Caughlin Fire: First-Hand Account of an Emergency Evacuation

Originally this article was submitted to Yahoo!Contributor, now off the Web, but it was my personal first-hand account of our evacuation from our home after a fire cut a swath through my neighborhood in the early morning hours of a cold and windy November. One man died of a cardiac arrest and at least 30 homes were destroyed.

I’ve been inspired to re-share my story ever since hearing about the fires that rampaged through California this past month, specifically the King Fire, which began September 13, and damaged thousands of acres, destroyed homes, and disrupted thousands of lives. The King Fire created unhealthy air conditions in Reno, NV, and ruined our otherwise beautiful crystal blue skies with a smoky, brownish haze.

I’ve lived through this type of devastation before, strangely enough. In 1997 our home was flooded. Not only did we have to evacuate in the early morning hours (why is it always in the middle of the night and in the winter time?) but our home was destroyed and had to be re-built from the sub-floor up and the ceiling down. It was awful and Paul and I both suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder, something we’ve taken years to recover from, but may never fully go away. 

Recently I’ve discovered this particular piece was hijacked. I’m undecided if this is compliment or not, but since I don’t know what I can do about it anyway, I figure I should post it here on my blog and claim the article as officially mine. I feel quite free to bring it out of the shadows and to post for the readers. 

Caughlin Fire

While enjoying a sound sleep I was semi-awakened by the smell of smoke. My first thought was that I had left a candle burning, my second was my husband had started a fire in the fireplace after I had gone to bed. Just go back to sleep, it’ll clear out. I dived deeper under the covers, but the smell became persistently stronger. Are the neighbors having a bonfire? What is going on? Begrudgingly, I shoved back the covers and went to investigate. The house was pitch black and I shivered in the cold. In the bedroom across the hallway I saw a faint glow flickering behind the window shade. I raised the shade and nearly passed out by what I saw. The ridge line west of my home was ablaze. Smoke and red flames licked the sky. My street was enshrouded in a veil of thick smoke. My God! The neighborhood is on fire! I opened my mouth to call out my husband’s name, but only a whisper croaked forth. After the third attempt I succeeded a shout: “Paul, wake up. There’s a fire!”

“W-h-a-a-a-t?” was his sleepy reply.

Come look,” I said and directed his attention at the view through the window. This had the same affect on him as it had on me: instant alert mode.

I tried the light switch by the stairs but it didn’t work. “Great, we don’t have power,” I said. We padded downstairs and opened the front door. We were assaulted by a cold blast of smoky air that smelled foul with chemicals, housing materials, cars, and trees. Paul slammed the front door and we scrambled upstairs to the bedroom where we had a better view of the flames. We sat stunned and befuddled. What do we do? The wail of sirens from the fire trucks could be heard in the distance, getting closer to our neighborhood with every second. We knew others were aware of the fire storm at least. 

Without power I couldn’t tell what time it was and we had no heat. We figured the fire was far away and we should just go back to bed where we could get warm. After a minute lying in in bed Paul said: “This is wrong. We need to do something!” He fumbled for his flashlight in the nightstand drawer, we put on our robes, and together we crept downstairs. Just then the phone rang. Paul answered it. After a series of “Really’s?”  “Uh huh’s,” and “Okay’s,” Paul turned to me. “That was Janice. She said we need to get out of our house. The fire is big and it’s bad.” He reached for the Mag-Lite we kept in the kitchen drawer and handed it to me. I followed as he raced upstairs.

My head started to swim and I tried not to panic, but instead, concentrated on what I needed to bring with me. You’ve been through this before April, stay calm, concentrate! I grabbed some cash we kept in the drawer, my wedding ring, and a couple other pieces of jewelry that were important to me. Prescription medicine was next, and a toiletry bag. 

“Now isn’t the time for cosmetics, April,” Paul said.

“Oh yes it is,” and tossed the cash, jewelry, moisturizes, and face creams into my bag. I have my priorities.

