Cutting Floor Excerpts: Childhood Antics Or Growing Up a Poor Jewish Kid in Kraków During WWII.

Some of the antidotes from THE ALTERED I had to be cut out entirely, but this one, like so many, was always a favorite of mine. It’s about how Joe would ride the tram to see a young friend. This sounds like a simple enough action, just get on a tram and go see a friend. But this was during Nazi occupation in Kraków, Poland and Joe was a little Jewish kid who wasn’t allowed to ride a tram. He wasn’t allowed to do anything he previously had done: sit on a park bench in a beautiful park called the Planty and watch the swans swim in the lake, go to a library, buy anything from a store, ride a train, or be out on the street after curfew. Joe was precocious. He got around these rules. He tried to pass himself off as Aryan, or at the least a Polish citizen. In some cases he succeed, and in others he had some close calls. These were scary times, especially if you were Jewish.

So I give you this short excerpt:

V & T Train

The Virginia and Truckee Railroad Steam Locomotive.

“My parents were very preoccupied during this time, trying to survive and keep their heads during conditions that were more dangerous and desperate to live with. However I continued with my childish lifestyle and behavior. To my way of thinking it appeared as if Mamusia and Tatuś encouraged me to do whatever I wanted. They never said no to me, and whatever I decided to do that day I simply accomplished it.

I lived in my own fantasy world, often pretending to be one of those trains I greatly adored. I walked the streets like I was a train. Whenever I was free to roam the streets I moved like I was a train. When I encountered a corner on the sidewalk I slowed down, then chugged around it like it was a mountain pass. Then I increased my speed having successfully made the  turn onto the straight-away. My world was fantasy trains and trolley’s, characters in my favorite Karl May action books, and of course movies. Movies were another joy I was prohibited from because I was a Jew. But, this didn’t stop me, or any of the other kids who ran wild on the busy Kraków streets. Often we sneaked in at great risk of discovery. But, I loved movies so much it was worth the gamble.

The V & T Steam Locomotive

I became friendly with a Jewish kid who lived across the street, with hair so blond it looked snow white. I called him Biały, Polish for”white”. He was an exact miniature of his father who had the same white hair. Whitey was a mean kid, but I liked playing at his apartment. His father and mother seemed to like me and I always felt welcome there. Whitey’s father was indulgent and his mother was a mouse. She was nice, but without a backbone at all. Whatever her son wanted he got. Mousey’s father was a very religious bearded older man. He lived with the family, praying all the time. Whitey and I loved to play nasty tricks on him while he was in one of his deep prayers. Usually, as the grandfather prayed, his daughter, who I called Mousey, would pour him a cup of coffee and leave it on the table in front of him. We did whatever thing we could think up to his coffee, we added salt, or pepper, whatever was on the table. Another time I dipped the tip of an umbrella in it, swirling the cream around. This resulted in a big mess with a puddle of coffee on the table, but he was so deeply involved in his prayer he didn’t notice the antics going on right under his nose.  After his prayer he would take a gulp of coffee with great gusto, but then to our delight, splutter with disgust and spit it out in a long arching spray. Mousey, hearing the ruckus, shuffled in and squeaked, “Get out of the kitchen and leave grandfather alone.” It was halfhearted at best because I could see she was trying to hold back her own laughter.

When we weren’t pestering the poor praying grandfather, we played one of the myriads of Whitey’s games. Monopoly was our favorite. Ours was a Polish edition with the street names from the city of Warsaw. Unfortunately for me, Whitey and his family moved out of the Kazimierz. They moved far out of town beyond the tram line. Whitey’s father saw that I wanted to keep visiting his son so he arranged for me to have a tramway pass, valid for one month. This pass allowed me to ride any tram without paying the fare. I was so happy even though I had to walk about two kilometers by foot, but we could continue our Monopoly game anytime we wanted.”

Photo credit: Michelle Staryos, The Rusty Curio (Etsy)

Photo credit: Michelle Staryos, The Rusty Curio (Etsy)

- Joseph Kempler, THE ALTERED I: MEMOIR OF JOSEPH KEMPLER, HOLOCAUST SURVIVOR.

