THE ESCAPE, PART 7


SOME REFLECTIONS ON THE KLEIN FAMILY

Okay, I am going to be a spoilsport and pause here in order to insert a section on my father and his family.  Hopefully, this will explain his hunger for freedom which was so powerful that, to attain it, he would risk the destruction of the very thing he cherished most – his family.

Dad was born in Ruthenia, a dirt-poor, mountainous, polyglot province of the Austro-Hungarian Empire until 1918, when it became the easternmost portion of nascent Czechoslovakia.  The Slavic-speaking Ruthenians, or Rusyns, were hardly a majority in their own corner of the world: it teemed with Hungarians, Ukrainians, Poles, Jews, Slovaks, Wallachs and many other nationalities.

Dad’s home town of Berehovo, like several surrounding places, had a large Jewish minority.  To my knowledge, most of the Ruthenian Jews were Hungarian and Yiddish speakers.  Many proudly called themselves Hungarians and looked down on the Slavs: my grandfather Klein certainly did.  (Of note, Kubat didn’t become our family name until after World War Two, when anything that seemed even remotely German would be the target of virulent hatred.  In many places, the same applied to anything Jewish, even in the immediate aftermath of the Holocaust.)

Grandfather Klein was a small-time watchmaker and jeweler, with an income that wasn’t enough to feed the six of the nine children that survived infancy.  (Dad often said that he was also a very poor businessman.)  Grandmother Klein was apparently a typical Eastern European Jewish momele who rose before everyone else, ran the household with an iron fist and didn’t retire until everyone else was tucked in.  The family’s finances being precarious, all six children had to work hard as soon as they were old enough to do so.  The family had a large garden that provided much of the food, a few pieces of vineyard that had to be tended and fermenting wine to be monitored.  There were heavy chores like carrying water or chopping wood that most kids nowadays would consider alien.  Dad also supplemented the family income by tutoring.  Later, as the oldest of the children became established in their professions, they also contributed significantly to the family’s finances.

Despite the economic privation, every one of the six children went to school: first the local elementary school, then the local gymnasium.  They were taught in their mother tongue, Hungarian, since Czechoslovakia, as a multinational democracy, allowed each nationality to have its own school in any locality where it represented a certain percentage of the census.  In these schools, Czech was taught as a second language.

All six the children were outstanding students.  Had World War Two not intervened, all would have ended up with doctorates.  As it was, by 1938 when universities were closed to Jews, two were already lawyers, one was a pharmacist, one was studying pharmacy, Dad was halfway through medical school in Prague and the youngest was working as a pharmacist’s assistant, with plans to go on to university.

It was in the gymnasium that Dad showed his great linguistic capacity.  By the time he graduated in 1935, he had mastered Hungarian, Czech, Latin and French.  When he went to Prague to study medicine, he went to the German portion of the ancient Charles University instead of the Czech one.  Not knowing German, he spent the summer before studying the grammar and memorizing thousands of vocabulary words.  This is never enough, of course, but by the time he finished his first year, his German was flawless.

Digression on Eastern European Jewish sensibilities. Dad sometimes said that the Czech school of medicine was actually better than the German one.  The decision to send him to the German university was based on the Eastern European Jews’ low opinion of Slavs and admiration for nations they deemed culturally superior – like the Hungarians and the Germans.  Much later, when we had occasion to talk about it, both Dad and I thought that watching those cultured Germans and Hungarians turn into vicious animals so quickly must have been a severe shock to Grandfather Klein.

Dad was an outstanding sportsman, with tremendous physical strength and endurance despite his five-foot-five stature.  As a child, he was so active and daring that he was nicknamed “wildcat.”  In his teens, he played center on the Berehovo soccer team.  According to his own report (often repeated with a triumphant grin), anyone who tried to take the ball from him was in for a serious altercation.  His strength would serve him well during the war.

What was left of Czechoslovakia after the Munich agreements perished on March 15, 1939 when the Germans marched into Bohemia and Moravia and the Hungarians into Ruthenia.  Slovakia had declared independence but had to cede a large part of its territory to Hungary.  Poland tore off a chunk of the corpse, too: a few square miles of disputed territory in northern Moravia.

Thus did the Klein family pass under Hungarian overlordship again.  All licenses and other documents issued by the defunct Czechoslovak government were canceled, and the holders had to apply for Hungarian ones.  The deciding factor for reissue was whether the holder was a “loyal Hungarian.”  Grandfather Klein certainly was – he never got used to being a Czechoslovak citizen and dreamed of the “good old times under Hungary” – but because he was a Jew, it didn’t help him much.  He kept his business a bit longer, until the Hungarian government’s Nuremberg-style anti-Jewish laws made it impossible for him to continue.  Soon, all able-bodied Jewish men (that means four of the six Klein siblings) were drafted into the Hungarian Army’s slave labor battalions (munkaszoldgálatos).  The remaining Hungarian Jews were all “ghettoized” by May 1944: the Klein family in nearby Mukačevo.

