Werner Kleeman lives alone in a little white house at the end of a short street in Queens, N.Y., where ghosts of the Holocaust float through his 91-year-old mind. His hearing is nearly gone. He recently suffered a stroke. But his memory is sharp, and he recollects in vivid, passionate detail the events of a seven-year span that can never be forgotten.
Werner was a young man with a new driver's license on Nov. 9, 1938. On that day, he had driven his older brother from their family's home in a small German farm village to the U.S. Consulate in Stuttgart. They were there to obtain for his brother a visa and passport that would ultimately get him out of Germany and on his way to the United States or Israel. When the two young men came out of the consulate at about 5 p.m., they saw what they feared was coming. Jewish-owned businesses, inns and homes were under siege by mobs of newly uniformed Nazis. The "night of broken glass" had begun.
"We had a sense, a feeling, that it was coming, but you didn't expect it to come so sudden and so severe," Kleeman says. "When Nov. 9 came, the Kristallnacht, that's when all hell broke loose. They destroyed everything. Every window. Every cup. Everything that was breakable was smashed to the floor. There was not a piece left. No furniture. Not a cup and saucer. Nothing. It was all completely destroyed in one night. And all the men were taken away."
There could be no delay for his brother, who was bidden an urgent farewell and boarded a train bound for Switzerland. Werner, just 19 at the time, then began a tense four-hour drive back to the village of his childhood, where his father had been a successful grain dealer for more than 25 years. As he drove, he passed village after town, each under state-sanctioned attack against Jewish citizens.
Within a few miles of home, Werner pulled over and used a public telephone to call his father. "He told me to stay away. The Nazis were coming. So I went on to the home of a farmer I knew and asked him to spend the night there. He let me stay, but at 5 in the morning, he asked me to leave because he had servants, and they may have told other people he was hiding somebody. In the morning, I had to go home. I couldn't go anyplace else, because of my car."
By the time Werner reached the village, he recalls, "They were waiting for me."
His father had already been arrested and taken to a jail in the nearby town of Ochsenfurt. An estimated 30,000 Jews were similarly captured and jailed across the country during the mayhem of Nov. 9-10.
"In the middle of the destruction, I was thinking about how I had grown up with these people, gone to school with them, worked with them," Werner recalled in a 2006 memoir. "We were all on a first-name basis with each other. Some of them were friends, some business acquaintances ... we just could not believe that this was happening." The family later learned that two farmers with whom the Kleemans had previously done business had set a big bonfire outside the local synagogue, and were burning its contents one item at a time. The fire marshal finally called a halt to the destruction, in order to keep the entire village from going up in flames.
Werner was taken to Ochsenfurt and placed in the same jail cell as his father.
"All the Jews from all the surrounding villages were in that jail," he explains. "And you couldn't talk to one another." He remembers the spiritual anguish his father felt as they awaited their fate. "My father was from an Orthodox family and never ate anything that wasn't kosher. The first thing my father said was, ‘You'd better eat what they give you. You will need your strength.'"
One week later, the elder Kleeman was released and sent home because he was a veteran of the German army during World War I.
Werner was shipped to Dachau.
The first concentration camp opened by the German government, Dachau began holding political prisoners as early as 1933. Kleeman says they had heard about Dachau in his home village, as had most Jews during the period known as "Aryanization" - when the Nazi Party was rising to power, and any Jew or perceived opponent of the party could be snatched from a normal existence and imprisoned without cause or warning. The camp was divided into two separate areas: one for work, the other for cremation of the dead. Accounts vary regarding how many perished in captivity at Dachau and its surrounding minicamps. The toll is generally estimated at approximately 35,000 over a 12-year span, a tiny fraction of the millions who perished at the much larger Auschwitz concentration camp, and by other Nazi extermination programs throughout Eastern Europe during the Holocaust.
"You were loaded onto a bus, but you didn't know where you were going," Kleeman says of the trip from the Ochsenfurt jail. "You only knew it was Dachau after the bus went about 100 miles and you passed Nuremberg."
Upon arrival, Dachau prisoners were stripped of their civilian clothes and put into thin, striped fatigues. Their heads were shaved, and they were compelled to do whatever their captors desired. "You couldn't do anything," Werner remembers. "You had to do what they told you. If they told you to stand 16 hours in the cold weather, you stood 16 hours in the cold weather. If one prisoner was missing, you weren't allowed in the barracks until they found the missing prisoner. The meals, you would get a bowl of soup, which was mostly water, during the day. I was only there from Nov. 16 to Dec. 22. I lost over 10 pounds."
The leading causes of death at Dachau were usually attributed to malnutrition, disease caused by unsanitary conditions, and suicide. At the time Werner Kleeman was there, he witnessed other causes, as he huddled in the cold among thousands of other captives. "They were getting killed on the electrified fence every day ... we saw others starving, sick and dying. About 10 to 12 people died every day, some from beating, some from having been torn to shreds by vicious dogs, and some from starvation ... We were all part of one, large suffering body."
