Review: 'The Boy Who Followed His Father into Auschwitz'

‘Shock is piled upon shock’ in this story of a father and son who experience the Nazi concentration camps and live to tell their tales

Kleinmann family April 1938. Photo by Peter Patten
Beta V.1.0 - Powered by automated translation

Auschwitz can be described but not comprehended. One inmate, Primo Levi, learned this brutal truth the hard way. In a famous passage from his 1947 memoir If This Is a Man, he recounts how he arrived at the concentration camp and attempted to slake his desperate thirst by breaking off an icicle. A guard immediately snatched it from him. "Why?" asked Levi. "Here there is no why," was the terse reply.

A new book – and another true story – about two family members and their separate ordeals in Auschwitz, brings us no closer to understanding the why. Indeed, if anything, it re-emphasises the sheer unfathomableness of the Nazis’ industrial-scale killing. What the book does help us grasp, though, and in a truly life-affirming way, is the unbreakable bond between the father and son who endured that living hell.

A rare story of the Holocaust

As biographer and historian Jeremy Dronfield explains in his preface, this Holocaust story is a rare one. Very few Jews experienced the Nazi concentration camps in all three stages: from the first mass arrests in the late 1930s, through the roiling maelstrom of the Final Solution, and then to liberation in 1945. Fewer still made that journey as father and son, or lived to tell their tale.

The Boy Who Followed His Father into Auschwitz by Jeremy Dronfield published by Michael Joseph. Courtesy Penguin UK

Dronfield’s novelistic retelling of that tale is a remarkable achievement. Drawing on the written accounts by his two main subjects – Gustav Kleinmann’s camp diary and Fritz Kleinmann’s postwar memoir – and incorporating additional details from interviews and extensive archival research, Dronfield chronicles a devastating history comprising a “hideous, miraculous, haphazard chain of events”.

The Kleinmanns

The book begins in Vienna in 1938 on the eve of the Anschluss that forcibly yoked Austria with Nazi Germany. Family man Gustav is an upholsterer; fourteen-year-old Fritz, one of his four children, is training to follow in his footsteps. Jewish persecution intensifies, and yet Gustav remains sanguine, considering the Kleinmanns to be more Austrian than Jewish. But after the murder-and-vandalism spree of Kristallnacht, he and Fritz are among the first to be rounded up and taken away in a dawn raid.

The pair are reunited in ­Germany on a long, arduous run along the so-called Blood Road to Buchenwald. Once inside the camp, they are informed by its commanding officer that no one will get out alive. And so the nightmare commences: backbreaking Sisyphean toil in quarries, meagre food rations, poor sanitation, bone-chilling cold, daily beatings and injuries, and the regular sight of arbitrary, senseless killings. “I work to forget where I find myself,” Gustav writes.

Still standing three years later, Fritz discovers that his father is to be transferred to Auschwitz – a place which, according to some disturbing whispers, contains gas chambers capable of killing hundreds at a time. Instead of staying put, Fritz risks suicide and asks to be sent with his parent.

It is an astonishing request, but by this stage the reader has come to expect anything out of the ordinary, from the most heinous crimes to the most fortuitous twists of fate. After surviving the Auschwitz selection process and instant death at Birkenau, Gustav and Fritz are sent to work on the construction site for the sub-camp Monowitz. The hardship and cruelty is on a different level to that of before. Prisoners who made it this far had a life expectancy of three to four months. However, father and son defy more odds by keeping their heads down and battling on.

When at last the German war effort stalls and Soviet troops advance on Auschwitz, Gustav and Fritz allow themselves a flicker of hope at the prospect of freedom. But any happiness is quickly snuffed out. After running for cover from Allied bombs, they are force-marched across frozen wastes to a “death train” bound for more camps. En route to Mauthausen in their native Austria, a too-weak Gustav tells his son to take his chances and fend for himself. Franz kisses his father goodbye, and when the coast is clear, launches himself into the night from the moving train.

A tough but vitally important read

Needless to say, The Boy Who Followed His Father into Auschwitz is a tough read. Just when we think things can't get any worse, along comes a more obscene punishment, or a grislier medical experiment, or a more sadistic SS guard hell-bent on upping the amount of "adjustments". Dronfield says that one separation was "pain beyond pain"; Gustav notes in his diary that "shock is piled upon shock". Both descriptions sum up the book.

There are welcome chinks of light. During “borrowed hours” inmates swap stories and play chamber music. In one Oliver Twist-esque instance, Fritz asks the camp doctor for more food – and, amazingly, is granted it.

But these moments are short-lived. Acts of resistance are answered with appalling reprisals. Singing drowns out shootings. Relief from following Gustav’s other son’s flight to safety is offset by despair at his wife and daughter’s tragic end.

Despite the catalogue of horrors, it is hard to put the book down. It has the same frenetic pace and emotional punch as another Third Reich-themed book, Thomas Harding's Hanns and Rudolf (2013), about a Nazi-hunter's quest to track down the Kommandant of Auschwitz. In each case we remain rapt, eager for that cathartic release of good finally triumphing over evil.

Gustav and Fritz were survivors but also, crucially, witnesses. Thanks to their individual testimonies we have this harrowing yet vitally important book.