By Lee Chottiner
For there is always light,
If only we’re brave enough to see it.
If only we’re brave enough to be it.
U.S. National Youth Poet Laureate
Ann and Sandor Klein personified the words of Gorman’s poem, living a lifetime of light despite a past pitted with darkness.
They were childhood sweethearts in their Hungarian town of Eger, taking music lessons and performing together in plays, including a Purim shpiel.
But they parted ways in 1938 when Sandor’s father, sensing things were getting worse for Jews in Europe, sent his son to study in America before the start of World War II.
Ann was not as lucky. She remained in Hungary, from where the Nazis deported her to Auschwitz in 1944. She worked in the kitchen there, stealing food to survive. Finally, she endured the infamous death march into Germany before the Red Army liberated her.
Her parents and brothers died in the Holocaust.
“Living through the events I described would make anyone resilient,” said Zach Kleinsmith, Ann and Sandor’s grandson.
Kleinsmith struck the theme of resilience as he told his grandparents’ story at the annual Yom HaShoah commemoration on April 8 – the second in as many years to be pre-recorded due to the COVID pandemic.
“Hopefully, we’ll be able to gather together next year,” said Beth Salamon, chair of the Jewish Community Relations Council (JCRC), who opened the program.
Rabbi Beth Jacowitz Chottiner read from a Mark Twain essay in her opening remarks. Twain lauded the Jews’ contributions to society despite the hardships they endured.
“What is the secret of his (the Jew’s) immortality?” Twain asked.
“I’m not sure we have a secret, so to speak,” Jacowitz Chottiner said. “But I do believe our tradition shapes us to be resilient.”
In his remarks, which he co-wrote with his wife, Sara, Kleinsmith described how Sandor, serving in the Army Air Corps in North Africa, took leave after the war to spend 40 days traveling through Allied military zones in Europe to reunite with his sisters.
When he learned that Ann had survived, he sent her a letter proposing marriage. She accepted and they reunited, eventually moving to Louisville.
They endured more pain when their son, Andrew, was paralyzed following an accident in college, but they lived long enough to dance at grandson Zach’s wedding.
The Kleins became part of a larger story of Holocaust survivors rebuilding their lives as U.S. citizens, Kleinsmith said. “Although their story isn’t unique, it is uniquely American.”
Kleinsmith’s program, which his brother Eli edited, was illustrated by a moving collage of videos and still shots of the Klein family from its earliest days in America to the present.
Especially moving was the video of Ann’s final days in a hospice bed in Louisville, surrounded by family and friends, all singing at Ann’s request while she enjoyed caramel shakes and wonton soup.
“We tried to soak up every last bit of what she had to offer,” Kleinsmith said.
This year’s Yom HaShoah program coincided with the third anniversary of passage of the Fred Gross and Ann Klein Holocaust Education Act, a state law requiring Holocaust instruction in public middle and high schools.
Fred Gross, a survivor who shares the title of the law with Ann, recalled the time he asked her to speak about her experiences to a middle school class in a rural county.
“I believe it was the first time that she had shared her story to a larger group, and like most survivors, she was a bit hesitant to share,” Gross said.
“The students were not only moved by her story, they fell in love with her,” he recalled. “And after she spoke, she was moved to tears as she was presented with a bouquet of flowers.”
JCRC Director Matt Goldberg used the program to pay tribute to the student journalists and faculty advisors of duPont Manual High School, who broke the news about Nazi statements and symbols being used in state police training materials. He said their reporting is leading to reforms in the way the state’s law enforcement officers are trained.
Fred Whittaker, who teaches Holocaust studies at St. Francis of Assisi School, introduced eighth grader Mary Shea Ballantine, who read her essay on the resilience of survivors.
As in past programs, students from St Francis of Assisi and LBSY lit 11 memorial candles, each representing a group that either suffered at the hands of the Nazis or fought to overcome them.
Cantor Sharon Hordes sang Ashre Hagafrur. Cantor David Lipp chanted Al Malai Rachamin, and Rabbi Joe Rooks Rapport recited The Eli Wiesel version of the mourner’s Kaddish, which pairs each line of the prayer with the name of a death camp, a Jewish ghetto or the scene of a modern-day genocide. Matthew and Kathy Karr played the accompanying music as the long memorial list of Shoah victims rolled across the screen, a flickering candle in the background.
The program was presented by the JCRC, the Jewish Community Center and the Jewish Federation of Louisville.
Rabbi Robert Slosberg closed the program by saying the experiences of the Kleins and other survivors should teach Americans concern for all persecuted people.
“Imagine our loss if the gates of freedom had been shut,” he said.