BUENOS AIRES (Dec. 12)
On his 68th birthday, Jorge Klainman decided he could remain silent no more about his Holocaust horrors. The Polish-born, retired businessman sat at his electric typewriter, he said, "and suddenly the curtains of my memory began to part, revealing events that happened 50 or 60 years ago. After that my life changed completely. I felt liberated."
The result was "El Septimo Milagro," a harrowing Spanish-language tale of life and death in a series of Nazi concentration camps that has captivated readers from Buenos Aires to Barcelona.
Translated into English as "The Seventh Miracle" and into Hebrew as "Nes Ha-Shev’i," Klainman’s first-person account differs from most other Holocaust memoirs in its extraordinary attention to detail. It ranges from the 1939 roundup of Jews from his Polish hometown of Kielce to Klainman’s frightful March 1944 encounter with psychopathic concentration camp commandant Amon Goeth, the SS officer portrayed by Ralph Fiennes in Steven Spielberg’s movie "Schindler’s List."
Goeth marked Klainman, then 15, for execution by firing squad.
"My mind refused to comprehend the reality of what was happening," Klainman wrote. "The end had come. They were going to shoot me and burn me. I thought of my loved ones, and that soon I would be joining them. I reached a state of mind where I just wanted, with all my being, to get it over with."
But Klainman’s Ukrainian executioners somehow missed their target, and later that night fellow Jewish prisoners risked their lives to bring his bleeding body to the camp infirmary. A kindly doctor there gradually nursed the teenager back to health.
Fate intervened five more times before he was liberated by American soldiers in 1945, and Klainman was saved from certain death.
In 1947 — with the help of international Jewish organizations — Klainman set sail from Italy to Rio de Janeiro, caught a plane to Asuncion, Paraguay, and smuggled himself across the heavily guarded border into Argentina, where he eventually married and raised a family.
"Six actual miracles occurred and saved my life," according to Klainman, 78. "The seventh was my being able to write the story."
And now, with anti-Semitism again rising throughout his adopted country, Klainman told JTA he feels compelled to share that story with Argentines who may not have yet gotten the message.
"Ten years from now there won’t be any Holocaust survivors left to transmit the truth to young people," he said in an interview at his Buenos Aires apartment. "They’ll begin forgetting the Jewish Holocaust just as they’ve forgotten the Armenian Holocaust. So it’s important that everybody knows what happened. That way they’ll be able to understand the terrible struggle of the Israeli people against the fundamentalist Islamic savages who want to throw us into the sea."
Klainman, a jewelry retailer by profession, lived in Tel Aviv from 1971 to 1990 and again from 1999 to 2004. He is fluent in Polish, Russian, German, Yiddish, Hebrew, Spanish and Italian, and was recently appointed official representative of the Holocaust Museum in Buenos Aires.
"I’ve dedicated the rest of my life to explaining the Shoah to students from all over the country," he said. "Since I’ve moved back from Israel, thousands of students have heard my testimony."
Klainman says he has "lots of work to do" in explaining the reasons behind the Holocaust to fellow Argentines, many of whom grew up with anti-Semitic attitudes encouraged by the Roman Catholic Church and the thousands of Nazi war criminals who were welcomed by Argentina’s military dictatorship after World War II.
"I’ve visited many colleges and universities throughout Argentina, giving speeches for high-school kids," Klainman said. "I even spoke at a Catholic seminary, and afterwards the kids cursed the Vatican for ignoring the Jews.
"Usually when I finish speaking after an hour, for three or four minutes they sit there in silence. Then they surround me, hundreds of kids, hugging me, crying, asking for my autograph. Once I took a taxi in Corrientes and the driver recognized me. He took my hand and kissed it, and told me, ‘God bless you, may you never die.’ "
He said the reaction of Argentina’s Christians to his book is much stronger than the Jews because "the Jews already know this story."
Klainman said he was inspired to write "El Septimo Milagro" after his son Miguel began asking him troubling questions about his past.
"For 50 years I guarded my silence like a hermit, but then I got tired of these delinquents denying the Holocaust," he said. "I realized that by keeping silent, I was becoming an accomplice, collaborating with them."
It took Klainman four months to write the book. His original draft version ran 107 pages; only 25 copies of that version were printed.
"When I read what I had written, I realized nobody would believe it was true," he said. "So we [Klainman and his wife, Teresa] decided to travel to Poland to look for details. It was very traumatic, that first time back in Poland, more so for Teresa than for me."
"Jorge didn’t talk about it. I knew very little," said Teresa Klainman, an Argentina native who had no idea what a concentration camp was until she met her husband. "I knew he was a survivor, that he had no family and that he was in camps, but it was a taboo subject. Whenever I asked, he would tell me a few things, but he wouldn’t want to go into details, and I didn’t want to upset him, so I learned not to ask."
The Klainmans would return to Poland twice more, most recently as part of a program to bring Jewish children to Poland to teach them firsthand about the horrors of the Holocaust.
In October, Jorge and Teresa Klainman came to the United States for a two-week visit that included lectures at secondary schools, colleges and Jewish community centers throughout New Jersey. The trip was organized by Kal Wagenheim, the Millburn, N.J., freelance journalist and playwright who had translated Klainman’s book from Spanish to English.
Klainman proudly showed off a thick folder full of letters from a seventh-grade civics class in Millburn.
"Thank you for the presentation. I found it interesting that you seemed to keep barely missing death — especially the time you got shot in the leg near the pit," wrote one student. "Maybe it was fate that allowed you to live to tell your tale, or maybe it was just luck. Either way I am grateful that you came all the way from Buenos Aires to present us with your story."