Long prior to Kristallnacht, knowing that tension was rising toward a violent apex, Kleeman had communicated with a second cousin in the United States to seek sponsorship, a requirement for anyone trying to leave the country at the time. The cousin responded by vouching in writing that should Werner be allowed to leave Germany, he would not become a public burden. The British Consulate confirmed in a letter dated Dec. 9, 1938, that Werner had indeed been granted a visa. The young Dachau prisoner was then forced to pay the German government 2,000 marks to obtain a "certificate of good behavior" in order to complete the process. On Dec. 22, he was finally released and went back to his village, where his family's home was about to be appropriated by the Nazis. His father, mother, sister and brother were alive for now, but their futures depended solely on Werner's ability to get them out.
On Jan. 10, 1939, the young man left Germany for London, determined to save their lives.
He stayed at kosher boardinghouses in North London, where by luck he met a diamond dealer named Norbert Lehman, who had been a childhood friend of Werner's father back in Germany. Lehman arranged for work permits for Werner's brother and sister, and affidavits necessary for the parents to take refuge in England. "Very few families had the luck that I had, to save my immediate family from the ovens and gas chambers."
Having learned English in high school, Werner was able to find a clerical job in London, and his siblings went to work as well, his brother as a carpenter and his sister as a domestic helper. Finally, in early 1940, four months after war was declared and Great Britain stood directly in the crosshairs of Hitler's despotic ambitions, Werner's visa to go to the United States came through. Once again, the young man went westward ahead of his family, hoping to deliver them to freedom as Nazi Germany was closing in. He raised enough in donations to buy the least expensive ticket he could find, and crossed the Atlantic. He had $2.50 in his pocket when he arrived in New York. Upon seeing the city skyline as the ship neared, he remembers, "I felt that I was safe. I took my suitcase and rode the subway to Jackson Heights to look for a relative."
He soon found work as a stock boy for a department store, and later as a clothing salesman. Two months after his arrival, he greeted the rest of his family at the U.S. port. For the second time in two years, they were reunited in a faraway place, sure of only one thing: they had survived.
On Aug. 10, 1942, Kleeman was drafted into the U.S. Army. "And from there, everything happened very quickly," he later wrote. He went to boot camp in Macon, Ga., where he became a U.S. citizen in a ceremony with 600 other soldiers, and trained at various installations along the East Coast until mid-January 1944, when he sailed for England. As D-Day approached, he was transferred to 4th Division Headquarters as an interpreter, which meant that he would not go in with the first wave at Utah Beach, as he had been trained to do, in the Allied invasion of France. That transfer, he is sure, saved his life. As an interpreter, he faced considerable danger in the European campaign, but his new role gave him a fighting chance to at least live through the opening scene.
While training in England, Werner came to know many top U.S. military officers, and became friends with J.D. Salinger, later one of the 20th century's most prominent American authors.
Werner, a T5 specialist, was assigned to serve as a personal guide and interpreter for a gung-ho young major named Gatling. They followed the first wave into France on June 6, 1944. Crossing the turbulent channel that day "was an experience in itself," Werner remembers. "You saw yourself halfway down, feeding the fish." After coming ashore, Kleeman and the major moved inland amid a barrage of artillery fire, passing dozens of fallen troops, on their way to help establish a division headquarters in the combat theater.
Because he did not speak French, Kleeman spent much of his time during the Normandy campaign providing support for eight or nine soldiers at a time, drawing rations, cleaning clothes and keeping vehicles fueled as Allied forces secured the Cotentin Peninsula and began their eastward march toward Berlin.
It was during the bloody Normandy battles that Werner lost much of his hearing, in the company of someone he would never forget. "On July 25, 1944, it was the biggest bombardment in World War II to concentrate on one small area, maybe three or four miles by six miles, where the Germans were sitting in front of Normandy to hold off the Americans. For two weeks, it rained every day. They couldn't turn the bombers loose. All of a sudden one morning, word came: ‘Today is the day.' I was burying animals up on the front line to clear the fields, so the troops wouldn't smell them. About 9:30, I got word: ‘Get out!' I took my jeep and went back 400 or 500 yards. I parked it at a farmhouse, where I crept under a table. A guy comes up next to me, and it turns out it was Ernie Pyle. He was looking for a haven, like I was."
The famous war correspondent later wrote about that moment taking cover with Kleeman. "The rattle was right down upon us. I remember hitting the ground flat ... We lay with our heads slightly up, like two snakes, staring at each other. I know it was in both our minds, and in our eyes, asking each other what to do. Neither of us knew. We said nothing."
