Holocaust hero: Noah Klieger, as I remember him

Remembering the boxer who survived the Holocaust.

Noah Klieger with his two grandchildren serving in the IDF (photo credit: Courtesy)
Noah Klieger with his two grandchildren serving in the IDF
(photo credit: Courtesy)
It was at the Yedioth Ahronoth news in Tel Aviv – his second home – that I first met him, in July 2011. Climbing the stairs three by three, he preceded me, showing me the way to his desk. Little did I know then what a challenge it was for his legs.
Born in Strasbourg, France, in 1926, Norbert Klieger joined a resistance group against the Nazis when he was 15 years old.
Captured, he was sent to Auschwitz. His initiative in raising his hand when a commander of the death camp, who was a boxing fanatic, put together a boxing club with the inmates as players saved his life. “When I joined the boxing club, I got an extra liter of soup that kept me going for a few months.” The boxing club was formed to entertain the Nazis. Imprisoned in Auschwitz-Monovitz, Dora-Mittelbau, and Ravensbruck, he was liberated on April 29, 1945 by the Soviet Army.
In his autobiography, written in Hebrew and entitled, in its French translation, “La boxe ou la vie: Récits d’un rescapé d’Auschwitz” (Boxing or Dying: Narrations of a Survivor of Auschwitz), there is a dedication to his parents who survived the death camps and died in Israel at an old age, and to his brother Jonathan Klieger, who became a rabbi. In the course of the interview, Klieger emphasized that his was probably the only family that came back alive from Auschwitz: his father, Bernard Klieger, a writer and journalist, and his mother, Thecla-Esther, born Eibeschutz.
Klieger’s memoir is also dedicated to the memory of Victor “Young” Perez, a world boxing champion assassinated by the SS on January 22, 1945 near Gleiwitz. Elie Wiesel wrote the opening words to Klieger’s autobiography in French.
NOAH KLIEGER arrived in 1943 from Belgium, and I, in 1944, from Hungary. We have gone through the same trials and witnessed the same ordeals. But, almost two years older than me, his memories are more precise. He remembers names, dates, daily episodes, whereas I mainly evoke their mental and religious impact on my emotions, on my faith, and on my memory. It seems that we worked in the same commando [unit] for a few weeks. Like him, I have hauled bags of cement on my back. Like me, he has been through the “Revier,” the block (where the sick were put). Together, we went through the Death March in the snow, from Buna to Gleiwitz. Noah evolved with boxers. Yes, there were some in Buna. I stayed with the rabbis. He had the guts to address Mengele so that he would let him live, while I feared to exchange even the least word with a kapo. Noah’s father also went through Auschwitz but not with his son. Although he was a writer, he has not managed or wanted to evoke that past.
From very early on, Klieger’s father taught his son to read and write, so that he skipped classes and found himself with older boys. As they would try to bully the younger ones, Klieger would learn to defend himself. It was precisely the message his father wanted to pass along: the necessity to defend oneself in all situations, whatever the age. Klieger mentioned in his interview: “It sounded as if he had an idea of what was going to happen before any of us.”
In 1938, the family left for Belgium, except for Klieger’s older brother who settled in England in order to continue studying. When the war started, Klieger (who was only thirteen years old) had become the cofounder of a Zionist youth movement, which was very active in forwarding secret messages and ration cards and helped more than 200 young Jews to cross the frontier with Switzerland to find refuge. In 1942, as his turn came to try to cross the frontier, Klieger and six of his comrades were caught by the Germans and sent to an internment camp between Anvers and Brussels, and in January 1943, they were sent to Auschwitz.
The Death March was another trial for Klieger: three days with hardly a break, while many exhausted prisoners like him were shot dead in front of his eyes as the Nazis forced them to walk from Poland to Germany. Other hardships were to follow. On a crowded cattle train to Dora, the prisoners could hardly breathe or stand up and the weakest were trampled on and eventually died. In Dora, an SS officer asked who was an expert in mechanics. Once again, Klieger raised his hand and a French prisoner provided him with the right answers, which contributed to saving his life. On April 4, 1945, there was another exhausting ten-day march to the camp of Ravensbruck before achieving freedom. On April 29, Klieger was liberated by allied troops.
While in Auschwitz, Klieger reflected, “If I am lucky enough to survive I will live in Eretz Yisrael.” After being liberated by Soviet troops, Klieger was made to work for them to repair a road. He then went to France, and from there rejoined his parents in Belgium before emigrating to Eretz Yisrael. They both had survived Auschwitz, which was “a miracle,” a word that recurred during our interview.
His dream of Palestine gave him the strength to join the underground network Brichah (Flight) composed of survivors, whose task was to reach the Promised Land without any available passports. He helped many Jewish Displaced Persons (DPs) immigrate illegally from various refugee camps and was the leader of a Zionist group called in Hebrew Hanoar Hatzioni (the Zionist Youth) in Brussels.