“Get dressed,” Paul said, and then he disappeared downstairs. I figured he was retrieving our “to-go” bag we kept in a closet under the stairs. Our church strongly cautioned us that disasters could occur anywhere and anytime. We needed to be prepared with an evacuation  plan and some necessary provisions in case we had to escape quickly. Sound advice now that we were in the midst of a raging suburban fire. However, I was faced with the challenge choosing the proper evacuation attire. What does one wear to an evacuation? Certainly not the 5-inch platform stilettos I just purchased. They’re so cute, especially the black lace ones. Oh well, too bad I have to leave them behind. I pulled on a pair of jeans, my Ugg boots (they were my warmest and most comfortable), several layers of shirts, and then topped it with a reversible fleece jacket.

As I headed for the door I grabbed an unopened bottle of vodka from the pantry. If this house goes up in flames I might need this later.

As Paul and I loaded up the car I could see a flashlight beam bouncing off walls and windows in the house across the street. It gave off an eerie light as Megan, my neighbor, was preparing to evacuate her home with her two young children. Her husband was working a night shift so she was responsible for getting everyone out of the house. Adding to the trauma of having to leave our home in the early hours of a cold November morning was the howling winds. Leaves and bits of branches, and other debris were flying all around. I looked up into the sky and soot and ash were floating down on top of us.

“April, get important files and papers,” Paul said. I nodded, but then wondered, what’s important?

“I don’t know what to do. What do you want me to get?” I could tell I was starting to lose my mind. Focus. I ran into our home office and pulled open file cabinet drawers and grasped at files and documents I thought might be important, but really had no clue. Along with the files I gathered a stack of neatly folded afghans my mom had lovingly knitted. These were heirlooms, irreplaceable, I couldn’t possible leave these. Then I remembered the gloves, scarves and hats, and grabbed those too. I ran back out to the car with my bundle and kept shoving things in. Next, I  found tote bags and began filling those with family photo albums, framed pictures and the like that were irreplaceable. I took a breath, and looked around, there was still time before the threat of fire was imminent. I ran back inside to see what else I could fit in the car. I pondered in front of a shelf on the wall, should I bring the dog’s ashes? Might as well. I scooped up their urns and turned to leave. Too late.

Paul came in stopping me in my tracks. “Really. You’re going to bring the dog’s ashes? That is important?” Paul said.

I guessed so, because I didn’t even stop to answer, and in the car they went. It’s remarkable how much you can actually fit in a car when paring down the paramount items of your life.

The wind shifted the fire away from us so we decided to wait a little longer to see what would happen before evacuating. I waved sad good-byes as each of the neighbors departed from their homes and drove off seeking shelter somewhere. I estimated I had been awakened from the smoke smell around 2 a.m. By 3 a.m. our car was sufficiently packed and ready. I was surprised at how little I took with me. I didn’t even bring any of my beloved hard cover books (or select paperbacks, for that matter). I was sorry to leave my library. The thought of all my books burning up in an inferno was a bitter ache in my heart. But, they’re only things, all replaceable.

For a little while it looked as if our house was out of danger. The sun had come up–finally, although a pale, watery, hazy imitation of itself. I amused myself by picking leaves from my sticky and stiff hair. The toll of the early morning hours made me sleepy, I lay down on the sofa and dozed off and on, while the radio station broadcast updates on the fire.  I came out of a light nap when the newscaster said: “The fire has jumped across Ridgeview.” Ridgeview was just behind the neighbor’s house across the street. A creek runs between their home and the sidewalk. There is also a lot of dried overgrowth, perfect for a hungry fire. I jumped off the couch. Just then Paul came in. He had been guarding the driveway, keeping an eye out for smoke of pop-up fires.

“We have to go, embers are coming down now,” he said. 

