The Boy Who Followed His Father into Auschwitz: A True Story of Family and Survival

Image of The Boy Who Followed His Father into Auschwitz: A True Story of Family and Survival
Release Date: 
May 26, 2020
Reviewed by: 

Auschwitz, Buckenwald, Bergen-Belsen: the names are familiar to readers who have taken an interest in the German concentration camps that operated from the mid-1930s until 1945, when Russian soldiers from the East and American soldiers from the West put an end to the manufacture of death and liberated thousands of prisoners.

The author, Jeremy Dronfield—who is an historian as well as a novelist—devotes his book to two men: a father and a son who were born Austrian Jews and who were apparently more Austrian than Jewish.

Dronfield focuses his attention on the entwined lives of Gustav and Fritz Kleinmann, rather than on the nature of genocide and the Holocaust, which is also known as “The Shoah.”

Other Kleinman family members—some of whom managed to escape from fascism and start new lives away from Austria—also figure in this narrative about two generations who healed at least in part after great trauma.

Dronfield insists again and again that his book is true. “This is a true story,” he writes in the first sentence.

In the Afterword at the end of the book, he writes, “What you have read in these pages is a true story.” He seems to protest too much, perhaps because he’s a writer of fiction and the author of five novels, including Hitler’s Last Plot.

Dronfield wants to be trusted and believed. He also wants to use all his skills as a novelist. In the Preface, he writes that the story he tells, “reads like a novel.” Indeed, it does. At times it seems as though Dronfield has invented and embellished, though he insists that he hasn’t done so.

The extensive footnotes and the comprehensive bibliography tend to support his claim. But then one reads a dramatic passage in which the author writes, “The night sky over England was deepest black, speckled with stars and banded by the mist of the Milky Way.” A reader might well feel that she is in a work of the imagination not a work of scholarship. 

It’s a challenge to say what’s new and different about Dronfield’s book, which was originally published by Michael Joseph in England where it sold well.

It’s available as an audio book under the title The Stone Crusher, which more accurately reflects the mood of the book.

The cover of the U.S. edition of the book, which shows two men walking across a bleak landscape, is less grim than the British edition that depicts a solitary railroad car and criss-crossing railroad tracks.

A reviewer in the Guardian noted that “it feels almost indecent to dwell upon the horrors inflicted, day by day, month after month, upon the innocent.”

Thousands of books have already been written and published about concentration camps, the Holocaust, and the mass murder of six million Jews. On the whole, Dronfield’s book doesn't alter the big picture, though it’s valuable in that it illuminates the lives of Gustav and Fritz and other members of the Kleinmann family.

Dronfield seems to be as proud of this book as he is of any other that he has written, and well he might. After all, it belongs in the extensive library of anti-fascist literature. Dronfield is on the side of the Jews and others, who were rounded up and transported to Auschwitz, Buchenwald, and Bergen-Belsen.

Gustav and Fritz were both surprised that Jews were not the only prisoners. There were also Communists and captured soldiers from the Red Army.

Still, he doesn’t demonize Germans, Nazis, and Hitler. That’s already been done ad infinitum. In fact, he shows that some Germans helped some Jews in some camps.

To write his book Dronfield drew on Gustav Kleinmann’s concentration camp diary and on a memoir by his son Fritz. Gustav described one concentration camp as “a bone mill”—as good as any other phrase to capture the manufacture of death that went on for years.

It would have been helpful to have had both documents by Gustav and Fritz, which are apparently brief, in an appendix. They would have lent credence to the text itself.

The old cliché, “a picture is worth a thousand words” is true in The Boy Who Followed His Father into Auschwitz. A section at the back of the book contains five photos. The first depicts the Kleinmann family in Vienna in April 1938, a month after the German invasion of Austria.

The last photo is of Kurt Klienmann, who came to the United States in February 1941 and who writes that the experience of his father and brother “are living testimony to the realities of the Holocaust” and that “needs to be never forgotten.”

Jeremy Dronfield has helped to preserve indelible memories and celebrate human ingenuity and endurance in the darkest of times.