Robert McQueen High School Holocaust Presentation Responses

I wanted to shared with you all the awesome notes the students at McQueen High School wrote. Joe, Paul and I gave a brief Holocaust presentation in May. There must have been over 70 students, plus staff. It was an occasion I won’t soon forget! We had a brief question and answer sessions and then afterward the kids wanted to take their picture with Joe. I brought excerpts from Joe’s memoir with me to hand out to the students, the first four chapters or so, and the kids wanted Joe to sign their copy. We had a spectacular afternoon at McQueen High School, and I hope we can come again next year!

The students were so touched and inspired by Joseph’s story and their heartfelt letters show it:

 

“I’m very glad Joe survived the Holocaust. He might’ve been atheist at the time, but I want him to know that God is the reason for him to still be alive and able to survive the Holocaust. To be honest, I wasn’t really interested in the Holocaust because I have a hard time paying attention, but when I heard we were going to have Joe come as a survivor of the Holocaust my attention was immediately grabbed. Thank you again.” A.

“You are so inspirational, and I admire you. My friend and I have a project on the Holocaust and what you said showed us a different side of what happened. You are such an inspiration to my friend and I.” J.B.

“This letter is a way of me saying thank you for sharing this remarkable story. To hear the struggle and strength and chance it took you to survive touched my heart and soul to the core and made me realize that life as we know it goes fast with a ton of struggles ahead of us…I read the first few chapters of your book and was enthralled through the entire thing! Thank you so much for sharing. I look forward to the book.” S.A.

“Thank you so much for attending McQueen High School. Your story was truly inspiring and I will remember it for forever.” H.B.

“I learned many things, such as the way that only people with skills deemed useful to the Nazi cause were allowed to live in the ghettos. The stories of your struggle for survival, your intelligence mixing with luck to miraculously save you from the most desperate situations, touched me and made an impression my mind (and heart) that will not ever fade. Thank you.” D.

“I know that reliving those memories must be a tough and unpleasant thing to do, but you do it anyway to expand young minds like mine, and for that, I am grateful. My knowledge of the events of the  Holocaust is little, and I wish to expand it. The opportunity to see you and hear your story was rare and greatly appreciated. I am still a kid, but I have been told I am the future as well. The Holocaust is an important and dark past of human history; as the future of America and possibly the world, I find it my duty to never let history like this repeat itself ever again. Again thank you for visiting McQueen High School.” E.

“I am honestly speechless. I am so amazed that after all you went through your still alive. You have honestly inspired me so much every day now that I think my life sucks I just think of you and all the stuff you had to go through and I realize my life isn’t that bad. I am so thankful that you cam to our school on the 15th of May. Sitting there listening to your story was so amazing, you’ve inspired me so much to live my life to the fullest and love as much as possible.” L.D.

“Your story really touched my heart. Since 5th grade I have read and watched everything I could about the Holocaust, for the simple reason that I feel if we do not learn from the past we are doomed to repeat the same mistake in the present. What you went through was horrific, but you have amazed me and everyone you spoke too with your story of survival. I look up to you because you survived under immense odds. I was with my younger sister when your story was being told. She talks about how amazed she is by you. The Holocaust was a dark time in the history of this earth and I pray it is never epeated. you have left an impact on my life and my sisters and I thank you for that. You have encouraged me to be more thankful what I have.” D.P.

 

Such nice well-though out sentiments of the young minds here in our little town.

Joe and I will be doing two more library presentations in September 2014:

September 19, 4-6 p.m. at Incline Village Library.

September 27, 2-4 p.m. Sparks Library.

 

If you want to read an excerpt from THE ALTERED I: MEMOIR OF JOSEPH KEMPLER, HOLOCAUST SURVIVOR click this link ISSUU-sample.

THE ALTERED I is available on Amazon.com and Google Play books. Find me on Goodreads too!

 

 

 

 

Young People Still Care About the Holocaust, or Students Are Awesome!