In July 1947, Klieger served as first mate aboard the SS President Warfield, which was symbolically renamed on board the Exodus 1947. The Exodus 1947 – whose story is known worldwide through the famous novel “Exodus” by Leon Uris or its cinematographic adaptation – had 4,600 people on board, most of whom had survived the Nazi genocide and were headed for the Jewish national home in Palestine. The ship carried immigrants with no certificates of immigration; British warships attacked its passengers, killing four, wounding dozens, and forced the remaining refugees to return to three DP camps behind barbed wire in Germany. After a long delay and international support for survivors, many of whom were still imprisoned two years after the end of the war, most of the ship’s passengers eventually made their way to the Jewish homeland while the damaged ship was moored in Haifa port, derelict and forgotten. When asked why he decided to immigrate to Palestine, Klieger said, “Being unwanted in most countries, Jews must rely on themselves; the Jewish people must rely on itself ....The Evian Conference had shown clearly that no one accepted Jews in their midst.”
KLIEGER WAS determined “to fight to rebuild a country that had existed 2,000 years ago,” as he put it. Once in the land of Israel, he promptly replaced his French-sounding name, Norbert, with the biblical Noah. He joined a volunteer Mahal unit, which was comprised of French-speaking soldiers and was sent to the south of the Negev in a special division of the Palmach. It was then that he sustained a serious leg injury in the War of Independence.
Unable to find a job after leaving the army, Klieger slept on benches by the Tel Aviv seaside, living on food rations. His lucky break came when the newspaper Israel Sport gave him the opportunity to create the first international sports column. In 1957, he was offered a position at the first daily newspaper of the country, Yedioth Ahronoth, because of his knowledge of sports and many languages. However, it had taken him five years to master the Hebrew language and to learn how to write it. His experience on the Exodus had required the use of English in which he had become proficient over the years.
As a journalist, he covered all the Nazi war criminal trials, such as the Eichmann trial in 1962 and the long trial of John Demjanjuk, who was deported to Israel in February 1986.
In 1953, the French sports daily newspaper L’Equipe appointed Klieger as its Israeli correspondent, making him a “transnational.” Being totally bilingual (in French and Hebrew) enabled him to pursue his work in both countries.
In the course of his career as an international sports columnist, Klieger met celebrities such as the world swimming champion Mark Spitz, whose performance he had closely followed when he came to Munich to attend the 1972 Olympic Games, during which eleven Israeli athletes were coldly executed by terrorists. While there, he had sent reports to Israel at every stage of the unfolding saga of the kidnapping and murder of the hostages.
Being “hyperactive” has always been a necessity for him. Even in his mid-80s, he did not plan on retiring. “People die from not having a purpose in life,” he exclaimed.
To Klieger, the rebirth of Israel as a state was inseparable from the battle of survivors to claim an identity for themselves and to regain the humanity and dignity that Nazi Germany and its collaborators had stripped from them. By fighting in the War of Independence in 1948, he and his fellow soldiers reclaimed their Jewish identity.
Klieger firmly believed each individual has one or more missions in this world. He has donated to the numerous landsmanshaften in Israel, the self-help organizations that gather together former nationals of the same European town. Vocal in many countries around the world, even in his late 80s he was convinced he had survived Auschwitz to tell his story. He told me how much he rebelled against the use of the concept of Holocaust for events other than the systematic extermination of the Jews and how often he voiced it. This is how he has often expressed himself about his purpose in life.
“Why me and not 1,400,000 others? Only 50,000 of us survived. God gave me the talent to speak and write. So I give lectures whenever and wherever I can. My mission is to teach people what happened in the Shoah and I never take any money for my lectures. I speak at least twice a week all over the world, even in Australia, because no language in the world has adequate words to describe what the Nazis did to the Jewish people under Hitler’s yoke.”
Like a number of vocal survivors in France, Klieger has been made a knight in the Legion of Honor, the highest distinction awarded by the French Republic, an honor instituted by Napoleon Bonaparte, the emperor of the French in 1802. It was announced by French president Nicholas Sarkozy in January 2012. The decoration is awarded not only to French nationals but also to foreigners, who have made a unique contribution to France. Klieger’s important connection to France and work for the French newspaper L’Equipe had been valued as an unusual social contribution. In March of the same year, Klieger received the distinction from the French ambassador to Israel, Christophe Bigot.
It was not his first decoration. In 1990, he was inducted into the Jewish Sports Hall of Fame in Los Angeles. Klieger received two important lifetime achievement awards, including an honorary PhD from the University of Haifa. The qualities that helped Klieger to survive, namely boldness and the ability to swiftly analyze a situation and to turn it to his advantage, served him well in his adjustment in Israel. Many identities coexisted in him: a sportsman, who shared a sense of belonging with others of his kind; a journalist, who felt a kind of proximity with other journalists; and a Jew, who pursued the Jewish traditions with his third Israeli wife, his daughters, and his grandchildren. “If the Jewish people abandons its ancestral traditions, it will lead to its slow disappearance.” It was no coincidence that the title of his autobiography in Hebrew read, “Here Are the Generations of Noah,” a phrase that stresses the necessity of transmission, synonymous with Judaism.
Klieger died in Tel Aviv on December 13, 2018, at the age of 92. He is survived by his daughter and three grandchildren.
Dr. Françoise S. Ouzan is Senior Research Associate at the Goldstein-Goren Diaspora Research Center at Tel Aviv University. Her latest book is entitled: ‘How Young Holocaust Survivors Rebuilt Their Lives: France, The United States, and Israel’ (Bloomington, Indiana University Press, 2018), Studies in Antisemitism