Humming in my UNIVERSE By Jim Paredes (The Philippine Star) | Updated July 21, 2013 – 12:00am
Inez and Robert Knapp with author Jim Paredes
I have always wanted to sit with someone who had survived the horrors of the Holocaust, and here was Robert Knapp seated right before us at our dining table, giving us a firsthand account of what it was like to be an eight-year-old boy in 1944 in Auschwitz.
I had a very memorable dinner a few nights ago. Lydia and I invited Inez Morato, Lydia’s classmate and long-time friend, her Aussie husband Robert Knapp, Inez’s brother Martin and his wife Sheila last Sunday for merienda and dinner at our house here in Glenwood, NSW, Australia.
Inez and Robert had just gotten married and we thought it would be wonderful to meet her new husband, Robert, and the rest of Inez’s family who are in Sydney. It turned out to be a night to remember for all of us. It was an evening of meeting great new friends. But mainly, the night would be unforgettable because of Robert.
Except for Inez, our three other guests, Robert, Martin and Sheila were strangers to Lydia and I. In between cheese, figs, sausages and wine, we all casually introduced ourselves to each other. After we talked about what we did for a living, and bits about our backgrounds and a few other personal trivia, Robert casually and voluntarily dropped a bombshell and said, “I have something interesting to share. I’m an Auschwitz survivor.” Before we could react, he continued that he and his family were survivors of the infamous Auschwitz concentration camps during World War II.
Except for Inez who already knew about it, we were all stunned. I was speechless for a few seconds. I had read so many accounts about the lives of Jews during the war and the Holocaust. I had seen so many movies about it, too. I have often wondered how something as horrible, inhuman and monstrous such as the Holocaust could be perpetrated by a civilization like Germany that was also capable of producing great humanist philosophers and thinkers. Didn’t Germany also gift the world with great art through the centuries?
I have always wanted to sit with someone who had survived the horrors of the Holocaust, and here was Robert seated right before us at our dining table, giving us a firsthand account of what it was like to be an eight-year-old boy in 1944 in Auschwitz.
He remembered how his family, together with so many other Jews in Hungary, were picked out of their community and packed like cattle in trains and sent to concentration camps. He recalled that after getting off the train from a long ride, hundreds of them lined up and walked towards a Nazi officer seated on a velvet chair who directed some of them to go to the right and the others to go to the left. As it turned out, it was his way of segregating who would live as slaves in the camp and who were to die immediately in the gas chambers. That was the last time they saw the old, the weak, and the sick.
He was sent to barracks that had about 500 people. Kids and adults were mixed together. He shared a double-deck bed with nine people. His parents and family were housed in another area at the camp. During their stay there, they experienced a biting winter. They were without blankets, beddings, towels. It was unimaginable how they were able to withstand the cold. Perhaps sleeping in crowded quarters helped them. There was hardly any food and whatever was given to them had to be shared. The prisoners also had only one pair of clothes and it was all they wore throughout their incarceration. Since it was winter, he said that they did not wash their clothes because they would have nothing to wear if they did.
Amidst all the hardship, he recalled one prisoner who made life bearable for all of them: Victor Frankl, the author of the monumental bestseller, Man’s Search For Meaning, was a man the eight-year-old Robert would not forget. I read Frankl’s book many years ago and it is one book I will remember for life. Robert recalled that Victor would throw “dinner banquets” in the barracks by enticing everyone to use their imagination and pretend that they were having a feast while eating their very meager food. He was a very likeable man, to say the least, and a beacon of hope because he lifted everyone’s spirits.
It wasn’t unusual that people died in their beds during the cold winter nights. Nobody got adequate nutrition or medical care. Everyone was malnourished, thin, most sickly after a few months of inadequate diet and medicines while being worked to the bone.
While his parents and brother were in the camp, he was separated from them. None of them saw one another there.
As he told his story, I noticed how he could describe everything quite dispassionately. Perhaps it is because many years had passed. I tried to imagine how an eight-year-old boy could have coped with the horrors of it all. What it must have taken for anyone to recover from the hell that was Auschwitz — if they could even fully recover — is a testament to the strength of human will and man’s indomitable spirit.
Frankl, in his book, mentioned that while he was inside the camp, he could predict who among the prisoners would survive and who would die. He concluded that all those who had something to look forward to would possibly survive and all those who had lost hope would give up and die. He was mainly right.
A particularly poignant example of this, Robert recalls, was when the whole camp came alive with rumors that the Americans would liberate them by Feb. 6, 1945. It raised everyone’s hopes. When the date came and went without the Americans coming and liberating them, many of the prisoners died overnight because they were brokenhearted and had lost all hope of being saved.
It took another two weeks before they were finally liberated. It was the Russians who rescued them. When they were at last freed from the camps, Robert and his brother somehow found each other. They then went to Vienna via a farm truck that carried cattle. In front of the truck was a horse carriage that traveled ahead to make sure the truck would be safe from land mines. They paid their way with jewelry that their mother had given them before they boarded the train to the camps.
From Vienna, they took a train back to their village in Hungary. When they reached home, they were filled with joy upon seeing the rest of the family complete and present. It was an ecstatic moment that Robert would never forget. He wore a big smile as he told that portion of the story. They were all alive, thank God, even if his father was now wearing a glass eye. He had been shot in the left eye while in the camp. But, at least they were all together.
A few years later, his brother escaped from Hungary when the Communists took over. He migrated to Australia. Robert and the rest of the family followed soon after.
When I asked Robert how he felt about the German people, he said, “Nothing. I have no ill feelings. I can’t blame them as a people. They had a stupid leader.” I was quite impressed by how he did not seem to carry any hatred for what had transpired. Instead, he seems to take pride at how amazing his life has been.
He did not reconnect with the Hungarian community here, not even with his Jewish roots or heritage. He simply moved on from most of the things that were part of his horrible past.
Curiously, Robert has a great sense of humor. He eyes twinkle when he delivers a punch line. I found it quite beautiful how his spirit has not been diminished or snuffed out by the hatred and cynicism that he has experienced. In place of that, I saw a gentleness, an inner peace, a healing radiance as he gazed lovingly at his wife Inez.