Recently a young junior high school student handed me an article about a Holocaust survivor who had given a speech at the Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust. Apparently, this survivor’s family had made their living with a successful Krakow based chocolate factory. When the Nazis invaded, his family fled Poland, left the chocolate-making business, and their affluent lifestyle behind.

All completely fascinating and tragic.

One thing this survivor said really struck me as inaccurate. He indicated that today’s kids didn’t care about the Holocaust, that it doesn’t register with them. I disagree. He is of the opinion that the children only paid close attention to him because he illustrated his story with a tub of chocolate. Now this is even more of a discredit to students and young people today. Perhaps it was his experience when telling his story to others, or the slant of the journalist who wrote this article. I can’t say. But, I was starting to feel insulted for “today’s kids.”

I realize the tub of chocolate helped this particular survivor get through the rough nights and hard life he had to endure as small child. As one student said, “It was his happy place.” We all need that happy place from time to time to endure. But, I think the kids were interested in his story because they want to learn about the Holocaust. Simple and true.

In my limited experience, and my father-in-law’s vast experience, we find that the kids today do care about the Holocaust, it does register, and it impacts their lives forever after learning about it.

Recently I had the privilege and honor of speaking at a local high school about my father-in-law’s Holocaust experience. Since he has been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease it is hard for him to say what he wants to. I’ve become his voice. My father-in-law joined me at this presentation and we stood before a full auditorium of students. This was an after-school presentation and a lot of the students had prior activities scheduled that they couldn’t miss, still there were many students who sat in quiet rapt attention. Afterward, we opened the discussion to the audience for a question and answer session. I am always touched and impressed by the thought-provoking questions of these young people. When I told them that I had been hearing from some people that children today don’t care about the Holocaust I saw heads nodding in disagreement, and on some faces the look of outright indignation. No, this is not true. I find more and more students are just as interested in the Holocaust as I was when I was a student many years ago.

In today’s world kids see hardship, displacement, war, and tragedy. Kids are blended in from other countries with American students. They come from various cultures and backgrounds, so it is possible that the stories of the Holocaust resonate with them on a personal level.

Let’s show trust that the young people of today care about the Holocaust. And don’t hold back from teaching it to them, or talking about it out of some fear that they won’t hear the message. They really do want to know!

Cutting Room Floor Excerpts: On the Farm (Polish Village)

On the Farm

Shortly after my Bar Mitzvah, life on the farm became more active as winter was replaced by spring. Seedlings planted in winter began to grow and there was much work to do on the land. Important crops to the farmstead were mostly grains: rye, wheat, barley and oats. The other major crop was potatoes, which were planted in the spring.

The Biernat’s owned approximately three acres of land which was located in different parts of the village, all of it a little distance from the hut where we lived. On a typical American farm there is a homestead with the land stretching out from it, but in a Polish village, the farmland was divided in a different manner. The land was portioned and handed down to each successive generation. Various crops were planted and there was plenty of work, rows had to be plowed, seeds planted and carefully watched over, weeds would have to be pulled, and everyone pitched in to help.

A reliable horse and plow were needed. When other villagers were enlisted in the labor they might have the horse, another might have the plow. In this way everyone worked together. In time the favors were returned to fill whatever need someone else might have. Since Roman Biernat didn’t have a horse, he provided some form of labor to another villager and they provided him with a horse. This was an excellent exchange system.

As my contribution to living in the hut with the Biernat family it was expected that I should work on the farm. I was willing and ready to work. So reading and writing were put on hold and I learned how a Polish farmer plants his grain and potatoes. As head of the household, Roman sowed the grain. He wore a large apron with a front pocket. Inside the pocket he kept the seeds, sometimes these were oats or barley. He reached into the pocket, grabbed a handful of seeds and flung them over the readied soil.

