Scarsdale station area

Kuniko Katz's essays, articles and letters to the editors

The promise keeper- the story of a holocaust survivor: Sara Lawrence College, April, 2002

“How do I tell about our hellish existences in Auschwitz to people who had no idea about the Holocaust?” Clara Knopfler repeats my question and says after a while with a weary smile, “It is hard because I don’t want scare them.” It’s almost impossible for anyone to really comprehend, she says, what it is like to be constantly treated like an animal or parasite and live with the fear of being killed or dying from starvation or illness caused by terribly inhumane living conditions. “How can anyone who is surrounded by material abundance understand that I wore the same dress for 11 months?” she asks. Still, she believes talking about her experiences is important. Over the years, she says she was able to sift “the hell” into a manageable story.

She goes to various places, such as schools and colleges, to talk about the Holocaust as one of five speakers who participate in a project run by the Westchester Holocaust Commission. When she talks to young people, she says, she doesn’t go into details but tells her story in such a way that they can relate it to their own lives. Regardless of whom she speaks to, though, her core message is always the same-about the disastrous effects of hatred and of being a bystander. “No matter how I say it, not everyone understands,” she says, shrugging her shoulders, “If I talk to 100, maybe I reach 20.”

“Well,” I say, “ I’m certainly one of your 20. I was so moved by the speech you gave at our synagogue about five years ago that I’ve wanted to meet you personally ever since.”

She smiles and says, “I have collected about 2000 letters from people who came to listen to me. I know my work is appreciated.”

Knopfler sits on the sofa of the sunny Florida room off the kitchen in her Scarsdale home. Behind her is a large Anderson window through which I see a nicely landscaped, green backyard. This spacious colonial house was once occupied by her, her husband, their son and her mother. But now that her husband and mother have gone and her son has married and moved to Los Angeles, she lives all by herself. “From time to time I think of moving to a smaller house or apartment,” she says, rubbing her thighs as if to send better blood circulation into her lower legs, “But with so many memories here, I can’t bring myself to do that.”

Knopfler is a sturdily built, medium height woman with lightly waved black hair. Born and raised in Romania and fluent in French, she has a distinguishable European accent when she speaks. At age seventy-five, she has very few winkles on her face and appears to be in pretty good health, although she says sleeping on the cold wooden floor and the ground when she was young seems to haven taken a toll on her body and now she suffers from arthritis. Still, she says, she substitutes twice a week at Eastchester High School where she’d taught French and Latin for 26 years. It is long since she officially retired from the school, but they still call her whenever their regular French or Latin teachers are absent. When I arrived at her door at four o’clock, our mutually agreed time, she told me that she had just come home from teaching.

Eastchester High School is also where she started talking about the Holocaust. A guidance counselor suggested that she articulate her memories and share her experiences with the students. She was hesitant at first because her husband, her mother and her son were not supportive about this idea. They were afraid she was “dwelling” on the Holocaust and that the effect might be morbid or depressing.

“The minute I started to tell my story, though,” she says with a grin, “I felt a heavy burden lifting from my shoulders.” She says even after they came to the states, her husband often had to wake her up in the middle of the night and remind her that she wasn’t in a concentration camp anymore. She found that speaking helped ease her pain. She also felt relieved that she was finally able to carry out her promise to the others who died in the camps. The inmates promised each other that whoever survived this atrocity would speak up after the war. For a long time, she had neither courage nor opportunity. Now, telling the story became her mission in life.

I notice one of the framed pictures hanging on the wall. It is a picture of her mother smiling. I remember seeing that gentle face in the Scarsdale Inquirer, our local newspaper, when it featured her life story about four years ago. Knopfler gave her mother her 100th birthday party at that time. At age 100, the newspaper said, Pepi Deutsch, Knopfler’s mother, was the oldest American Holocaust survivor alive. Looking at her youthful looking face, I remember thinking, what a wonderful revenge on the Nazis who tried to destroy all the Jews that she should live this long in good health.

“She must have been really a strong lady,” I say.

“She was. She was strong physically and mentally,” Knopfler responds in a choked voice. “I survived ‘pure hell’ only because I was with her. May she rest in peace.” She pauses and says quietly, “It has been 2 years since she died but I still miss her. I miss her very much.” Then she begins talking about their horrible ordeal.

Knopfler (her name was Clara Deutsch then) was born in Cauj, Romania in 1927. Her father owned a shoe manufacturing company and her brother was an aspiring pianist The family had a fairly comfortable life. Then, in June 1944, when she was sixteen, their life changed abruptly forever. All Jews in Hungary and Rumania, (then called Transylvania) except those who lived in Budapest, were deported.

