An article  by Greer Fay Cashman of the Jerusalem Post about our very special tribute event this week in honor of Holocaust survivor and veteran leading journalist Noah Klieger.
Notwithstanding the fact that the event – jointly hosted by the Israeli Jewish Congress, the International March of the Living, the Ambassadors’ Club of Israel, the Tel Aviv-Jaffa Municipality, Adopt-A-Safta, and Israel Forever – had been widely publicized, Klieger was surprised by the huge turnout in the largest auditorium of the Tel Aviv Cinematheque.
Klieger had been under the impression that he had come to see a special screening of the documentary Boxing for Life, which tells his story. Director Uri Borreda had not allowed him to see it before.
There was standing room only in the auditorium, and many people who had not registered in advance sat on the stairs.
Klieger said that he hadn’t been a particularly good boxer, but his ability to box had saved his life, and that he was the last remnant of the Auschwitz boxing team.
Being a boxer in Auschwitz paid off, because boxers, who were there for the amusement of the camp commanders, received an extra bowl of soup. When you’re starving, a bowl of soup goes a long way, said Klieger. The real boxer on the team was Victor Perez, whose extra bowl of soup saved many lives, including that of Klieger, who at one stage was very ill.
In addition to working for Yediot, Klieger also writes for the French sports publication L’Équipe, which he visits at least twice a year. On one such occasion, he overheard a conversation about a series that was being prepared about champion boxers. There was mention of Tunisian-born Perez, who in 1931, at age 19, was crowned as World Flyweight Champion. By 1938, he had 92 wins, 26 losses and 15 tied matches. None of the people talking knew what had happened to him, and Klieger supplied the missing details.
In September, 1943, Perez was arrested by the Gestapo. Despite the difficult conditions in Auschwitz and the heavy manual labor that he was forced to do, Perez managed to stay fit, but was shot dead on a death march on January 22, 1945, less than a week before the liberation of Auschwitz.
He was not the only one who had helped Klieger to survive. There was a Jewish doctor by the name of Robert Waitz, who like Klieger came from Strasbourg. Waitz took care of Klieger when he was desperately ill.
Later, on when the young Klieger, who was still a teenager, was in very bad shape and had to stand in a selection lineup, Josef Mengele told him to move to the left, which meant that he was destined for the gas chamber. Klieger started to do as he had been ordered, then suddenly turned around, drew himself to attention, and said to Mengele that he was the son of a well-known Strasbourg writer, that he was still young, and that he was capable of work. Mengele asked Waitz if he knew Klieger’s father, and Waitz, who didn’t have a clue, replied “Of course.” Then Mengele asked Waitz if he wanted Klieger to help out in the infirmary, and Waitz again came to Klieger’s rescue.
After the war, Waitz achieved international repute and in 1963 came to Israel to deliver a lecture.
Klieger was sitting in the front row, by this time twice as heavy as he had been in Auschwitz. Waitz kept looking at him and finally asked whether he was the young boy from Auschwitz. Klieger was thrilled that he had recognized him, and the two embraced.
Among the various speakers at the tribute evening was Tel Aviv Chief Rabbi and former chief rabbi of Israel Rabbi Yisrael Meir Lau, who, like Klieger, is a Holocaust survivor, and who, together with Klieger, has participated in every March of the Living for the past 28 years. Lau and Klieger are not only good friends, but Lau officiated when Klieger married his wife, Jacqueline.
While in Auschwitz, Klieger had set himself three tasks. The first was to do all that he could to survive.
The second was to tell the story of Auschwitz to the world. “You can’t explain it, but you can tell the story,” he said. And the third was to do everything possible to ensure that the Jewish people should have a national identity and a state of their own.
A passionate Zionist, Klieger arrived in the Land of Israel on the legendary ship Exodus 1947, and was in fact a member of the crew. In the interim, he has led more than 150 delegations to Auschwitz, but he is concerned that after the generation of the Holocaust dies out, the Holocaust will become just another episode in history of which most people will have little knowledge.
“Young people today don’t know about the Bar-Kochba Revolt or the Spanish Inquisition, and in 50 years from now, they won’t remember the Holocaust. If you ask them who was Yossi Harel, they won’t know.”
Yossi Harel, a sixth-generation Jerusalemite, born Yosef Hamburger, was a senior member of Israel’s intelligence community and the commander of the Exodus. He died eight years ago at the age of 90.
[Photo credit: Amir Fishman / Israeli-Jewish Congress]