum, at the time „it was not done to speak Polish”. When Nathan and Hela didn’t want the children to understand their conversation, they switched to English, never to Polish. But recently, Nathan mentioned that they regret that their children didn’t learn Polish. He probably didn’t say that for my pleasure or satisfaction. During our later conversations, Nathan’s Polish greatly improved compared to our first phone call in 2008. He even quoted from memory “Lithuania, my fatherland! Thou art like good health: How much one should prize thee, he only can tell, Who has lost thee”. I didn’t ask if he treated Poland as a country that he had lost, as I would have liked, or perhaps he felt like that about Israel, which he has not lost and will not lose.

During the farewell dinner in a cosy and very tasty Italian restaurant in Tel Aviv, to which came all three living generations of Kleinbergers and both living generations of Żyznowskis, I went to the owner of the restaurant beforehand to confirm that, hosted and looked after by Kleinbergers since the beginning of our visit, this time we would pay. To which he responded: “The Kleinberger family have been customers here for over 25 years. You must understand that they have to agree to this”. One restaurant for 25 years; it’s clear the Kleinbergers don’t change what they don’t have to.

Wiesław Żyznowski
(Tłumaczenie: Robin Gill za pośrednictwem ExLibro – Biuro Tłumaczeń i Usług Wydawniczych / ExLibro – Translation and Publishing Services)


„They made us heroes” said Nathan while showing the piece of paper.


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Hela and Nathan in their home in Tel Aviv.

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