During World War Two the Polish farmers paid taxes, not in money, but in specific amounts of grain to the German government. This was paid during the harvesting time. Pigs were also considered government property and each pig on the farm had to be registered. It was illegal for any farmer to slaughter a pig, but occasionally the farmers came together and managed to hide one from the German officials. When it came slaughtering time the neighbors shared the meat. Usually this was done inside a villagers hut. This happened in the Biernats hut while we were living there. Not only was it disturbing to witness the animal’s demise, but afterward it was a bloody mess where we lived and slept. As Jews it was especially upsetting because a pig is considered an unclean animal to eat, by Jewish law we didn’t want any part of it.

Other times were more enjoyable and less violent, like when we ventured into the dense forest and picked wild blueberries. I filled my basket and my mouth with the sweet and refreshing fruit.

Once a month a small bag of flour was distributed to all the inhabitants in the region. We’d have to get our rations from the nearby village of Niegowic. This was a task that the girls of household were usually sent out to do,  but since there were only two boys living in the hut, me and Janek, the errand became mine. I stood in line five hours before the mill opened its gates. I dared not leave my place in line because once the gates opened villagers flooded in with their flour sacks and once the flour was gone, that was it, no more flour for anyone. I stood patiently waiting while all around me chatty girls entertained each other with their stories. They seemed to be enjoying themselves while I became painfully aware of my Jewishness and loneliness. I especially couldn’t speak to the girls in this village because I was concerned I would be identified as a Jew. Also, because I was from the city, I didn’t speak like a Polish peasant, so I didn’t want to stand out as different. Normally shy and timid around girls, the only girl I could ever speak openly to was Anita. This made me more lonesome for her companionship and homesick for Krakow.

Four kilometers away, in the next town, was a kosher butcher. Someone in the village gave us a chicken in exchange for tailor work by Dolek. Mamusia sent me to the village of Gdow to have the chicken slaughtered kosher style with a special knife and bled properly. A number of Jews lived in Gdow, some of whom had come to my Bar Mitzvah. Once in a while Mamusia sent me to the butcher for a chicken. Mamusia sent me to the village so frequently on various errands that I became familiar with the route, I knew every step there and back.

A priceless book to me was the Farmer’s Almanac. I read it deck to deck. I found a section about herbs and leaves and learned that nettles where edible when cooked. There were plenty of nettles around the hut, and because I wore short pants at the time, I was stung by those annoying plants often. The little hairs on the leaves of the plant inflicted an irritating rash. One day after my herb research I asked Mamusia to cook the nettles.

Her eyes widened. “Joziu, where did you learn about cooking nettles?”

“In the farmers book. It said they taste like spinach when cooked. We have so many of them around here, I want to try it,” I said.

“You go pick them, I won’t risk getting stung.” She lifted her eyebrows.

I turned, and skipped off to gather some nettles, they will go great with eggs.

When I returned with the nettles, Mamusia took them with tongs in one hand and shears in the other and cut them up right into the cooking pot. “It’s the heat that destroys the venomous part of the plant hairs,” I said. She looked dubious. I tasted the cooked greens and they did indeed taste like spinach. “Here, try it, they’re good for you.” Mamusia touched her throat and shook her head. She trusted me enough to cook them, but not enough to eat them.

The Farmers Almanac contained useful information about herbs, fruit, and the weather. There were certain leaves that could be brewed into a tea. I learned how to identify edible berries. I collected the berries and leaves and experimented with them. Most of what I learned stuck in my mind so that I could call it back from memory if I needed it.

On the farm I liked playing with the animals. The cow was friendly and had just given birth to a calf. The calf was silly and inexperienced. She often wandered into places she didn’t belong. She found a patch of nettles and ate them. My skin puckered with goose bumps. How could she stand the sting? The mother cow stood mutely and watched her calf munching at the nettles without a care. The Biernat’s had given me my own tiny plot of soil to grow vegetables. I planted beans and other greens and surrounded the area with a primitive stick fence. I was proud that I would soon present Mamusia with food I had grown. One day, the stupid calf wandered over to my plot. She stuck her head over the stick fence and ate everything within reach. I stamped my foot in frustration and shouted at the calf, but the Biernat’s and other villagers laughed at my unhappy situation.

