This book Recommendation and Review is for “The Boy who Followed His Father into Auschwitz” by Jeremy Dronfield.
By the cover design and title, I mistakenly at first thought this book was a work of fiction. So did my wife who first saw it on the shelf in our local bookstore. She read it; she was enthralled by it. Then she insisted that I read it. She is not a big reader of nonfiction history and rarely pushes me to read nonfiction (that’s because my nonfiction reading stack is always piled so high). So, I moved this read to the top of the list. Really glad I did.
This is a true Holocaust story that reads like fiction. In fact, the author started out a fiction writer but switched to narrative nonfiction. If you read a lot of books about World War II, you might know Jeremy Dronfield from his previous nonfiction work, “Beyond the Call.” At the time I’m writing this, “The Boy Who Followed His Father into Auschwitz” has 4.8 stars on 1853 reviews on Amazon. With numbers like that, it is no wonder it is a bestseller and I'm probably wasting your time telling you that the book reads like a novel. A “page-turner” as my dad would say.
The book is about the Kleinmann family of Vienna, Austria. There is the father, Gustav, a combat veteran of the First World War, his wife Tini, and their four children, Edith, Fritz, Herta, and Kurt. They are a Jewish family, but not overly devout, living in a Jewish neighborhood. They are part of the community; they have non-Jewish friends and neighbors. The story begins with the impending vote in Austria on Anschluss, the joining of Germanic peoples together under the Third Reich. The family lives through the arrival of the Nazis, the growing prejudice of their non-Jewish neighbors, and Krystallnacht. All this beginning in March of 1938, a year and a half before the beginning of World War II in Europe and over three and a half years before America entered the conflict.
Soon after, the Nazis begin to arrest Jewish adult males, initially as political prisoners. Gustav and his eldest son, Fritz, are caught up in this and sent to Dachau. Fritz was only sixteen. I had the opportunity to visit Dachau, a concentration camp outside of Munich, when I was stationed in Germany back in the 1980s. This connection allowed me to visualize the Kleinmanns in this evil and depressing place. Gustav and Fritz are transferred to other camps during the course of their years as slave laborers. While they are in captivity, Tini attempts to get her other children sponsored to immigrate to Great Britain and the United States. She is only partially successful. After years of starvation and beatings with no word from the other members of his family, Gustav is informed that he and hundreds of other prisoners will be sent to Auschwitz, the infamous Nazi concentration camp in Poland. Upon hearing this news, Fritz volunteers to go to Auschwitz with his father. Both believe this is a sentence of certain death, but they believe that it is better to be together than to die alone.
The book is based on a diary Gustav kept during his six years in concentration camps. Not only will you learn of the horrors of the concentration camp system, but also how difficult it was to flee Germany or an occupied country. Hint: countries like the United States and Great Britain limited the intake of refugees, and once the war was declared on and by these countries, even this avenue was cut off to the victims of the Nazi regime. This is an amazing story and through the experiences of this one family the reader gains a visceral understanding of the different ways that people suffered during the Holocaust.
I wish that every American would read this book. I spent three years in Germany, forty years after the war. I found the German people to be warm and friendly. I enjoyed my time there. Though I could never reconcile how the people I met there who were alive during that time could possibly allow the rise of fascism and the Holocaust to take place, much less enter a pathway to war that would eventually destroy their country. I worry that we have demonized the Nazis to such a level that we can’t learn anything from this period of history. I hope that is not the case. This is different than reading about fighting the war. This is about learning about the cause and effect of it. Please read two books. First, “The Nazi Seizure of Power” by William Sheridan Allen. In this book, you’ll learn how the Nazis took over Germany, not by Hitler from the top down, but on a grassroots level through local action by Nazi party members. The other is this book, “The Boy Who Followed His Father into Auschwitz” by Jeremy Dronfield. If you’ll make that investment of time, and it won’t be boring, then you’ll understand the what and the how. I doubt we’ll ever understand the why.