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updated: 7/4/2011 6:11 PM

Buffalo Grove teen represents family in Germany

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  • Max Klaber, his great-grandfather's namesake

      Max Klaber, his great-grandfather's namesake

  • Herbert Klaber, 91, lives in Morton Grove.

      Herbert Klaber, 91, lives in Morton Grove.
    JOE LEWNARD | Staff Photographer

  • Max and Regina Klaber both died in 1942 in separate concentration camps.

      Max and Regina Klaber both died in 1942 in separate concentration camps.
    Courtesy of Larry Klaber

  • The six Klaber children around 1928-1930: Herbert, front left, and Erich; in back, Willi, left, Erna, Albert and Betti.

      The six Klaber children around 1928-1930: Herbert, front left, and Erich; in back, Willi, left, Erna, Albert and Betti.
    Courtesy of Larry Klaber

  • The Klaber family on Gemener Strasse in front of their house and their oil business. The street is now called Ahauser Strasse.

      The Klaber family on Gemener Strasse in front of their house and their oil business. The street is now called Ahauser Strasse.
    Courtesy of Larry Klaber

  • Artist Gunther Demnig installs the "stumbling stones" on the Borken sidewalk where the Klaber home stood.

      Artist Gunther Demnig installs the "stumbling stones" on the Borken sidewalk where the Klaber home stood.
    photo by OLIVER STEINEBACH/Courtesy Larry Klaber

  • A crowd came to watch the installation and to meet Max Klaber.

      A crowd came to watch the installation and to meet Max Klaber.
    PHOTO by OLIVER STEINEBACH/Courtesy of Larry Klabe

  • From left, Borken Mayor Rolf Luhrmann, Max Klaber and artist Gunther Demnig.

      From left, Borken Mayor Rolf Luhrmann, Max Klaber and artist Gunther Demnig.
    PHOTO by OLIVER STEINEBACH/Courtesy of Larry Klabe

  • These plaques top the stumbling stones for Max and Regina Klaber.

      These plaques top the stumbling stones for Max and Regina Klaber.
    PHOTO by OLIVER STEINEBACH/Courtesy of Larry Klabe

  • Drickes and Dina Lievestro, who risked their lives to save a dozen Jews. Drickes and his son were shot to death shortly after the war in a hunting "accident" that locals believe was really retribution by a Nazi sympathizer. Their granddaughter, Tamara Tigchelaar, came to the installation.

      Drickes and Dina Lievestro, who risked their lives to save a dozen Jews. Drickes and his son were shot to death shortly after the war in a hunting "accident" that locals believe was really retribution by a Nazi sympathizer. Their granddaughter, Tamara Tigchelaar, came to the installation.
    COURTESY OF LARRY KLABER

  • Oliver Steinebach of Cologne who initiated and organized the stumbling stone event.

      Oliver Steinebach of Cologne who initiated and organized the stumbling stone event.
    PHOTO by TAMARA TIGCHELAAR/Courtesy of Larry Klabe

  • Herbert Klaber, 91, with his wife, Marcia, at their Morton Grove home.

      Herbert Klaber, 91, with his wife, Marcia, at their Morton Grove home.
    JOE LEWNARD | Staff Photographer

  • Video: Klaber family honored

 
 

At the appropriate moment, Max Klaber crouches on the sidewalk and places two red roses on the pavement. Mindful of the video camera, he turns his head and pauses, as the videographer and a half-dozen cameras record the moment.

Klaber, 15, has come alone from Buffalo Grove to the small German town of Borken, so that today, Feb. 26, he can be the guest of honor at this ceremony on Ahauser Strasse.

The object of his gift of roses are two bronze plaques, each 4 inches square, affixed to small concrete blocks and cemented side-by-side into the brick sidewalk.

The left one is engraved, "Hier wohnte Max Klaber, Deportiert 1942, Tot 1942 in Theresienstadt." ("Here lived Max Klaber ... deported 1942, died 1942 in Theresienstadt.")

The elder Max Klaber's wife's plaque is more blunt: "Regina Klaber, nee Rosenbaum ... Ermordet (murdered) 1942 in Auschwitz."

The young Max Klaber is here as the family emissary, honoring the ancestors sacrificed to the terrible Nazi zeal for purity. But he is also a generational ambassador -- the great-grandson of Holocaust victims meeting the great-grandchildren of the German citizens who did not, or could not, stop the city's Jews from being rounded up and killed.

Before Adolf Hitler, Borken was predominately Catholic with a large minority of Jews. They lived next door to each other, shopped in each other's businesses and attended the same public schools.