The Biernat’s also had a white cat. She became my dear friend. She was pregnant and ready to give birth. Because I liked her she spent a lot of time with me. Maria Biernat laughed at me. “Look out for her Josef, or she’ll be sneaking into your bed to have those kittens!” she said. Janek was the recipient of that gift. Later, the old man, Roman, took those kittens and drowned them. This news upset me and I often wondered how he could have been so cruel.

Life went on in the village. helping the other farmers with the chores took up a lot of my time. There were fields to plow, planting and weeding to tend to, plus milking the cow, and churning the butter. Maria made the butter and I would have to keep the white cat away, whose favorite pastime involved licking the churn.

August was harvest time. This was hard word work, but I readily participated and worked beside the villagers. The grain was bundled by Roman and pitched onto a flat-bed wagon with two ladders on either side. Then it was brought to the barn where there was a threshing floor. Four people worked rhythmically in a circle removing the grain from the stalks. I could see maintaining the rhythm was a challenge. Gradually I learned how to imitate the workers. Together we beat the grain with wooden flails seconds apart from each other, which required good coordination. After the stalks were removed what was left over was used to roof the peasant huts. The grain was then poured in bags and hand sifted.

Overall, I found life on the farm interesting. So many things fascinated me. Everything was new and so different than life in the big city of Krakow. From spring until the harvest time in late summer it was a steady stream of hard work. No matter how strenuous the labor, I did what was asked of me. As I learned and assisted with the work, the Biernat’s became friendlier toward me and treated me as one of them.

The fields and forest were pleasant to me. I came to look back at this time in the village as the happiest time of the war. The Polish farm and village were peaceful, yet structured. If we could have survived the war there I would have been very happy.

–Excerpt from THE ALTERED I: MEMOIR OF JOSEPH KEMPLER, HOLOCAUST SURVIVOR available on Amazon.com, Google Play books, the publisher direct LeRue Press, Reno, Nevada, and Sundance Books and Music in Reno, Nevada.

Hope you enjoyed this cutting room floor excerpt. To read more from THE ALTERED I click here.

 

 

International Holocaust Remembrance Month

Top-035Technically the International Holocaust Remembrance Week started April 27 and continues through May 4, 2014, but I’ve been busy sharing the event since April 5.

Library Presentation

We kicked off the month with a special library presentation at the Reno Northwest Library. It was a warm day for early April and I was already sweating before the event took place. I was speaking for forty minutes about my father-in-law, Joseph Kempler who is a Holocaust survivor. People crowded into the room, which when empty looked plenty big enough. Soon, we had to scramble for more seating. Finally, people and children sat on the floor or stood in the two doorways, eight people deep I was told. We had 188 in attendance! This was a number beyond my expectations. But, it goes to show that people, young and old, are intently interested in the Holocaust. Carla Trounson, the librarian, prepared the room beautifully. The soundtrack to Schindler’s List was softly playing in the background. It matched the mood perfectly, somber and thought-provoking. While I was speaking about Joe’s life during 1939-1945 I had a slide show presentation of family photos. After the biography and description of the six concentration camps where Joe was imprisoned, we had a Question and Answer session. One of the questions was, ” How did you get all the old photos of your family?” The answer is simple: Joe’s sister survived the war. She and her husband, Jack were hidden in the home where he taught the daughters violin. Dziunka, Joe’s sister, was able to smuggle some family photos into hiding with her. What a treasure for us! I’ve been sharing them on a special Pinterest board. After the Q & A we had a book signing! Joe was asked many times by students if he would take a picture with them, and if they could hug him. That’s the most popular request Joe gets: Can I hug you? By all means, yes!