Three of the Klein brothers ended up in one battalion together, but Dad ended up in another.  Before the Nazis attacked the Soviet Union, these units were used for all kinds of back-breaking labor: for instance, building fortifications in the Carpathian Mountains, clearing old forests and increasing the size of railroad tunnels through the Carpathians to allow the wide-gauge Soviet trains to go all the way to Germany.  Dad recalls that hewing living rock with little more than pick-axe and shovel was incredibly exhausting work that not many could survive.

When war broke out, the poorly equipped Hungarian Army marched along with the Germans, sharing in the early triumphs but ultimately taking more than its share of disasters.  The Second Hungarian Army, to which the labor battalion with my three uncles was attached, was all but destroyed in the Soviet Voronezh offensive of 1942 that contributed to the encirclement and destruction of the German Sixth Army in Stalingrad.  Two of my uncles died there, one near the town of Ilovskoye and one in some place unknown.  My uncle Miroslav (Menyi), one of the two lawyers in the Klein family, was captured and ultimately ended up in the Czechoslovak Army in exile under Soviet command.

My father’s fate was more complicated.  In 1944, at the time of Hungary’s capitulation and subsequent occupation by the Germans, his unit was actually inside Hungary.  There were apparently plans to ship it to the Russian front again, but it for some reason eighty or so members were mustered out, including Dad.  Dad ended up in the Mukačevo ghetto together with his parents, two sisters and his sister-in-law (Menyi’s wife) with a toddler.

Dad often said that his mother encouraged him to escape from the ghetto, which was fairly easy, and to survive in the woods (This was April/May 1944).  But, at the time, he was so full of notions of family loyalty that he simply couldn’t imagine it.  And so, in late May 1944, the family found itself in a cattle car, on the way to Auschwitz where the parents, the sisters and the sister-in-law with the three year-old Miklós were sent to the left by a tall, handsome SS officer who was making the selections.  That was Dr. Josef Mengele who, after the war, lived the good life in South America, escaping justice altogether.  Dad alone, still physically fit and in the prime of his life – that is, good material for slave labor – was sent to the right, and thus survived.

At that time, the Germans were already disestablishing the concentration and extermination camps in the east because of the approaching Soviet Army.  They hurriedly did what they could to destroy the evidence, which also meant removing all surviving prisoners.  Dad only spent a few weeks in Auschwitz and was then marched or shipped by rail to Mauthausen in Austria, thence to Lieberose near Frankfurt an der Oder, southeast of Berlin.  Some weeks before the war ended (late April 1945), Dad and a friend, the Dutch musician Abraham Vitebon, escaped from a transport from Lieberose to Sachsenhausen-Oranienburg that lies to the north of Berlin.  (Funny: thousands of German troops were dying daily because there was never enough transport for reinforcements and munitions, but the Nazis always found sufficient rolling stock to move the Jews.)  The two men lived in the woods for some days, grubbing raw potatoes from the fields and munching on a snared hare, but then found their way to a farm that was being worked by displaced Ukrainians and Poles.  The DPs gave them some food and matches and hid them for a few days.

Dad, little more than a walking skeleton by then, ultimately ended up in the hands of the Americans.  Abe Vitebon, thinking that the war was well and truly over, decided to walk back home to Holland.  He never made it – at least Dad could never find any evidence that he did.  This was one of the few things that could bring tears to his eyes whenever he mentioned it.

After recuperating in a German hospital for some weeks, Dad was repatriated to Czechoslovakia.  Soon after arriving in Prague, he literally bumped into two sisters of Uncle Menyi’s wife who died in Auschwitz.  That was at the Wilson Railroad Station in Prague where survivors went to search endless lists of names for clues that someone they had once known might still be alive.  The two women took Dad to Menyi who immediately took Dad under his wing, as he had done with them earlier when they had found each other.

As an active-duty officer and combatant, Menyi had quickly acquired a nice apartment with a telephone line (a rarity in those days).  He resumed his law practice there.  He put Dad up until he could organize a stay in some convalescent home where Dad could recuperate.  Dad spent some months in a spa, regaining weight and strength, then entered the Charles University School of Medicine.  (This time, obviously, there was only a Czech branch.)  He was awarded the MD degree in 1948, just after the Communist coup.