I followed him out onto the street, but just as quickly the wind shifted and the embers disappeared. Paul ran across the street and knocked on John and Kathleen’s door to let them know the fire was now behind their home. They invited us inside. They had been sleeping and had no idea how close the fire was. Looking out their back slider door I was transfixed by the flames, while behind me John and Kathleen scurried about the house and made a dash for their car to evacuate. Paul and I rushed out to  their back yard where we saw Charlie, another neighbor who lived down the street, and around the corner from us. He was with REMSA and had been working since 2 a.m. when he got a call to help a man who had suffered a heart attack while evacuating his home. Charlie was down in the ditch with a long garden hose tamping down the flames. Another neighbor, Cody, whose wife and twin daughters had already evacuated, grabbed another garden hose and joined Charlie in defending the endangered homes. Charlie was the hero of our section of the block. If it wasn’t for him I’m not sure what would have happened to thoes homes. There were only minutes to act, and those precious minutes made all the difference. Charlie yelled for Paul to wave down a fire truck and get it over to our block. He said he had been trying for two hours and couldn’t get anyone. Paul ran out to the front yard and flagged down one of the many police officers roaming up and down our street, ensuring that everyone was evacuating. Within seconds a fire engine arrived on the scene.

I ran out to the front of the house too, and to my horror saw to the west of my house thick, black smoke rising up, and knew a house close to the ditch was on fire. Although I couldn’t see the house, and didn’t know how close it was to the houses at the top of the street, or know what they were from, I heard loud pops and explosions. Neighbors ran back into their homes, but Paul and I stayed on the street watching the smoke build. We had been ready with our garden hoses as well, just in case a small pop-up fire started, but turned off the water when we realized there was little water pressure, and didn’t want to take water away from the fire hoses.

We didn’t know where the next fire would start. It seemed random, completely at the will of where the wind blew the embers, like little fire bombs falling from the sky. I was dismayed to see another home, high on a hill south of my house, burn to the ground. We were surrounded by the fire.

One minute we were planning on evacuating and the next we stayed on watch duty. We were back and forth in our decision, anxious to be away from danger, but concerned about our homes and those of our neighbors. Many in the neighborhood did leave. It went on like like this for hours. Family and friends sent texts, or called, making sure we were okay, giving us updates on the fire. I was shocked to learn that it was far from contained even after twelve hours.

One bit of good news gave me relief. In the press conference it was said that firefighters and the police force had saved over four thousand homes, mine included. Unfortunately thirty-two homes had been destroyed by the fire and thousands were displaced in evacuation centers, not knowing the fate of their homes. When all was said and done, the fire, known as the Caughlin Fire, had consumed 2000 acres.

By 3 p.m. we still had no power and the weather forecast called for cold temperatures that night. We decided to leave and get a hotel room. We drove down the street where we were stopped by a police cordon. We were told that if we left we wouldn’t be able to return until sometime the next day. Even though we felt the threat from fire was over, we were hesitant to leave. For hours police patrolled the neighborhood ensuring the safety of the homeowners, and guarding against burglary, or lookey-loo’s. This gave us an added sense of security. We turned the car around and headed home.

Paul put a large pot of water to simmer on our gas cook top (the humidity it creates works to keep the house warm. A trick we learned when our furnace broke during the coldest winter on record). Then, while it was still light out, I heated some chili for our dinner. Paul gathered warm clothing and blankets. As strange as it sounds, it felt wrong to light a fire int he fireplace that night, but our need for warmth overcame those feelings. We ended the night with a game of Monopoly by kerosene lamplight. Before long we were peaceful, cozy, and sleepy.

Around 9:30 p.m. the power miraculously came to life. Our ordeal was over. Aside from the smell of smoke that permeated our clothes, cars an home, we had come through the threat with everything intact. We felt fortunate, humble, and grateful.

The community spirit stood out the most to me during this time of trial. People were concerned for the welfare of others, offered help, checked up on older ones, or those alone. Although we were scared, there was never pandemonium. I felt calmer knowing our community was there for each other if a need arose.

A lesson to take from this story is: be prepared. Even if we are prepared that doesn’t mean we will necessarily have time to get our belongings. Some people woke to the smell of smoke and had mere minutes to escape with only their lives. Still, it is good to have some sort of a plan in place, that way when disaster strikes we will feel more in control of our situation, have a clear head, and stay calm.

The end.