UNR and Osher Lifelong Learning Institute Day of  Remembrance 

Next Joe, Paul, and I were invited to the second annual Day of Remembrance, hosted by Osher Lifelong Learning Institute (OLLI), and  UNR, in partnership with the University’s Interfaith Students Club. This was the second annual Day of Remembrance for the University. I was asked to speak on the subject of genocide. Genocide is a term that didn’t even exist until after 1944. I thought it would be interesting if I shared the stage with Paul, a second generation Holocaust survivor. Who better than to talk about how he was affected personally by the Holocaust? There were other fantastic speakers. A particular highlight for me was the testimony of another survivor named Lydia Lebovic. She held the audience captive with her harrowing tale of survival in Auschwitz. Vic Thompson, a World War Two veteran, who participated in the liberation of Landsberg concentration camp, contributed his heart-breaking essay “Just One Page from the Holocaust.” This was a beautiful, yet sad, night to remember.

The Great American Authors Expo

At The Great American Authors Expo I was scheduled to read some excerpts from my book THE ALTERED I: MEMOIR OF JOSEPH KEMPLER, HOLOCAUST SURVIVOR. This was a great honor and a fantastic opportunity to draw awareness to the Holocaust during this month of remembrance. Two young ladies present said they came specifically to hear the reading. They were touched and purchased three books!

Parent Teacher Aids Store of Reno, Nevada

Next on the agenda was an author appearance at the local Parent Teacher Aids store. A pretty amazing store if you haven’t checked it out yet. Inside is every kind of tool to help teach kids in a fun and colorful way. I was able to speak to a couple of  patrons about the Holocaust and hand out some sample chapters and book marks. People really respond to the subject of the Holocaust and everyone I meet who is interested in the THE ALTERED I (as I like to shorten it!)  feels very deeply about it.

So, while I am exhausted from all the wonderful activity, I’m proud too. As one reader of my Facebook Author Page put it: “Thank you April Kempler for educating and being relentless about this.” – N. S.

I have done my job!

 

If you would like to read THE ALTERED I it is available on Amazon.com, Google Play books (there are excerpts from the book you can read here), and on the nonfiction table at Sundance Books and Music, Reno, NV.

Also, please visit my author page on Facebook and click Like. You’ll get updates to future speaking engagements and book signings! Thanks!

Question and Answers with Holocaust Survivor Joseph Kempler

Question: Did any of your family survive the Holocaust?

Dziunka (Judy) Laub Billys

Joe: Yes, my sister Dziunka (Judy) survived. She and her husband were hidden by a Christian family, an early group of Jehovah’s Witnesses. I began looking for any surviving members of my family after liberation. I asked anyone I met if they had known or heard of my brother, my sister, or my mother and grandmother. One man said he knew a Dziunka Laub that she was in a displaced persons camp in Germany. I wrote to her: Judyta Laub (German for Dziunka) Someplace in Germany. I gave it to him. By some miracle this man delivered the letter to her and she made her way to Linz, Austria, where I was staying and found me. Together we went to the displaced persons camp in Landsberg, Germany.

Question: Did you ever find out what happened to the other members of your family who didn’t survive?

Joe: Some of them. My father, Max died in the Bochnia ghetto of a stomach ailment. My mother, Malka and Babcia (grandmother) were transported from Bochnia to Auschwitz, and it is my belief that they died there. My brother Dolek was with me from Rackowice, to Plaszow, and Mauthausen. We were separated in Mauthausen and I never saw him again, but I found out that he died of typhus in Gusen.

Question: I notice from the photos that you were in the National Guard. Considering all the things you experienced in the camps why did you join the National Guard?

Joseph Kempler Sergeant 1st Class Joe in uniformTop-036

Joe in uniform

Joe:The Korean War had started, and I wanted to avoid the draft. A very good friend of mine, Leon Sperling, who I went through Landsberg DP camp and knew in New York, came to me one night and said that the draft law went into effect at midnight, but if we joined the National Guard we could avoid it. So that is what we did.

Question: You only had an education to the fifth grade level. What kind of work did you do after you came to this country?