Uncle Menyi, who had served under the Soviets and who knew exactly what was coming, managed to emigrate at the last possible moment.  He ultimately settled in New York City with his wife, one of the surviving sisters of his first wife who was killed in Auschwitz.  Dad, however, had just begun his medical career and started to court my mother, and his thoughts were elsewhere.  My parents married in 1948, my sister was born in 1949 and I in 1951.  So was the Kubat family stuck under a Communist regime.

The Communists busily undertook the destruction of anyone or anything that could form the basis of opposition.  Anything that could be seized and nationalized, was.  The country’s medical system was completely socialized: there were no private practices.  As I had written elsewhere, Dad worked extreme hours in the surgical department of a hospital.  The only up side to this was that, in his years there, he had acquired more experience than a typical American surgeon might in four lifetimes.

The early years under Communism were particularly dangerous for Dad, as a non-Party member and as a Jew.  The danger was amplified by the fact that he was never able to lie convincingly, and could thus never live the double life that most people managed to establish: internal life for the self, external life for those who watched.  In the early 1950s came the infamous Slánský affair; in the USSR, Stalin had become convinced that there was a Jewish doctors’ plot against him and ordered massive purges, and all the Eastern European regimes followed suit.  Eugen Loebl, once the Deputy Minister for Foreign Trade, who was arrested as early as 1949 and tried as traitor, Zionist spy and saboteur, writes a powerful description of those years in his 1976 book My Mind on Trial.  By the mid-Fifties, a number of leading Party members had been executed, among them Rudolf Slánský, the First Secretary of the Czechoslovak Communist Party.  Scores of others were expelled from the Party, hundreds of others, inside and outside the Party, were fired from their jobs, not allowed to practice their professions, harassed by the secret police, and otherwise bullied.

A digression on employment in a socialist state like Czechoslovakia.  Socialism, as defined by the socialists, means full employment.  Unemployment, by definition, is a capitalist failing.  In a socialist state, therefore, there is no need for unemployment benefits.  However, it was still possible to get fired; and if you were, you had to live off the largesse of relatives or friends.  However, there was a law on vagrancy, and if, after thirty or so days, you were found to be without visible means of support, you could go to jail, where you would be made to work for the greater glory of socialism anyway.

People usually got fired for political reasons.  Anything could be considered political, much like, nowadays, anything can be considered politically incorrect.  You might have made an unwary comment, you might have taken something, you might not have met your work quota, you might have shirked work, you might have applied for emigration, one of your relatives might have been “unmasked” as an “enemy of the regime,” one of your relatives might have escaped, someone might have been jealous of your possessions.  All these things, and many more besides, could be interpreted as “antisocialist sabotage,” much like anything today can be interpreted as “sexist” “racist,” “homophobic” or whatever.

Once you were let go (provided that you weren’t incarcerated), an entry would be made in your cadre assessment (political profile), to which you would never have access.  You would also never know who had turned you in, the exact reason, why your “crime” had been interpreted the way it was, or any other particulars.  This is exactly like getting in trouble for transgressions against political correctness: the so-called human resources apparatchik will tell you that you had been accused of something but never reveal to you the identity of your accuser; and the games that are played with your mind are extraordinary.

The entry in your cadre assessment would stay with you for the rest of your life, seriously affecting your chances for another job.  The assessment would travel with you wherever you went and would be the first document a potential employer would reach for.  If you were political, hiring you might mean trouble, hence no job for you.

This was a dangerous environment for my father, but somehow he survived.  He kept his mouth shut as much as he could (sometimes he couldn’t), did his job, and steered clear of trouble as much as he could.  He grumbled, but only to Mom.  He listened to Western radio broadcasts (ten years in the slammer), but secretly.  He watched his step whenever our Comrade Lenk was around, even though you could sometimes see him seethe.  He was never allowed to progress past a certain career point; but with scalpel in hand, he was a genuine adept, and he truly loved his work.  Surgery was a tremendous consolation to him.

But the political situation was not to his liking.  He was old enough to remember the First Republic (Czechoslovakia of 1918-1938), and he knew what freedom and democracy were like.  He yearned for them the way people yearn for food and water.  Mindful of what had happened to him and what he knew could happen again, always haunted by the memory of the many family members and friends he had lost, he wanted to give us the best of everything – freedom, dignity, security, prosperity.  None of that was possible without him compromising himself fatally (or, as we used to say, becoming a “political whore”), and so the only place where his dream could be realized was the Free World.  The 1965 trip was his first real chance to attain his dream and, to his great credit, he grabbed at it with both hands, pulling us all along by the sheer force of his indomitable character.

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About Michael J. Kubat

I'm a grumpy Czech-born clinical social worker who is vitally interested in the survival in the United States as a viable democracy and a beacon of hope for the rest of the world.
This entry was posted in communism, Czechoslovakia, democracy. Bookmark the permalink.

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