Nancy Kleinberg

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Born: Wierzbnik (now Starachowice), Poland, 1927

Wartime experience: ghetto and camps

Writing Partner: Harriet Millstone

Nancy Kleinberg (née Nachama Baum) was born in Wierzbnik, Poland, in 1927 into an Orthodox Jewish family. The second oldest of her siblings, Nancy had five brothers, as well as a large extended family in Poland.

After the Nazi invasion of Poland, her family’s store was taken from them, and by the spring of 1940, at twelve years old, Nancy and her family were forced into the Starachowice-Wierzbnik ghetto. In 1942, she was sent to two forced labour camps on the outskirts of her town. In July 1944, Nancy was transported by cattle car to Auschwitz-Birkenau. Six months later she was sent on a death march, arriving in Bergen-Belsen in February 1945, where she stayed until being liberated by the British and Canadian armies on April 15, 1945. While in Bergen-Belsen, Nancy found a malnourished boy named Chaim among the dead bodies and fed him and took care of him in the hopes that he could regain enough strength to live. She immigrated to Canada in 1948 and made a home in Toronto, where she reunited with Chaim (now Howard), whom she married. Howard and Nancy’s love story has been featured in various media, and she is very involved in Holocaust education.

When we saw the British drive into the camp it was the happiest day of our lives. We were liberated and I couldn’t believe we were free again, no longer having to worry about starving or being shot for no reason.

Bittersweet Liberation

We were in the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp from February 1945 until that April. We didn’t see any sign of liberation, and I thought this was the end for us, that this was where we’d die. I’m not sure how I survived but I kept thinking that if I was alive there, my parents and my brothers must be alive somewhere else. Unfortunately, this was not the case. Had I known then that I would never see my parents or my brothers again, I would have given up.

On April 15, 1945, we were finally liberated by the British Army. The night before, we heard the Germans running away, but we still didn’t know why. Before they left, I heard rumours that the Germans hid dynamite in the ground and poisoned the bread in the warehouse, but that when the British arrived the next day, they were somehow aware of this.

When we saw the British drive into the camp it was the happiest day of our lives. We were liberated and I couldn’t believe we were free again, no longer having to worry about starving or being shot for no reason. We were cheering and crying. We were running and dancing in the roads. It’s a moment that’s hard to describe. But it was bittersweet. Our happiness mixed with sadness, and the lowest point of my life came when my friend and I walked through Bergen-Belsen hoping to find anyone we knew, maybe relatives or friends from home who were still alive. We found piles of bodies in the streets, people who looked like skeletons, lying dead or barely alive.

In the camp, I said to my aunt and two girls who were sisters, “We’ll go and organize a room.” That’s what we called it then, to “organize” something — a piece of bread, a little soup — for ourselves. We didn’t want to stay in the barracks anymore, so we went to this little house that the Germans had left. It was just one room with two bunk beds and a small stove. But there was a washroom inside, which made us very happy because there had been no washrooms in the barracks; we had had to go outside. We also found a lot of German Marks there, but we didn’t need any money. Where would we go and what would we buy with German Marks? We just threw them out. All we wanted was to have a bed — not to have to sleep on the cold, bare wood floor anymore.

After a day or two, I wanted to go to the men’s side of the camp to see if anyone from my family was there and had survived, so my aunt and my friend and I went. When we went into the men’s barracks, it was hard to walk because there were so many corpses on the floor. I don’t know why we went in the direction we did. Maybe HaShem gave us a path. I feel like whatever happens, happens for a reason, and as we walked we saw a fellow lying among the corpses, but he was moving a little. We went to him, and I recognized him from the barracks where my brother had been in the labour camp. I knew his name was Chaim, and my friend recognized him too because she knew his mother. I said, “Let’s take this boy and we’ll try to nurture him back to health.”

My aunt said, “A boy you’re going to take in?”

I said, “He’s so sick. He’s more dead than alive. Maybe we can help him.”

My friend thought I was crazy and said, “Can’t you see he’s dead?”

I replied, “He’s not dead yet, but if we let him lie here, for sure he’s going to die.” I was hoping that if we did this good deed, somebody somewhere might help my parents or my brothers, too.

We somehow dragged him to our little room and put him in my bottom bunk. I moved onto the top bunk with my aunt. We tried to help him, but he was very sick. I believe he had diphtheria. We fed him every day, little bits of soup or bread or potato, but he would just throw it up. It could actually have been a blessing that he couldn’t keep the food down, because some people ate too much too quickly, and because they were dehydrated and starving, their stomachs couldn’t take it and they died. The boy, Chaim, was so sick. One day, after about a week, he said to me, “Nacha, I need a doctor. I need medication.”

