“It was such a winter, with wind and snow. It was Dante’s night.”
It was Jan. 21, 1945, and Motek Kleiman and the prisoners of Blechhammer, a sub-camp of Auschwitz, were being liquidated, dispatched on a two-week forced march to Gross-Rosen, another sub-camp. There, Motek unexpectedly met his father. He sold a gold watch and chain that he had been secretly carrying for almost four years in exchange for a piece of margarine and a hunk of bread. Motek cut the bread with the broken handle of his wooden toothbrush and shared it with his father.
Motek had journeyed far from his close-knit family and plush surroundings in Bedzin, Poland, where his father owned two women’s clothing factories that catered to the wealthy and where the culturally Jewish family had two maids and a telephone. Motek, born on Feb. 16, 1917, had two older sisters and three younger brothers. He spoke Yiddish, Polish, German, Hebrew and some French.
Motek’s plans to attend engineering college to learn to build bridges and then immigrate to Palestine were waylaid, however, when he was conscripted into the Polish army. He fought the Germans who invaded Poland on Sept. 1, 1939, until, only 21 days later, his division was captured. The Germans were marching the column of prisoners of war east when Motek and a friend jumped the line and dove into a Jewish cemetery, hiding behind a tall headstone. Motek returned to Bedzin.
In November 1940, Motek was taken to a labor camp, from which he escaped two months later. But, in February 1941, Motek, his parents and one sister — the other siblings had already been taken to labor camps — were relocated to the Kamionka ghetto, a Bedzin suburb. The ghetto was liquidated two years later.
Short stints at two more labor camps followed, until, in spring 1944, Motek and a group of prisoners were trucked to Blechhammer, where Motek claimed to be an electrician. In addition to a tattooed number, he was given shoes and tools and instructed to climb a wooden pole. “I was scared to touch anything,” he said.
A few days after he was reunited with his father at Gross-Rosen, they were both transferred to Buchenwald, where, because of their language skills, they were housed in an international barracks and received packages from the French Red Cross. “We had no work. We had a paradise,” Motek recalled.
While his father remained at Buchenwald, Motek was moved first to a camp with few buildings and mud floors and then to Mauthausen, in spring 1945.
At Mauthausen, wearing only a shirt that came above his knees, Motek approached an Austrian colonel and, in German, identified himself as Kurt Unger, a captain from the Polish army’s 12th regiment. He then participated in an attack on German soldiers, during which a ricocheted bullet hit close to his navel. Motek then escaped with the colonel to Vienna. There, at a convent, still disguised as Kurt Unger and weighing 85 pounds, he was cared for by nuns.
About six months later, Motek traveled on a Polish Red Cross train to a sanitarium in Schmiedeberg, Poland. During his lengthy stay, a doctor removed shrapnel from his abdomen and drained fluid from his malnourished body. “I started to breathe deep,” he remembers.
There, Motek learned that his mother and sister Esther were living in Sweden, and his brother Fromek and sister Regina were in Germany’s American zone. Later, he discovered that two younger brothers had been killed and that his father had been shot by the Germans outside Buchenwald, just hours before the camp was liberated.
Motek eventually traveled to Sweden, arriving in February 1947. Two years later, on a trip to Germany, he saw a German girl, Inge Holzapfel, in a cafe, and, with her parents’ permission, asked her to dance. “We were a pair. Nobody danced so good,” Motek said. But she was only 18, and he was 32, and they parted ways. Eventually they reconnected and were married on July 25, 1953.
Motek and Inge arrived in the United States on Sept. 21, 1954, with $94. Their son Alan was born on Oct. 9, 1954, and their son Harry on Oct. 28, 1956. The family moved to Miami in December 1956, and then to Los Angeles in June 1968.
Motek and his wife opened a women’s clothing store, Eleganté, in downtown Los Angeles. They expanded to four stores and sold the business in 1983, indulging in their dream of traveling.
Inge died of cancer on April 28, 2010, and, soon after, Motek moved to the Hillcrest Royale Retirement Community in Thousand Oaks. He talks to Inge’s pictures every day, giving her gossip from the day’s activities. “We were not only married, we were in love for 60 years,” he said.
Motek, now 95, spends a lot of time reading in Polish, German and English. He also takes his walker — which he calls his “Cadillac” — on neighborhood outings. Additionally, Motek spends time with his two sons, their wives, his four grandchildren and five great-grandchildren.
“I am blessed,” he said.