Top-013I.D. Card from Landsberg

 

Joe:I did a lot of different jobs. When I was in the DP camp I went to a radio school, even in the National Guard I was in communications. I had a strong interest in Hi Fidelity sound and gravitated to that field. I worked at Jewel Radio as an assembler, and then moved on to Fisher Radio. I was looking for work in electronics and was hired by American Measuring Instruments Corporation. Near the end of the 1950s I started work with Audio Devices which was bought by Capitol Records. I worked in the tape division, for over 30 years until Capitol Records closed that division.

 

To read more about Joseph Kempler click for excerpts from his memoir THE ALTERED I: MEMOIR OF JOSEPH KEMPLER, HOLOCAUST SURVIVOR.

Available on Amazon.com and Google Play.

 

Holocaust Remembrance Day: A Short Biography, Joseph Kempler

Josef Kempler

Joseph Kempler was born in Krakow, Poland in 1928. He was raised in a Jewish Household. His father’s name was Max, mother Malka, an older sister Dziunka and one older brother named Dolek. The family worked in their own restaurant called a szynk in Polish. It served popular Polish food such as a spiced sausage known as kielbasa, and potato dumplings called pierogi. Malka Kempler made desserts and other treats for the customers.

Malka Kempler (Mamusia)

When World War Two started it came as something of a surprise to eleven-year-old Joseph. When he saw the planes flying overhead he thought it was maneuvers, his country practicing for the war with Germany. But a school friend pointed out to him that this was indeed the start of the war.

Instead of being scared, young Joseph thought this was a great adventure, just like out of one of his favorite books by Karl May. School was canceled and Joseph thought this was a fine idea. Although he enjoyed school and was enrolled in Jewish school were Hebrew and Polish studies were taught. This is the type of person Joseph was, brave and carefree. He loved to run around with his friends. He loved movies, riding the tram, playing soccer and going to the park, known as The Planty. But all of this was going to change for him.

With the conquering of Poland, the German government moved in and restrictions for Jews began to take place.

I liken Joseph’s life to that of a funnel, wide and spacious at the beginning. All the opportunities were open to him: education, work, freedom, but as the funnel closed and Joseph had no choice but to be pushed through, his life became more and more restricted.

The family business was taken away, Joseph could no longer ride the tram with absolute abandon the way he liked to do. He couldn’t even sit on a park bench. Movies were banned and a curfew was set.

Max Kempler

The Krakow ghetto was being built and qualified Jews, those who could offer something to the war movement, or who were considered valuable to the work force were relocated there. Joseph and his family were not approved to live in the ghetto. When the order came that they would have to abandon their apartment they had nowhere to go.  Joseph’s grandmother, Babcia, knew some people in a nearby village. They were a Catholic family willing to house the Kempler family in exchange for rent money.  The family was soon living in this peasant village. They stayed here for almost two years.  Joseph often reflected that if he could have remained in that village for the duration of the war he would have been perfectly happy.

But that wish was not to be. The first to be relocated was Dolek, who was taken to a labor camp near Krakow. Then one day an order came that the family were to be relocated for resettlement in the east. The family knew what this meant: either deportation to a work camp or death. Joseph felt it was a death sentence, but there was little a fourteen-year-old boy could do. There was a Polish policeman who was instructed to guard the family and make sure they were on the transport to the Bochnia ghetto. He was known as a ladies man. He said something could be worked out if Mrs. Kempler agreed to meet him. She dressed in her finest and set out to meet the police man. Although innocent Joseph knew this was a sexual assignation. He felt angry and betrayed by her actions. He also felt guilty because he hoped she could save them. This was the beginning of Joseph’s emotional numbness.  He shut out all the love he once felt for his mother. He didn’t want to feel anything at all. That night the policeman failed to show up for guard duty and the family made their escape to a nearby forest.

Joseph felt burdened with the responsibility of caring for his family. He determined that he would have a better chance of surviving without his parents. He told them he was going to sneak into the Krakow ghetto.  He hoped from there he could sneak into the same work camp, Rakowice, that his older brother Dolek was working in. This began his concentration experience.