Today, Borken has no Jews. The few who survived the Holocaust did not return; their descendants did not come.

Max Klaber is a self-possessed young man, but on the long flight to Europe, he had time to get apprehensive.

"When I was coming, I was a little worried," the Stevenson High School student told an interviewer in Borken. "But now that I'm here, I see that everything is fine. Everyone is perfectly nice, and they welcome me being Jewish."

It started when Oliver Steinebach, a Klaber family cousin in Cologne, approached German sculptor Gunther Demnig. Demnig, who has made 28,000 "stumbling stones" to memorialize victims of the Third Reich, agreed to make stolpersteine for Max and Regina Klaber.

The city readily agreed to have them placed in the public sidewalk where the Klabers' home once stood. They were the city's first stumbling stones, and the city turned the installation into a major community event. They asked a member of the American Klaber family to come, all expenses paid.

Max Klaber, his great-grandfather's namesake, was the family's choice, and Borken officials were both moved and delighted by his arrival. He stayed a week, spending time with relatives but also living with a local family with teens about his age.

He went to the local school, where he was treated like a rock star, and saw the places he had heard about in family stories. He and the local kids bonded over soccer.

Max discovered the locals hate the Nazis as much as anybody.

"You couldn't say the word 'Nazi' without everyone getting angry," he said.

At a reception after the stolpersteine were laid, Max made a short speech to 200 people, recalling the trip his father, Larry, and an aunt and uncle made to Borken and Gemen in 2008 on the 70th anniversary of Kristallnacht -- the Night of Broken Glass -- and the warm reception the family got both then and now.

It was, he said, "a chance to reconnect with an important place in the Klaber family history.

"I, too, feel this connection," he told them. "I sense we have come full circle. We are all thankful for everything you have done over the years so that the Klaber family and the old Jewish community of Borken and Gemen is never forgotten."

Max was surprised to learn that 10th-graders are taught not only about the Holocaust but also about Borken's complicity, what current Borken Mayor Rolf Luhrmann calls "the dark years in our history."

Students even research the histories of Borken's former Jewish families. Max found himself listening to a familiar story -- how Max and Regina Klaber built their oil business at the turn of the last century, how Erna was born in 1902, then Willi in 1904, Betti in 1907, Albert in 1909 and Erich in 1914. How Max Klaber volunteered in World War I as a medic, and about the medals he won for designing a better system to transport wounded troops. How he started the local Red Cross chapter. How their last son, Herbert, was born in 1920.

In those years, the family was happy and industrious. Regina, Erna and Willi soldiered on in the oil business while Max was at war. Later, Albert came into the business, and Erna and Betti started their own businesses. Young Herbert went to Hebrew School in Borken, then at 10 to the public school.

But the walls were closing in. Hitler was elected chancellor in January 1933. On April 1, 1933, Brown Shirts marched outside the synagogue where Herbert was being bar mitzvah'd. His party was canceled when the guests were too afraid to come.

In 1934 a new law banned Jews from public schools and universities. The Jews at Herbert's gymnasium were kicked out, and Herbert went to work for his father.

In 1937 he left home for trade school in Winterswyk, Holland, where he trained in auto mechanics. On Fridays he would bicycle the 20 miles back to Borken and return to Winterswyk on Sunday. Sometimes the soldiers at the border would let the air out of his tires.

On Nov. 9, 1938, the Kristallnacht riots against Jews spread to Borken. The Klabers' synagogue in Gemen, the town next door, was burned. Max, Willi and Albert were arrested -- just for being Jewish. Not long after, they were forced to sell the oil business to a gentile at a fraction of its value.

The close-knit family began to scatter. In 1939, Willi and Erich, and their wives, left for Chicago. Erna crossed into Holland and didn't return. Betti, having lost her business too, had a breakdown.

Herbert finished trade school, but his parents urged him to stay. He cast about for a job, but, not being a Dutch national, the only work he could get was as a farmhand.

On May 10, 1940, Germany invaded Holland, which fell in six days. In Germany, Jews were increasingly being pulled from their homes and put into the rapidly built camps.

By 1942, Borken's remaining Jews were living in a single building, their homes confiscated. Albert, somewhere else, was desperately trying to prevent his parents from being deported by proving his father was a World War I hero.

On July 18, 1942, Max Klaber wrote to Herbert.

"Dear Herbert: I am writing on a borrowed typewriter so that I may not write to you anything illegible. Albert wrote and asked me to send photocopies of my medals. Unfortunately I cannot and am not allowed to do this ...

"Most of those from here have been sent away. The older people and those who had received war medals should be resettled in Theresin. I consider this a good omen ...