Related links:

Photo Gallery of Caughlin Fire




Renowned Architects Russell Mills and Ed Parsons Historic Homes Walk

Russell Mills and Edward Parsons were two important architects living and designing homes and commercial buildings in the Reno, Nevada area. Their lives intersected, and as a result the Old Southwest area of Reno boasts some architectural gems. The Parsons/Mills walk is just one of the many historic home walks presented by the Historic Reno Preservation Society. This particular walk, presented by Anne Simone, focuses on the design styles of these two men. Anne has researched this topic so well that I want to share her wisdom on the lives of these two interesting and talented men with you.

All credit for this article goes to Anne Simone, volunteer with the Historic Reno Preservation Society.

Quick Facts:

Russell Mills: 1892-1959. Architect, a number of his works are listed in the U.S. National Register of Historic Places. Worked as a draftsman for Reno, NV architect Frederic DeLongchamps.

Design works in Reno include Veterans Memorial High School, Veteran’s Elementary School, Job Ranch in Douglas County, Sparks City Hall, Brown Elementary School, Pershing County High School, and the J. Clarence Kind House.

Background Russell Mills

Russell Mills was born in Chicago 1892. His father, a retired military man, served in the 6th Cavalry as Sergeant Major. Russell’s mother, Alma, was of French descent and worked as a nanny for a general in the Philippines, China, and Japan. Alma and her husband split up and Russell, an only child, was raised by his mother.

Because of Alma’s work, Russell traveled a great deal. The two finally settled in Oakland, California where he attended the Oakland public schools and was enrolled at the University of California, Berkeley (1913-1915). Little is known whether he graduated, or what academic program he was following, but since he went on to become a registered, and respected architect in Nevada, it seems likely that he at least attended architecture classes.

In 1924, Russell Mills married Grace Culp, the daughter of a Methodist minister. She was also from the Bay Area. They had one child, named Rusty, in 1929.

Although Russell Mills designed and built their home in Reno, he worked in San Francisco during the war years for the Navy Bureau of Yards and Docks from 1942-1945.

Young Rusty was fond of his father and said of him, “He was funny and had a good sense of humor. He loved his work designing homes.”

One of the fun parts about being part of the Historic Reno Preservation Society, is that we are always adding new details and finding out more facts about the amazing historic homes in our old southwest neighborhood. Just recently a new home was added to this tour. It stands where the park was supposed to go in on the corner of Circle Drive and  Manor Drive. However, World War Two erupted and plans for the park had to be put on hold, due to diverted funds to support the war effort. A fountain remains, marking the once hoped for public park. This area used to be covered by a field of violets back in the 1930s. Stunning to imagine. Now, it is a busy subdivision. Back to the historic home in question. Plans for the Russell Mills designed home were discovered in the attic of a nearby home of a longtime Reno resident. She graciously shared these plans with Anne and myself. So at least now we another proved home design to add to this delightful tour. Most of the home was remodeled outside and inside, and little remains of the original design. But, it stands as a remarkable tribute to Mr. Mills, and we are thrilled to add this to our tour.

We also, were invited to tour another Russell Mills designed home. I was gobsmacked! It was like walking into a time capsule from the late 1930s! Most of the light fixtures were original to the home, as were the switches. I recently had to replace two dimmer switches in my home after a mere ten years, however the ones in this home have lasted, and continue to work for the past seventy-seven years. All the door handles and latches are the same as they were the day they were installed in 1937. The kitchen is original with original stainless steel counter tops. Now here is the kicker: the bathrooms are in their original condition, including the toilets and toilet seats, which are elongated and curved. One is blue and one is green. I couldn’t believe it. The tile in the bath surround is in terrific condition, with original ground marble grout in perfect condition. These homes are treasures. I was so impressed with this one. This home isn’t on our Russell Mills Ed Parsons home tour, but is featured on our Monroe Street walk. But, whenever we get the chance to talk about Russell Mills we do, even if it is to mention the roof. As Anne always says there isn’t a roof line Mr. Mills didn’t love.

Quick Facts:

Edward Parsons: 1907-1991. Architect, the only northern Nevada awarded the American Institute Architects Fellowship. He also created the local branch of the AIA.