Rakowice was an airport run by civilian Germans. Joseph knew that to get into this camp he had to lie about his age. He told the barrack overseer that he was nearly sixteen, and they let him in. The work was hard for a young boy. At times he thought he couldn’t do it. Gradually the camp Plaszow was being built. This was the camp made famous from the movie Schindler’s List. As the Krakow ghetto was being liquidated, surviving Jews were sent to Plaszow.  In the summer of 1943 Joseph was relocated to this horrible, dangerous camp.

In the spring of 1944 Joseph was sent to Zakopane where the German army was building a hydroelectric plant. He was made to dredge stones out of a frigid, rushing mountain stream. After returning to Plaszow Joseph encountered a completely different camp. It was chaos. As the Soviet army was advancing the camp was being evacuated.  Joseph and his brother Dolek were then put on a cattle car in the hot August sun and left to die there.  The train finally departed for Auschwitz but didn’t unload its miserable cargo because the Nazis were too busy killing tens of thousands of Hungarian Jews. The train continued for several days without food or water, people died rapidly. When the train stopped it was at the next diabolical camp, Mauthausen a death by work camp. Joseph was forced to carry stones up the infamous 186 steps. After surviving a month of this, Joseph was placed in a train and sent to the camp of Melk where they were building tunnels and underground factories.

186-Steps of Mauthausen

It was here that he encountered an unusual brand of Aryan, they were Christians imprisoned in the same camp because they would not support Hitler or his war. They impressed Joseph by their excellent conduct under duress. He was puzzled by them since he had long since abandoned his faith in God. He often wondered how they could do what they did. This meeting wouldn’t impact him fully for many more years to come, when he would find the faith he had abandoned, this time in a Christian religion.

April 1945 Joseph was made to march on a death march to the next camp, Ebensee. A month later he was liberated from Ebensee in May 1945. He weighed less than 60 pounds and was near death, the Mussulman stage, or walking dead. It’s at this point that Joe was squeezed into the narrowest part of the funnel, but miraculously with his newly found liberation he was set free, although he still likened it to a concentration camp, but instead of Nazis guarding him, it was now American soldiers. Soon, he would taste freedom in the fullest sense.

Joseph knew his father had died in a ghetto, and that most likely his mother and grandmother had died at Auschwitz, but he wondered who else from his family had survived. He spent some time looking for them, but to no avail. He eventually got news that his brother Dolek had died from Typhus in Gusen, but had no word about his sister, Dziunka. One day he met a man who insisted he knew who Joseph’s sister was and that she was alive in a German displaced persons camp. He had Joseph writer her a letter addressing it simply Judyta (German for Dziunka) Somewhere in Germany. Like a miracle the letter found her. She made arrangements to get herself to Austria and find her brother. The two were later reunited. Together they made their way back to Germany to the Landsberg displaced persons camp.

I.D. Card from Landsberg

Joseph spent the next two years in displaced persons camps. He learned English and a trade, radio repair work.  Then in 1947, he emigrated to America where in 1953, he married  Holocaust survivor Marion Dreifuss. She died soon after of Hodgkin s disease, leaving Joseph with a tiny daughter. Susan had been placed in an orphanage ever since she was born due to her mother’s illness. Now, Joseph was torn on the decision of what to do with her. He wasn’t in a position to raise her himself, but felt sad about giving her up for adoption. His sister Dziunka (Judy) not being able to have children of her own, stepped in and offered little Susan a loving home. After much deliberation Joseph agree to let Dziunka and her husband, Andy, have the little girl as their own. Susan grew up knowing who her real father was. Joseph spent many vacations with the newly formed family and was always, albeit distant, a part of her life.

Several years later he met and married Virginia Vrbanich in 1963. Later, they they had two sons, David and Paul. Added to this mix are three grandchildren Andrew, Brian, and Kelly. He is eighty-six years old and lives in Reno, Nevada with his wife Virginia.

 

The Altered I: Memoir of Joseph Kempler, Holocaust survivor is available on Amazon.com, Google Play, and Sundance Books and Music.

To read an excerpt from THE ALTERED I: MEMOIR OF JOSEPH KEMPLER, HOLOCAUST SURVIVOR click here.