Saturday and Sunday mark the 75th anniversary of Kristallnacht, and Florida resident Gene Klein, 85, still vividly remembers the Night of Broken Glass.
Klein said he was 16 years old when the horror of the Holocaust began to unfold for him and his family.
He remembers the beautiful synagogue and the garden in the center of Berehovo, Beregszasz, in Czechoslovakia. It was the view he took in before facing a Nazi soldier at gunpoint, demanding he give up his money and jewelry. Klein said this included a favorite watch, a bar mitzvah gift from his uncle.
"It was horrible," Klein said. "What right does a stranger have to rob me of things I treasure?"
Klein said he was aware of anti-Semitism while growing up in Eastern Europe, but he thought since his family was of Hungarian descent and spoke some German, somehow everything would be fine under the Nazi regime.
"I was very naive about it," Klein said.
Klein said when Adolf Hitler invaded Poland, life in Czechoslovakia went on as usual at first.
His father owned a store downtown and rode his bike home in the afternoons. Klein and his two older sisters, Lily and Olga, went to the gymnasium, where Klein studied Italian and German.
Klien said the German demand to wear a star on his clothing came suddenly.
"It gave people a license to attack us verbally and physically," Klein said.
Klein said German authorities closed stores, including his father's, and Jewish students were told to stay home from school. Soldiers patrolled the streets with a roster of where Jewish families lived.
Jewish communities were demolished in Germany in 1938 on Kristallnacht, the notorious night of defaced synagogues and burned Torahs. But Klein said the hatred and bigotry of the Holocaust reached his small, idyllic hometown first in May 1944. Klein's family and their neighbors were marched to a lumberyard, where bricks were laid out to dry before being taken to the kilns.
"For the first time, we heard horror stories," Klein said. "Freight trains arrived that would come in to send off building materials, and sure enough, we were told that we would be put on the train. We were told to put our belongings down, for we would not need it."
Klein said he felt a forboding sensation throughout his body as he and his family tucked food into their pockets and stepped into the rust-colored wooden cars usually reserved for cattle. There were 80 people to a car, and most families were separated to heighten their sense of fear and vulnerability. The train trip lasted two nights, and several people did not survive the journey. Klein said people collapsed from exhaustion, but because of the volume of people packed in each car, their unconscious bodies remained upright. Klein said there was a suffocating odor of urine.
When the train arrived at Auschwitz, Klein saw young men in striped prison uniforms for the first time. He said goodbye to his mother, father and sisters.
"Auschwitz was the biggest killing machine," Klein said. "Young mothers with children in their arms were sent to gas chambers, or off by herself for slave labor."
Klein was sent to an open field with other teenage boys and men up to their 40s. They were the few not dismissed as "useless."
At one station, Klein's hair was shaved, and at the next he was sprayed with disinfectant. He was allowed a quick shower without the luxury of soap or towel.
"We looked up to the ceiling with our mouths open for the water. We were famished and dying of thirst," Klein said.
Klein was not given his own clothing, but quickly picked a new outfit from a heap of jackets, pants and wooden shoes on the floor. Klein said a German soldier asked him what his name was, perhaps to test his knowledge of German. Klein said he responded, and that was the last time he would hear his own name for several months.
The next morning, Klein was led through the camp past dead bodies strung across the electrical fence. When he asked what became of his father, he said he received a simple but shocking response as the scowling soldier pointed a finger toward a rectangular structure spewing smoke.
"At first, I couldn't understand. My mind didn't want to," Klein said. "The more questions I asked, more I realized the final solution for the Jews."
Months passed, and Jewish holidays and Klein's birthday passed without notice. He continued his labor on the Nazis' plan to build railroads and roads in the mountains nearby. Klein said he survived first by thinking of his mother and sisters, and also by allowing himself to become calloused.
"Everybody was somebody's father, son or husband, but you start ignoring that because it will drive you crazy," Klein said.
In the spring, Klein was moved to another camp, where he said he suddenly had an overwhelming desire to find someone from his hometown.
"I found someone, in very bad physical shape, from a nearby village," Klein said. "He was a customer of my father's store."
Freedom came not long after that.
Klein said he awoke in the barracks to see a red star coming in and out of focus over him.
"It was a Russian soldier," Klein said. "Could it be possible we survived this terrible horror? A guard from the Russian Army told us doctors, medication and food were coming. We were yelling throughout the barracks, calling in all languages 'We are free! We are free!' That is something I will never forget. I tore off my uniform, did a victory dance on them and took my first hot shower in over a year."
Halfway home, Klein said he was tapped on the shoulder by a young woman he knew from childhood. They embraced as she told him his mother and sisters survived.
Klein said as he started his life over, he tried not to dwell on those memories. His sister, Lily, married her boyfriend who had also survived Auschwitz, and Klein wed in 1957.
"Interestingly enough, once I was married with two children, my nightmares came back," Klein said. "But now I had my own family, and I got back to a positive outlook."
Klein enlisted in the U.S. Army in 1952 and was sent to Fort Meade in the intelligence unit. He later joined his sister in Miami, where he started a sign-making business.
Klein began talking about his experiences and survival psychology in schools 25 years ago in America and Australia with his daughter. Klein said he has done most of his school presentations in south and central Florida high schools.
"It is really fulfilling to go to schools and see students learning and reading books about (the Holocaust) and to have a live survivor is priceless," Klein said. "I have received hundreds of letters from students and schools, and it feels good to know that they got something out of it."
Klein has returned to Europe a few times for leisure. His daughter has toured Auschwitz, but Klein said revisiting the scene of his most painful memories is something he has no interest in.
Klein said all animosity he once harbored for the Germans has faded away.
"If I was liberated in camp and would have been given a machine gun, I would have killed all of them," Klein said. "But as time goes by, and that generation is becoming instinct, I can't possibly hold the new generation at fault. I do not think that is fair."
Klein said he often thinks about how the world might be different if the Holocaust had not happened and what kind of genius might have been lost in the generation of small children sent to the gas chambers.
Klein said it should be mandatory for the Holocaust and lessons on hatred and genocide to be taught in schools.
Klein's daughter, Jill Klein, wrote her book "We Got the Water: Tracing My Family's Path Through Auschwitz" to keep current and future generations educated on the Holocaust, effects of unchecked prejudice, social justice and enduring hardship. Her book was published in April.
"My daughter's book is not just a Holocaust story. It is a history story," Klein said.
Erica Earl, Herald reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7081