I said, “Where will I find a doctor? I can’t get you a doctor. The war is still on.” Even though our camp was liberated in April, the war didn’t end until May 7. Chaim was with us for about three weeks. He was in very poor condition, sleeping most of the time. But even though he couldn’t keep much food down, he must have gained a little strength, because one day when we were out he somehow crawled from his bed and out to the road, where a military vehicle picked him up and took him to a hospital. We didn’t know where he had gone or what had happened to him until years later. But there is a saying I remember: “If you save one life, you save a generation.” And this became true.

Reuniting with Family

My aunt and uncle would not leave me in Bergen-Belsen, now a displaced persons camp, and so near the end of 1945 I went with them to my uncle’s house in Wörth an der Donau, a small town in Germany near Munich. A lot of survivors went there, to my aunt and uncle’s house. I knew I also had an uncle in British Mandate Palestine, my father’s brother, Moishe Baum, but I was unaware that I had relatives in Canada. I wrote a few letters a day from Wörth an der Donau to my uncle, but I didn’t know his actual address. I just kept writing and writing, telling him I survived but was all alone now, that I didn’t know where my family was. Finally, one letter reached him.

When Moishe got my letter, he wrote to my aunt in Canada, my father’s sister; but at that time Canada was only allowing sisters and brothers to join their relatives, not nieces. My cousin knew someone in the States who actually sent me papers to immigrate there, but I didn’t wait for the papers. I joined a children’s transport that helped displaced children reach their relatives, which took me to New York on a boat — I think to Ellis Island.

I had a cousin who lived in Toronto, my aunt’s daughter, who was in New York with her family celebrating her husband’s graduation as an accountant. She said to her mother, my aunt, “You know, maybe Nacha is on the boat.”

Her mother said, “What? Are you dreaming?”

But, sure enough, I was on that boat, and my cousin was right there waiting for me. I don’t remember how she knew when the boat was coming. I recognized her from a picture I had been sent. We were so happy to see each other, we cried. She took me to the hotel where they were staying, and from New York we went to Buffalo, where we had more cousins. I cannot begin to describe the beautiful table they prepared for us there. I hadn’t seen such food, such cakes, for a long time. And the whole family from Toronto came to Buffalo to meet me. I didn’t have a visa to go to Toronto with them, but I stayed with my cousins in Buffalo and went to night school to study English. They had a jewellery store, and at Christmas time they showed me how to work the cash register. Eventually I got a temporary visa to go to Canada for a few months, and I was off to Toronto, where I stayed with my cousins Yetta and Izzy, who had no children. They treated me so nicely. I had to go back to Buffalo, but I returned to Toronto, this time for good, in 1948, staying again with Yetta and Izzy.

Toronto was a small city in those days. We lived on Kendall Avenue, near Spadina Road. As it turned out, Chaim, that deathly ill boy from Bergen-Belsen, was also in Toronto and somehow found out that I, the girl who had saved his life, was there too. He was very excited and very happy. We hadn’t seen each other since 1945 — I hadn’t even known if he was alive. He came to see me with his older sister and brought me flowers. He claims I said, “Oh, it’s you?” By that time he was known as Howard, and having already been in the city a few months, he looked good, but I still recognized him. I was, of course, very happy to see he survived.

We began courting, but not too seriously. My relatives liked him very much because he was a gentleman when he called; he always brought flowers and dressed well. They said, “If you marry this boy, you’ll have a nice life,” and we went out off and on, but I wasn’t ready to get married. I felt so guilty that my parents and my brothers and all of my family had perished while I had survived. We finally did decide to get married and we had our wedding on March 14, 1950.

….

The terrible experiences of the war and losing my family didn’t change my faith, but I was hurt. I wasn’t envious when I saw that some girls had their parents — I was happy for them, but I wished I had my parents too. The most painful thing for me was being separated from them and from my brothers, and losing them all. Here in Canada, we have more luxuries and more things, but I had a happy childhood; I was happy to be with my parents, siblings and grandparents. And finding out I was never going to see them again was very painful. The lowest point of my life was after Bergen-Belsen when I realized I was all alone. I don’t know why, but I can’t cry. My tears are dried up.

In the very Orthodox community, you cannot ask questions about why something happens. Some people have asked me how I can still believe and be so religious, but I feel that to believe in HaShem makes me stronger.

During those terrible days, I tried to do everything I could to help my older brother, Ben-Zion, but unfortunately he didn’t survive. Somebody told me after the war that he died in Auschwitz. My parents and my youngest brothers, Yisroel, Fischel and Yankele, were taken to Treblinka, I think, and I never saw them again. My brother Meyer, who was two years younger than me, was put on a bus or a train to come home from my grandparents’ farm but was taken to a camp and killed with many other children. I was the only one of my family to survive.

I don’t know why I survived. I guess HaShem wanted one little branch of the tree to live to tell the story and to get married and have a family.

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Howard and Nancy on their wedding day. March 1950.

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Howard and Nancy. Toronto, 1948.

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Howard and Nancy.