By Randy Gonzales
University Relations and Marketing
HAYS, Kan. -- Gene Klein remembers that day 73 years ago when soldiers showed up at his family’s home in Beregszasz, Hungary -- then known as Czechoslovakia. The Jewish family of five was put on a train and transported to the Nazi concentration camp, Auschwitz.
At the camp, the 16-year-old Klein remembers his family getting in a line in front of a Nazi SS officer with shiny boots and a riding crop, a small whip. He pointed one way or the other when each person reached the front of the line. Klein’s father was pointed in one direction, the son in the other. The son would become a slave laborer. The father went to the gas chamber.
“I never saw my father again,” Klein said Thursday night before a jam-packed audience at Beach/Schmidt Performing Arts Center on the campus of Fort Hays State University.
Earlier in the day, Klein, now 89, met informally with FHSU students and faculty at Forsyth Library. He mentioned his daughter’s book about the Klein family’s experience at Auschwitz, where historians estimate more than a million Jews were killed. In all, six million Jews -- two-thirds of their European population -- were killed by the Nazis in World War II.
Tanner Hallagin, a Fort Hays State freshman from Hays, listened to Klein Thursday afternoon and planned to attend his speech that night.
“I didn’t know much about the Holocaust; I wanted to know more,” he said. “He talked about his father for the last time. I’m kind of speechless.”
In Jill Gabrielle Klein’s book, “We Got the Water: Tracing My Family’s Path Through Auschwitz,” she wrote about that pivotal moment when her grandfather was selected for death by the Nazis. In that passage, Klein recounted Thursday afternoon in a voice choked with emotion, he told how in his granddaughter’s mind she goes to her grandfather, holds his hand and walks with him all the way to the gas chamber.
“I usually don’t talk about this part because I know I’m going to break down,” Klein said while using a white handkerchief to wipe tears from his eyes.
Klein’s talk Thursday night was in front of a rapt audience which listened intently to every word, every story. Afterward, the audience gave Klein a standing ovation.
“I have no words; it’s so breathtaking,” Hays High School junior Erin Muirhead said. “I have no idea how people endured all this.”
Muirhead was appreciative of FHSU bringing Klein to Hays.
“It’s so cool this actually came to Hays,” she said. “It makes me proud to be part of Hays.”
Jacob Hoss, a Fort Hays State sophomore from Ness City, was also impressed by what he heard.
“It definitely puts it into perspective,” he said. “It’s just amazing people can survive something like that. It makes you realize how good you have it here. I definitely learned a lot tonight.”
Klein hopes America can learn some lessons, too. He is concerned about the future of the country he first immigrated to in 1947, the country where he later served in the U.S. Army and became an American citizen. Klein is worried about the rise of hate crimes.
“My concern is very simple,” he said. “There is a definite parallel between Nazi Germany in the beginning in the 1930s and what’s happening in this country.”
Klein’s father, Herman, was a merchant. His mother’s name was Bertha, and Klein had two older sisters, Lilly and Oli. His father was a gentle man who liked to garden.
Klein, remembering his father, took offense when President Trump’s press secretary said recently that Hitler did not use poison gas.
“This is one human being who was killed by poison gas,” he said.
Klein has told his story to audiences large and small for three decades. He speaks about 30 to 40 times a year, usually in his home state of Florida. Klein was asked to speak at FHSU as part of a group project by Fort Hays State students who attended the National Campus Leaders Summit at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C. The trip was part of FHSU’s Embrace Difference campaign by the Center for Civic Leadership.
One requirement for attending the summit was having a project related to the museum’s purpose. Hollie Marquess, instructor of history at FHSU, had her world civilization class read the book written by Klein’s daughter in the fall 2016 semester. The feedback was positive from her students, so Marquess reached out to Klein about making an appearance on the FHSU campus as part of the project. Marquess and Dr. Paul Nienkamp, assistant professor of history, led five students to Washington in January.
Sponsors for Klein’s visit to FHSU were the Department of History, the Center for Civic Leadership, Phi Alpha Theta, the Honors College, the Department of Leadership Studies and the Department of Political Science.
“This has been amazing, to sit and visit with him,” Marquess said. “He has so many stories. I have been over the moon.”
Klein survived a year in Auschwitz before being liberated by the Russians, as did his mother and two sisters. He has been told that having one family member survive would be what to be expected at best, yet four of the five members of Klein’s family survived.
Now, Klein tells his family’s story.
“I am going to be the speaker for the Holocaust,” he said.