By then the Allies had invaded Normandy and Germany’s eventual defeat seemed certain. Transylvania could easily have refused Hitler’s demand, but instead, the government went along with Germany willingly and expelled 600, 000 Jewish citizens without apparent misgiving.

When the family arrived in Auschwitz, Dr. Joseph Mengele, the notorious camp doctor whose name she didn’t know at the time, decided their fates with one finger. He simply pointed her father and brother to go to one direction while sending her mother and her to go in another. “It was the last time we saw them,” Knopfler recalls the day sadly. Not knowing what was going on, she says, they didn’t even say good-bye to one another.

Knopfler was still lucky being with her mother. Pepi Deutsch was forty-four then but she was physically strong and looked younger than her age. Most of the women her age and older and women with young children were sent to yet another direction which, Knopfler later learned, led to the gas chambers where they all perished.

Knopfler and her mother survived numerous “selections” afterwards. Having learned that the Nazis loved to separate family members, she and her mother never stood together at the “selection” and her mother always lied about her age.

In Auschwitz, they were confined in a wooden building that was used as a factory where inmates disassembled batteries to make gunpowder. They stood doing the same thing day after day and night after night on the assembly line with very little sleep and food. The guards had no mercy. Everyone knew that if she fell asleep, she would never wake up to see another day. Yet, hunger and exhaustion couldn’t stop many from collapsing while still holding a battery in their hands.

About eight days after they came to Auschwitz, a Jewish mechanic who was working at the factory told Knopfler and her mother that he heard the guards discussing how all current inmates were to be sent to another camp the following morning. He gave her mother a small amount of red powder and told her to put it on her cheeks before the selection so that she could look younger and livelier. After having worked long hours without much sleep and food, her mother looked very tired that day. Knopfler had no idea why that man was so kind to them..

The next day they were transported to a camp in Riga. There, they were ordered to dig trenches. The Nazis tried to retard the advance of the Russian army by creating trenches and for the next few months, prisoners dug holes in the ground day after day. Afterwards, they were sent to a camp near Gdansk, and then to East Prussia, doing the same thing at both camps.

Their liberation came in January 1945. It wasn't a day of exaltation, though. There was no crying with joy. They simply realized that the commotion they’d heard during the night had been the sound of guards leaving, the Nazis running away before the Russian army reached there, and now they were in the middle of nowhere in East Prussia without food or any means of transportation.

Knopfler and her mother left the camp in January and arrived at their home in the middle of April. “Without any money,” I ask, “how?”

“We walked the whole way across East Prussia back to Transylvania.” Knopfler says. They slept in churches, schools, farmers’ barns --anywhere they could --and asked around for food, like beggars. At one point, she suffered from pneumonia and without proper medication, her fever didn’t come down for a long time. She was delirious and it was another hell that she had to go through. But that, too, she survived. She remembers cerebrating her 17th birthday on the way home.

“How did we survive?” Knopfler asks. “I think we did it because we had inner faith and each other.” She says there were people who committed suicide in the camps. All they had to do was to touch the electrified fence and they could free themselves from all their suffering. “Hope never left from us, though.” Knopfler says. Her mother strongly believed in their God. Her faith was so strong that even in the camp she fasted on Yom Kippur. Knopfler recalls telling her mother that every day was a fast.

When they finally reached their home in the middle of April, they found that the only thing left in their house was a piano. The Germans who occupied the house had taken everything else before they left. Knopfler and mother had to start from scratch all over again.

Then they learned from former camp inmates that her brother had been shot to death the day after they arrived at Auschwitz. As an accomplished pianist, he refused to chop stones because he didn’t want to ruin his hands. They also learned that her father died a week before the liberation. Her mother’s four brothers also perished in Auschwitz. One of them died after all his gold teeth were extracted.

She recalls asking her mother, “Where was God when all these horrible things were happening?” Her mother’s reply was, “The Holocaust was not God’s doing but the work of bad men, terribly misguided, badly informed men.”

Knopfler completed her high school and college in Romania and went to Paris to study French. “Communism was good for one thing. I got all my education tuition free,” she says with a smile. In Paris, she met Paul, her future husband. He was from the same hometown although they hadn’t known each other when they were there. He was studying pharmacology and like her, he’d lost most of his family members in Auschwitz. They quickly fell in love and, married in 1950. They had their son, Gorge, in 1955, and in 1962, they immigrated to the United States with her mother.

After teaching in a private school in Brooklyn for two years, she joined the faculty at Eastchester High School where she remained for the next 26 years. In the meantime, her husband, Paul, worked as a pharmaceutical chemist.