When our time comes and we will have to leave we will be brave and keep ourselves as healthy as possible for you, dear children. ... God is with us and we fear nothing ..."

Regina added a handwritten postscript.

" ... We have to submit to the fate that God has bestowed upon us. Hopefully we will meet you, children, again. ... Be devout and God fearing and think of your beloved parents. We will write again before our departure. You, dear Herbert, be affectionately greeted and kissed by your loving Mother."

It was the last letter anyone would receive from Max and Regina Klaber. And in 1943, the government of occupied Holland set an April 10 deadline for all Jews to surrender.

Erna submitted. She was interned at Westerbork and sent to Theresienstadt, in what is now the Czech Republic.

Herbert, just 22, hadn't heard from his parents in nine months. Nor did he know where Albert and Betti were. He was a devout man, but he didn't feel in his gut this was God's will.

He turned his back and went into hiding.

Coming full circle

Inside a nicely appointed apartment in Morton Grove, 91-year-old Herbert Klaber settles into a chair. His voice is soft, but clear.

"My mother," he says, a smile stealing across his face, "was the best woman in the world."

The last time he saw her, he was plowing a Dutch field behind a single horse. His parents had been allowed to make a brief visit, and then they returned. Later, no visits were possible.

After the German decree in 1943, Herbert met farmer Drickes Lievestro and his wife, a tough Dutch woman who loathed the Germans. Together they sheltered 12 people for part of two years -- Jews, Dutch and a British pilot who had been shot down.

It was perilous. But with the help of the Dutch Underground, they knew when the raids were coming. The refugees hid in the house and in a converted chicken coop before a more permanent hiding place was devised in the barn. For a terrifying two weeks near the end of the war, German soldiers occupied the house, making it impossible for Herbert and the others to stir from their cramped quarters.

But Herbert Klaber always believed he would survive.

In April 1945, the Canadian army routed the last of the Germans and liberated the farm. Herbert hitched a ride into Varsseveld with soldiers, bummed a cigarette and immediately got sick. He didn't smoke.

In Winterswyk, Herbert scanned the Red Cross lists of survivors and with gladness saw the name of his sister, Erna. He hitched another ride, this time with an English soldier, to Venlo. There, he found Erna lying on a mattress in the refugee camp, weak but alive.

"This is my little brother Herbert," she told the nurses happily.

From Erna, he learned his parents were dead. Both had been sent to Theresienstadt, where the genteel ghetto they hoped for proved to be only a veneer to fool the Red Cross inspectors. Max, a diabetic, died within weeks, presumably from a lack of medicine and proper food.

After she was widowed, Regina was sent to Auschwitz, in Poland, where she was gassed. Albert also died in Auschwitz. Betti died in a sanitarium in Germany, by what means no one knows.

Herbert Klaber came to Chicago in December 1946 without having set foot in Germany. He married his wife, Marcia, and had four children. Their son Larry named his firstborn after Max Klaber.

In the past 40 years, Herbert has returned to Europe several times to see Erna, who stayed in Holland, and Borken. He wanted to make this trip, but age prevented it.

Since Max was born, he has opened up more about his war years than he did initially with his own children, even speaking to Max's classes about the Holocaust.

Max, though, said the trip was an unexpected education.

"I thought I knew about it," Max said. "But I learned a lot more while I was there. I just feel a lot closer to them, now that I've seen."

Herbert is glad his children and grandchildren are moving the story forward even though he cannot, fully.

"You cannot forgive the people who killed your parents," he says, almost regretfully. "I cannot forgive the older generation. I forgive the younger generation."

He realizes that as the old ones die, the old attitudes, including his, will die, too.

"The German people today are different," Herbert Klaber said. "That's what Max saw. He made friends."

Demnig's stumbling stones are not universally appreciated; for some, the idea they are constantly walked over is unsettling.

The Klaber family approves. Max and Regina aren't buried anywhere, there are no tombstones, nothing that represents their lives. The stones are that physical reminder.

But, Larry says, their best purpose is for Borken.

"They're not so much for the families as they are for the people who live in the city where the stones are placed," he said. "They are a constant reminder of what went on there and who lived there."

Demnig, who says a Jewish person is not forgotten until his or her name is forgotten, quotes a student of his, who once said the stones are not meant to trip people so that they fall down. Instead, "you stumble with your mind and your heart," he said.

Young Max called their installation "a great moment."

"These stones will be there forever, or a long time," he said.

Now, with young Max's recent trip, the "full circle" he spoke about at the installation ceremony is realized. The Klabers have returned to Borken. If only for a little while.

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