Design works include: J. Clarence Kind house on the National Register of Historic Places, Incline High School, University of Nevada Reno building, Fleischmann Agriculture and Home Economics building, Orvis School of Nursing, Medical School building.

Specific Restoration Projects:

Nevada State Capitol Building,Morrill Hall, University of Nevada, Reno, Bowers Mansion, Lake Mansion, Berlin Mill, Virginia City Courthouse, Belmont Courthouse, Genoa Courthouse, Fort Churchill.

Background Edward Parsons

Edward Parsons father, Arthur Rose Parsons, was a metallurgical engineer, graduating about 1900 or 1902 from Leigh University in Pennsylvania. He built mine mills in Delamar, Goldfield and Tonapah for a mining company in the east. His mother, Laura Shier Parsons, attended UNR for at least two years, but records are unclear whether she graduated or not. Laura’s father was a pharmacist in Pioche, Delamar, and Milford, (perhaps Caliente). Arthur and Laura had two sons. The family lived in Tonopah where Arthur oversaw the mining. Edward Parsons younger brother went to Annapolis and had a military career. He made his home on the east coast.  Arthur died of silicosis disease  when Edward was eight years old. Laura died of pneumonia when Edward was about fourteen years old. Edward’s parents left money for the two boys. The paternal grandfather arranged to have the parents estate put in a trust fund, which covered the college funds for both boys.

After graduating from the University of Pennsylvania with a degree in architecture, Edward Parsons looked for a job in Pennsylvania, but this was during the time of The Great Depression and work was scarce.  This prompted Edward to look for work in Reno, Nevada and join his aunt and uncle there. He was in Reno three days when he landed the job with Frederic DeLongchamps. While in college Edward had designed side jobs Dan Kirkoff. Dan Kirkoff was the architect for Mrs. Willliam Johnston from the Palace Hotel in San Francisco. Mr. Kirkoff was commissioned by her to build French Provincial-style homes that we now see scattered around the Old Southwest Reno neighborhood. Now that Edward Parsons had returned to Reno he helped Frederic DeLongchamps finish up the Reno Post Office design. Edward was unsettled and went back and forth from Reno to San Francisco.

Edward Parsons then joined with Russell Mills another notable architect. Russell Mills at this time worked for Home Owners Loan Corporation as a reconditioning supervisor and gave Edward an assistants job to inspect work under construction. Edward later said of Russell Mills, “He was a splendid person…had a charming personality.” Russell Mills and Edward Parsons teamed up to desing several homes at Lake Tahoe, around Carnelian Bay where Russell Mills had a home of his home with wife and child.

Meanwhile Edward Parsons met Helen, his future wife, while playing Bridge in Reno. He later saw her again in San Francisco where she attened Mills College. After her graduation she was renting an apartment in Divisidero area of San Francisco, from Julia Morgan, the famous designer of  San Simeon, where she had a studio and taught music. In September, 1938 Edward married Helen and they returned to Reno, eventually moving into the home Edward designed and had built in 1948, at 950 Marsh Street. The couple remained in that house and celebrated their fiftieth wedding anniversary there.

When Edward Parsons went out on his own he began to number his designs. The Jack Halley house on Pueblo and Humboldt starting with #1. He was on #100 when he was drafted. Before the war he had designed a new cell block for the Nevada State Prison, a continuation of the original cell block that Frederic DeLongchamps had started years before. Due to the war the project couldn’t be completed because materials were diverted, however,  after the war, the cell block was completed.

Edward Parsons considered Reno, Nevada his home. He is the only Northern Nevada architect to be awarded the American Institute Architects Fellowship. Edward was known for his work in historic preservation and for creating the local branch of the American Institute of Architects.

Original wrought-iron design by Russell Mills

Original wrought-iron design by Russell Mills

1939, design by Edward Parsons

1939, design by Edward Parsons

Edward Parsons and Russell Mills

Edward Parsons and Russell Mills J. Clarence Kind House

Russell Mills and Edward Parsons design collaboration.

Russell Mills and Edward Parsons design collaboration.

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, Google Play, and Sundance Books and Music.