Noah Klieger was active in the French resistance, survived Auschwitz, sailed on the Exodus and fought for Israel’s independence. Ahead of Holocaust Memorial Day, he tells Caron Kemp his remarkable story.[divider]
At 87, Noah Klieger looks back on his own remarkable life story and knows in his heart that it is by sheer virtue of miracles that he still lives today.
He was born in 1926 in Strasbourg, France. But with the Second World War sweeping through his country, aged just 15, the blonde- haired green-eyed child joined the Jewish underground movement, cooperating with the French Resistance.
“I didn’t look Jewish and could speak French and Flemish so thought I could use that to my advantage,” he explains. “I wanted to do something practical to help, so I worked to smuggle Jewish children and teenagers into neutral Switzerland.”
Having successfully facilitated the transportation of some 300 people to relative safety and realising that even tougher times lay ahead, the group – of which Noah was the youngest – decided to head to Switzerland.
In a bid to avoid capture, they split into seven smaller groups to make the journey. Noah was due to leave first but agreed to swap with two Austrian female refugees.
They made it. Noah did not.
“I was 16-and-a-half when I was captured by the Gestapo and sent to Auschwitz,” he recalls. “At that point, I had no idea that 1.5 million Jews had already been murdered by the Germans.”
But a matter of days after his arrival, Noah made an impulsive but fortuitous claim. “The officer in charge was a boxing fanatic and asked who among us was a boxer because he would put on staged fights for his own pleasure,” he remembers. “I don’t know why but something told me that pretending I was, in fact, a skilled boxer would be a good decision.”
And despite having to continually prove himself in the ring alongside professionals, he became entitled to a daily bowl of soup; basic nourishment that would ultimately sustain him throughout his time there.
“One survived Auschwitz not because he was stronger or more dedicated or cleverer, but because he was lucky,” Noah said. “Some 1.5 million people perished there. Only about 45,000 were able to live to tell their story. The fact is that no Jew was meant to survive.”
“So my own survival is nothing short of a miracle. Each day you needed miracles just to see the next. That is all that separated the survivors from the condemned. Just how many miracles happened to keep them alive.”
But while his understanding of his own survival rests in his faith of something greater, his attitude to the perpetrators is much starker. “I try not to explain Auschwitz,” he admits. “You simply can’t explain it or the behaviour of the Germans at the time. Why does one group decide to exterminate another group?”
And in an equally frank manner, Noah recalls how his time in Auschwitz ended. “To say we were liberated by the Soviet Army from the death camp is wrong,” he states. “We were evacuated from Auschwitz, marched out on a death march.”
Miraculously, on his way back to Belgium, Noah was reunited with his parents on a Brussels tram following their own ordeal at Auschwitz. They are the only known family where three went in to the concentration camp and three emerged alive.
But Noah’s journey was, in many ways, only just beginning. In 1947, having survived starvation, disease, brutal forced labour and torture, he served as first mate aboard the doomed ship, Exodus, which attempted to carry more than 4,500 immigrants from France to British Mandate Palestine.
Unfortunately the passengers never made it to their destination. The British refused their entry and transferred the passengers onto three ships, which sailed back to France. Eventually, they were transferred to displaced persons camp and it would be many more months before they could return to Palestine.
Noah recalls: “When the Exodus boat was sent back to Marseille, we spent more than a month in dreadful conditions, but almost everyone refused to disembark. Despite having just come from such an atrocity to be subjected to this, I am very proud to have been a part of this journey.”
Noah did finally reach Israel and joined the Israeli Army in the fight for the country’s independence. “When I was in Auschwitz, I decided that if I survived, I would become a Zionist,” he recalls. “I realised the future of the Jewish people lies in an independent, sovereign Jewish state.”
“So after I came out, I wanted to do all I could to help a Jewish country come into existence.”
Now living in Tel Aviv with his wife, Noah has long-established himself as a prominent journalist of both the political and sporting worlds. In 2011, he was given the B’nai B’rith World Centre Award for Journalism in the category of Lifetime Achievement.
Noah was in London recently to tell his story again – this time in aid of March of the Living, which leads participants on the life-changing trip marching from Auschwitz to Birkenau on Yom Hashoah – and his conviction and determination appeared as strong as ever.
“I enjoy my life. I go out a lot and have many friends, a lovely wife and three gorgeous grandchildren, but I don’t forget it, not for a second. I think about it every day,” he admits. “I feel it is my mission to ensure our stories are never forgotten and so, for as long as I can continue sharing what happened so that lessons can be learnt, I will.”
It is only when asked what motivated him to keep on holding out for the next miracle that his voice breaks. “I wanted to outlive Hitler,” he says. “I wanted to see the day that Hitler lost, and I wanted to live at least one day longer than him.”
• For more information on March of the Living visit http://www.marchoftheliving.org.uk/