Paul Knopfler was a good man and very kind to his mother-in-law, too. He thought that she would soon need a first-floor bed room and suggested to his wife that they move to a house that could accommodate her eventual needs. In 1973, they bought their current house in Scarsdale. Despite Paul Knopfler’s foresight, though, Pepi Deutsch never used the bedroom in the first floor. Until she died 27 years later, she used the second floor bedroom and climbed 13 steps every night.

In 1991, Paul Knopfler died suddenly. A machine in his company fell on his chest while he was fixing something. When Clara hurried to the emergency room, doctors told her that they couldn’t do anything to save him. Knopfler was devastated. She didn’t understand how anyone who survived the unthinkable terror of the Holocaust could die that way. She was grief-stricken at her loss for a long time. But her mother saved her again. By just being there, she eased her daughter’s pain. With her son living in Los Angeles, she says, “I don’t know how I could have survived this tragedy without my mother.” The two women became even closer.

“After going through such atrocities in Europe, what is your feeling towards the German people now?” I ask.

“My son has a BMW and I won’t ride in it,” she says. “but I’m not a fanatic about German products.” She says she bought a German made pair of boots recently because their company was created after the war. She just doesn’t want to do anything with the Germany that existed from 1939 to 1945. As for Germans born after the war, she feels sorry for them. “They have to carry all the guilt and it wasn’t their fault.”

She won’t accept Daniel Goldhagen’s theory about Germans either. In his Hitler’s Willing Executioners, Goldhagen argues that ordinary Germans were not forced by the Nazis to participate in the Holocaust. Most of them, he says, knew that they were killing Jews and were more than happy to do it “I don’t think you can generalize about a whole people like that,” she says, “I can’t believe the world is so totally bad that everybody hated us, either.”

She says the German government is doing a good job trying to teach the Holocaust to young people. Since she believes education, she commends what they are doing.

On the other hand, she say, she was very disappointed when she visited a high school in Romania in 1994 and learned from a history teacher that they only study about the Holocaust for one hour out of the entire three years. “One hour! What can anybody teach in one hour?” she asks angrily. “Not to teach your country’s mistakes to young people is another tragedy,” she says, “because if you don’t learn from the past, you may repeat the same mistake.” She sighs, saying, “But what can I do about it?”

Knopfler then stands up and takes me to her living room where she has many framed pictures of her mother, her husband and her son, George, and his two children, Rachel and Robert. It’s a nice looking pair of children. “How often do you see them?” I ask。

“Twice a year I go to Los Angeles and once a year they come here,” she says, “I wish I could see them more often.”

“What does your son think of your devoting time to try to reduce hatred through education?” I ask and comment before she answers, “He must be very proud of you.”

“Well,” she says hesitantly, “I have to be very careful about what I say to my grandchildren because he doesn’t want me to tell them what I speak about in schools or colleges.” She says that her son asks her not to make them grow up in the shadow of the Holocaust and he won’t allow her to tell them that he too was called “dirty Jew” even in Scarsdale. Since his wife is not Jewish and his children are not being given any Jewish education, her grandchildren are seemingly growing up without knowing what happened to the Jewish people at all.

How should her grandchildren, or any children for that matter, she wonders, contend with the possibility of anti-Semitism? For Knopfler, the lessons of the Holocaust are straightforward and certainly not a mystery to unravel. She believes that Holocaust deniers must be quashed. The Holocaust must be taught and remembered so that it never recurs. But how can she give this simple message to her own grandchildren?

I think of a friend whose mother was an inmate at Auschwitz. He used to tell me how difficult it was to grow up as the child of a Holocaust survivor. He didn’t want to listen to her suffering. It was enough to be awoken by her screams in the middle of the night. He married a non-Jewish woman-she is my one-time roommate-and raised their children with no Jewish education. When his mother died from cancer, he suddenly realized that he’d missed the opportunity of finding out what really happened to his mother before he was born. He lamented why he didn’t give her time to talk to him about her experiences. Remembering his grief, I don’t know what to tell Knopfler about her son and grandchildren.

“I went back to Auschwitz in 1994, you know.” Knopfler changes the subject by showing me various beautiful plates she bought during her trip to Europe. She says she stood in the ruins of Auschwitz and proudly told herself, “I’m alive!” She felt so good for not being destroyed by evil and instead becoming a mother and grandmother and enjoying her successful teaching career. It was then she made afresh promises to the ones who perished there that as long as she lives, she will keep telling her story.

It was time for me to leave. I thank for her time. “I’m publishing a book now,” she says, “I’ll let you know as soon as it will be available.”

“Please do. I’d like to read it. I’m sure your book will be as uplifting as your story,” I say, and we hug each other.

Letters from Scarsdale