Army veteran and Holocaust survivor reunited for the first time since the liberation of Salzwedel concentration camp in 1945.
By Barbara Lewis, Contributing Writer
Photography by Barbara Lewis
She was a survivor and he was a liberator. Their May 13 hug embraced the 74 years since his U.S. Army infantry division showed up at the gates of the Salzwedel concentration camp, where she was a prisoner, on April 14, 1945.
Sophie Tajch Klisman, 89, of Walled Lake, had just returned from a nine-day trip to Poland and Israel sponsored by the Friends of the Israel Defense Forces (FIDF). The group, which included survivors and 40 members of the IDF, observed Holocaust Memorial Day at Auschwitz, the most infamous of the Nazi concentration camps, and then celebrated Independence Day in Israel.
Klisman was 10 when the Nazis forced her family into the Lodz ghetto in Poland, where her parents and one of her two brothers starved to death. When the ghetto was liquidated four years later, she, her sister and her other brother were taken to Auschwitz.
Klisman remembers the selection process where Dr. Joseph Mengele indicated with a flick of his thumb who could work and who would go to the gas chambers. Mengele pointed to the right for Felicia, 23, then asked Sophie how old she was. “I don’t know why, but I lied and said I was 18, and he pointed to the right,” she said. She’s convinced the lie saved her life. Her brother went to a separate line for men, and the sisters never saw him again.
After only a few days in Auschwitz, the sisters were sent to Bergen-Belsen and then to Salzwedel, a work camp in Germany. They worked at a munitions factory 12 hours every day.
In April, Doug Harvey, 95, of Sterling Heights, read a Detroit News article about Klisman’s trip, “From Holocaust to Independence.” During World War II, he was a soldier in the 84th Infantry Division, which liberated Salzwedel. He contacted the local FIDF group to see if they could help him meet her.
Harvey, a mechanical engineer and metallurgist who retired from General Motors, said he and his comrades-in-arms knew about the Nazi persecution of the Jews, but before liberation, had never imagined what went on at the concentration camps.
David Spohn, whose late father, James Francis Spohn, was also in the 84th Infantry, learned about Klisman after Harvey posted about her on a Facebook page for division veterans and their families. Spohn traveled from his home in Longmont, Colo., to join the reunion.
Spohn read from a letter his father, then 21, wrote to his family three days after Salzwedel was liberated, choking back tears at his father’s description of the emaciated women the soldiers encountered.
He said Klisman was the first survivor he’d met, and he considered it an honor.
The day of liberation was “overwhelming,” Klisman said. “I can’t describe easily the feeling that we survived, we’re free, and nobody is going to kill us or hurt us.”
But soon afterwards, she and her sister started wondering what would become of them.
She knew her parents and one brother were dead. They couldn’t find their other brother — or any other family. “My father had seven sisters, and all were married with children,” she said. “None of them survived.”
From a displaced persons camp, Klisman and her sister were sent to Detroit as refugees. The Jewish community found them an apartment and jobs; Klisman did laundry in a dry cleaning shop. “I didn’t know anyone there, and I didn’t know the language, but I knew if I worked hard, I could have a decent life,” she said.
Klisman enrolled in night school, where she met her husband, Bernard, also a survivor. She later worked as a fashion consultant for Casual Corner, a women’s wear chain. Bernard died at 88 in 2013. Klisman has two children, Mark, of Farmington Hills, and Lori Ellis, of West Bloomfield, and four grandchildren.
Klisman felt the FIDF mission was even more important for the Israeli soldiers who participated than for the survivors. “It’s important for them to see why they need to fight for their country, to see what can happen when Jews don’t have a state of their own,” she said.
And, she added, it’s a good way to remind the world that the Jews are still here, and Hitler did not succeed.