"I lost my hearing that day," he recalls. "I didn't realize how bad it was until two weeks later, when I went into a beach hospital for a half a day. They tested and said there was nothing they could do. Go back to duty."
Kleeman moved with the division headquarters through France and Belgium. "It was tough going. You had no idea if the Germans would surrender or not. Your mind worked mostly from day to day."
When the Allies reached Berlin and Hitler's reign of terror was over, Kleeman felt vindicated, but he had more in mind. "That was an achievement, to bring the war home to Germany. But it did not change anything. They were stubborn. They didn't want to give one inch."
Kleeman's postwar military responsibility was to help secure and re-establish cities and towns under temporary U.S. occupational governance across Germany. He was astonished by the defeated Germans' continued flashes of resistance.
The major he guided throughout the campaign had become a colonel by that time, and offered Kleeman an opportunity to go on with him to Austria. "I said, ‘Colonel, I would love to, but I have a special mission.' The next morning, I packed my bundle - a duffel bag with a change of clothes and a pair of shoes. I went where they sent out a jeep every day with mail and whatever has to go to each unit. I said to the guy, ‘Where are you going?'
"‘Can I come with you?' He said yes, so I got a ride. The Army didn't allow it. They didn't want you to go and raise hell. I went without anyone knowing. They could have sent the military police to arrest me. They could have done a lot of things. But they left me alone."
When he reached the little farm village he had fled nearly seven years earlier, Kleeman found what he expected. "There were no Jews left. They had all been taken away and killed. The Germans had taken everything. There was nothing you could claim. I gave them two hours to get out of the houses they had taken or I would take them out in the woods. The Germans were die-hard, even though it was over. They didn't want to lose the war, even though it was over. They also knew they were in trouble."
He had sent word ahead to the village that he was coming. "The news went around very fast that I was there, and the people did not like it," Werner wrote in his memoir, "From Dachau to D-Day," with assistance from writer Elizabeth Uhlig. "When I approached the door of the house, I was in tears, remembering all that we had been through. My parents had been forced to sell our beautiful house at a ridiculously low price. The village had bought it and used it as a school, but at the time of my arrival, it was occupied by 50 French POWs."
Werner recognized many of the townspeople, and those who had perpetrated Kristallnacht. He spent weeks there with his fellow soldiers, gathering information about missing families and intelligence about the Nazis who replaced them. "I had to be very careful. I couldn't just go up and shoot anybody." As he and his fellow soldiers established their presence in the town, he assembled a list of everyone who participated in the attacks of Nov. 9-10, 1938, including those who burned the contents of the synagogue. He immediately ordered their arrests. "I had them put in the same jail I had been in, where Jews had been held. I gave strong instructions that there were to be no visitors, no packages, no contact with the outside world. They would be treated as we had been. I made each one sign a confession about what he had done on Kristallnacht."
He ignored family members who pleaded for their release. "I did not feel vengeful. I felt justified." He continued to remove former Nazis from homes that had been seized or forcibly purchased from Jewish families. He ordered others to repair a Jewish cemetery that had been devastated after Kristallnacht. He left the village not knowing or caring whatever became of the men he had jailed.
When he returned to New York, he explains, "We didn't talk much about the war. We did not have that type of conversation."
Werner started a business selling a line of children's clothing, working out of his home. The business grew and evolved. He began selling curtains and shades for hospitals and, later, the U.S. Navy. He got married and started a family. They moved to the little white house in Queens, where his two daughters grew up and his self-employed business flourished. He remains in that house today.
In later years, Kleeman was able to return to Germany from time to time. He stayed in touch with his Army buddies, including Col. Gatling. He wrote back and forth with the reclusive Salinger, who won worldwide acclaim with his 1951 novel "The Catcher in the Rye." He became friends with the family of Brig. Gen. Theodore Roosevelt Jr., who received the Medal of Honor after leading his men - Kleeman among them - into Normandy on D-Day. He has contributed to books and studies on the Jewish experience during World War II and has been interviewed on national television by former NBC News broadcaster Tom Brokaw, and was once profiled in The New York Times. In 2007, he returned to Dachau to deliver a speech to a new generation of Germans trying to make sense of that horrific span of time seven decades ago.
Today, as he looks back upon his life, Werner does not take lightly the opportunity the United States gave him to arrest those who would have sent him and his family to death by genocide. Equally important is the opportunity America gave him to restore his family's prosperity within his lifetime.
"I feel like I am the best example of a young American. I was poor, and I had to work myself up, but I was finally able to send two daughters to college - one to city college and the other to state college. They graduated and became schoolteachers. For my grandchildren, I was able to offer them education and pick whatever college they wanted. Do you understand what that means to me? That is what I see as success."
Jeff Stoffer is editor of The American Legion Magazine.