Holocaust survivor's trip to link Jewish past, present

Gregg Krupa
The Detroit News
Holocaust survivor Sophie Tajch Klisman, 89, of Commerce Township, becomes emotional as she talks about life in Nazi concentration camps during World War II. In May, she will visit a concentration camp and Israel as part of a program to promote support of the armed forces of Israel.

Commerce Township — Sophie Tajch Klisman sits in her sunny living room, amid an array of photographs of her late husband and her children and grandchildren.

She says "one miracle after another" made it possible.

Klisman, 89, who survived the Nazis' Auschwitz concentration camp, is preparing to embark next month on a nine-day journey through about 80 years of Jewish history. “From Holocaust to Independence” will take her and members of the Friends of the Israeli Defense Forces to eastern Europe and Israel.

Klisman lived to bear witness to one of the darkest times in Jewish history. 


After she watched her parents and brother die slow deaths from starvation and disease in the Lodz ghetto at the start of World War II, the Nazis evacuated her, her sister and her brother to Auschwitz. The Germans took her brother away.

She never saw him again.

Some weeks later, on a clear morning, she stood naked in an open field with other prisoners, face-to-face with Josef Mengele. The German SS officer and doctor performed deadly human experiments on prisoners and selected those to die in the gas chambers.

Those who could work were admitted into the camps. Those judged unsuitable for labor were gassed.

“My recollection was, I was too frightened to look up and know what was going on,” said Klisman, who was 15.

“They called him The Angel of Death. He was only pointing. Not a word,” she said. “People lined up. The women were sobbing and scared; didn’t know what was going to happen.

“My sister was in front of me. He pointed for her to go to the right. When he came to me, he asked me how old I was. I mean, just his voice, I was petrified,” Klisman said.

“I thought I did something wrong. He had his rifle, the full uniform. I thought he was going to shoot me, right there and then.

“But, by miracle, I don’t know what it was, I told him I was 18. And I think, looking back, it could have saved my life,” she said.

“He pointed for me to go where my sister was.

“OK,” Klisman said, exhaling with relief 75 years later. “We didn’t know — we just hugged and cried — whether we were going to live or die. But at least we were together.”

During the war, amid increasing suffering and deprivation, the Germans transferred her and her sister, Felicia, from Auschwitz to the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp and then to the Salzwedel camp, where she performed slave labor in a munitions plant.

After approaching Allied bombing provoked hope, on April 14, 1945, they heard the roar of tank engines and the clanking of tread. 

U.S. troops arrived.

“These beautiful American GI soldiers were jumping off the tanks and coming to our gate, opening the gate and telling us the war is over!” she said. “You are free!

“They looked at us and they cried, because we looked like skeletons.”

Entry to the concentration camp Auschwitz-Birkenau, Poland, with snow covered railtracks leading to the camp in February/March 1945. The Auschwitz-Birkenau camp was the largest camp where people were terminated during the fascist regime rule of dictator Adolf Hitler over Germany during WWII. (AP Photo/Stanislaw Mucha)

More than seven decades after her liberation, Klisman will travel to Poland and Israel from May 2-10 on a mission led by Robert Cohen, the national director of Friends of the Israeli Defense Forces and Maj. Gen. Meir Klifi-Amir, the national director of the FIDF.

They will be joined by 40 members of all branches of the armed forces of Israel.

“Going to Poland will be very difficult, emotional,” Klisman said. “But I’ll try my best.

“Excited about going to Israel and meeting all the wonderful young people, the soldiers. They’re really my heroes. And, it’s a very emotional thing for me to see.”

The link from past to present is immutable, Klisman said.

“All of the suffering and loss of life, and losing my family, my immediate family, my extended family, so many aunts and uncles and cousins. Nobody survived. I call my survival just a miracle,” she said. “One miracle after another.

“So to see Israel, to see how the country is so beautiful and striving, and what happened from the Holocaust to independence, like they say, is a very exciting thing for me.

“So, I have to balance Poland. Emotion. Hard to describe the emotions, to live through again," Klisman said. "I was the youngest in the family, and I never imagined I would be the one to survive. But I was the lucky one, by miracles. I’m nervous and excited also.”

Klifi-Amir called the mission an event the participants will never forget.

“We have three or four generations, from the Holocaust survivors, the youngest of them are in their 80s, with our supporters who are coming from all over the United States, some of whom are in their 40s and 60s,” the major general said. “It’s a very nice group. Last year, we had 150 people who came on this mission.

“This combination between Israeli soldiers, defending today the state of Israel and Jews around the world, with Holocaust survivors who always say that if in 1939 we had the Jewish state, we had our protectors, what happened then would not have happened.”

The intent of the trip is to underline the importance of “the state of Israel and the importance of our protectors,” Klifi-Amir said.

“To walk together, Holocaust survivors, all of the people that are coming from the United States, with 45 Israeli officers in uniform, from the gates of Auschwitz, every time I do it, it makes me feel so strong and so proud. Because nothing more than that can be done to announce that we are here.”

With the rise in intolerance, in anti-Semitism and the shooting of 18 people — 11 fatally — in a synagogue in Pittsburgh in October, the annual mission is increasingly important for Jews and non-Jews alike, Klifi-Amir said.

And those on the mission will likely hear about the Palestinians, he said.

The plight of the Palestinians remains unresolved. The United States and some other countries have recognized Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu promised in his recent campaign for re-election that Israel will annex West Bank settlements, which are considered illegal by much of the world.

“It’s not so much a part of what we are addressing in those missions,” Klifi-Amir said.

“But the people who are coming sometimes hear high-ranking Israeli officers, or politicians from the left side or the right side. They will hear different kinds of opinions when they are meeting people in Israel who are coming to brief them about the situation and about the strategic situation.”

Klisman said she is anticipating the journey with a sense of both excitement and anxiety.

The youngest of the four children, she recalls her nearly impossible survival.

“If I look at the rest of the family, they were already adults and grown-ups and here was this child,” she said. “That was just a miracle that I survived. It was meant for me to survive.

"I just hope in conclusion, that nobody, nobody should have to live through such terrors, such horrible conditions at such a young age, or at any age," Klisman said. "It was a horrible experience, but I’m glad that I finally was able to tell it.”