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Aliyah from Birkenau to Baka during a pandemic

Aliyah from Birkenau to Baka during a pandemic: The story of Arnold Clevs

Ahead of Holocaust Remembrance Day, Arnold said he felt immensely privileged to have made it to the Jewish state.

Making Aliyah is always a special and emotional experience, but for Arnold Clevs, a survivor of Auschwitz, his journey to the Jewish state is a momentous story of fortitude and triumph over evil and despair.

Having experienced the nadir of humanity in the torment of 11 Nazi concentration camps, Arnold survived the Holocaust, got married and lived a successful life in the US. Just a few months ago, he finally made Aliyah at age 87.

Arnold is now ensconced in the Mediterranean Towers assisted-living residence in Jerusalem’s leafy Baka neighborhood, close to his son and four grandchildren who live nearby and his daughter in Tel Aviv.

Ahead of Holocaust Remembrance Day, Arnold said he felt immensely privileged to have made it to the Jewish state.

Arnold was born and raised in 1933 in Kovno, Lithuania, an important Jewish center with a community of 40,000 Jews, a quarter of the city’s population.

After the Nazi occupation, Arnold and his family were moved into the Kovno Ghetto. He spent much of his time hiding from Nazi soldiers until 1943, when he, his parents and sister were taken to a labor camp outside the city.

The men and women were divided, and the family was torn apart.

At one point during his time in the camp, SS troops came to seize children to be deported and murdered. But Arnold’s father had hidden him in the attic and he survived.

“They dragged out the children by their arms and legs, threw them onto trucks and took them away to be killed,” Arnold said. “When the parents came back that evening, all their children were gone. It was the most terrible night.”

Arnold was taken by train to a satellite camp of the Dachau concentration camp in Germany, and it was there that he was separated from his father, never to see him again.

“It will always stay in my mind how helpless my father was as they took me away from him,” Arnold said.

He and another 129 young boys were then deported to Auschwitz-Birkenau and were destined for the gas chambers and the crematorium upon arrival.

In a strange moment of indecision and conflict among the SS guards at the camp, the boys were spared the immediate murder that awaited them, possibly due to some of the guards taking a liking to the youngsters due to their ability to march and remove their hats in unison.

So Arnold and his friends were sent to work. He avoided various selections by hiding in the toilet area of his barracks, or on one occasion, hiding beneath one of the wooden bunks on the freezing concrete floor in the sleeping quarters as the SS guards entered to take children to the gas chambers.

Arnold then endured a death march for days through the snow of Eastern Europe without food or water, witnessing the deaths of friends from exposure and the SS guards and even fatalities from allied air raids.

He eventually arrived at the Mauthausen concentration camp in Austria. From there was taken to two other camps, narrowly avoiding death at the hands of SS guards and allied bombing raids.

The final camp he was in, Gunskirchen, was worse than anything else he had seen.

“There was no food, no water, no sanitation, just dead bodies everywhere,” he said. “We were dying by the thousands.”

Arnold was finally liberated from his hellish captivity by the US Army.

From the purgatory of his life in the death and concentration camps, he was taken to Italy by the Jewish Brigade of the British Army, comprised of Jews from Mandate Palestine, with the intention of sailing to the shores of what would become the State of Israel.

On the way to their destination in the southeastern corner of Italy, the group stopped at a British base in the Italian Alps.

“The devil would have been afraid to be in Gunskirchen, but from there we had come to one of most majestic places in the Italian Alps, brought there by Jewish soldiers with Stars of David on their shoulders,” Arnold said. “We danced the hora together. The feeling was indescribable. It was just so emotional. This was my family now.”

Miraculously, Arnold was to discover that beyond the Jewish soldiers he was so proud and excited to be with, his mother and sister were still alive.

At Santa Maria Di Bagno, where he was taken for his onward journey to Mandate Palestine, a reporter with the Hebrew-language Davar newspaper was interviewing Holocaust survivors bound for the Holy Land.

Arnold spoke some Hebrew because he had learned it in his Jewish school in Lithuania, and he described who he was and where he had come from.

Somehow, that article made its way to Budapest, where his mother and sister had ended up. A friend of his mother’s happened to read it and brought it to her, asking if this could be her son.

“One day, someone in the base camp came up to me and said, ‘What would you say if you could meet your mother today?’ He said, ‘Come for a walk with me.’ So we went for a walk, and my mother was coming toward me. I ran down the hill and she came up the hill, and this is how we met,” Arnold said, his voice breaking and with tears in his eyes.

His mother took him to Florence, where they met his sister. They eventually moved to the US, where the family had relatives who moved there before the war.

Arnold became a dentist, got married, had two children and led a happy life in Chicago.

Sadly, his wife passed away early last year, but having considered making Aliyah in the past, Arnold finally made his way to the Jewish state last May – after a 75-year delay.

“Sometimes I sit in the courtyard here and look at the heaven,” he said. “I look at the gorgeous trees of Jerusalem, and I say to myself: ‘Is it really true that I’m in the Land of Israel?’ And I cannot believe I have the merit to be here in Jerusalem.”

Jeremy Sharon, January 26, 2021

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