Survivors of the Holocaust, Nancy and Howard Kleinberg’s life motto is that “you just have to be happy.”
“Jealousy breeds hate,” Howard said. “Try to be happy. Happiness makes life so worthwhile.”
Considering everything the couple have gone through, it’s a surprising outlook on life. After years of brutal slave labour in various work and concentration camps, the couple were imprisoned in Bergen-Belsen near the end of the war. By the time the British Army liberated the camp on April 15, 1945, 16-year-old Nancy, then known as Nacha Baum, had been at the camp five months.
“One of her brothers had been in the same barracks as me at Auschwitz,” Howard said. “She figured if he was alive, he might also be in Bergen-Belsen. So she came to the men’s side of the camp to search.”
Men and women were segregated at Bergen-Belsen. Upon liberation, Nancy, her aunt, and two other women found themselves a room that had been recently abandoned by fleeing Nazi guards. Compared to the accommodations Nancy was used to, that little room felt luxurious. It had two bunk beds, a small stove, and a washroom, which “we were delighted to have inside,” Nancy said. “We were so happy not to have to sleep on the floor anymore.”
After settling into that room, Nancy and her companions went to check the men’s camp for survivors. Unbeknownst to Nancy, her brother had been killed in Auschwitz prior to the forced march that led the remaining prisoners to Bergen-Belsen.
The search to find her brother in the men’s camp was, of course, not successful. If fact, Nancy would later discover that her parents and all five of her brothers had been murdered by the Nazis. She was the sole survivor of her immediate family.
“There is a hole in my heart that will never heal. To lose parents and five brothers… but you have to keep going.” Nancy said, telling the tale of her one brother, who was 10 at the time. He had been staying with their grandparents for the summer, but wanted to come home to be with the rest of the family in those unsettled times. The grandparents had put him on a train, thinking he was being sent back home, but instead he was taken to another city where he was shot and killed.
When the Nazis first began rounding up people of Jewish decent in the Polish town where Nancy’s family lived, sending them to labour camps, Nancy’s parents considered sending her away to be hidden by a young woman they were friends with and who had often frequented their family shoe store. In the end, they chose to stay together.
It was the right choice. Desperate for food, Nancy risked her life many times sneaking out of the camp to try and gather supplies for her family. On one of these excursions, she went to the house of the woman who was supposed to hide her.
“When she saw me, she almost fainted,” Nancy said, “she said, ‘Nacha, what are you doing here?’”
Nancy explained to the woman that they had very little food, and that anything she could spare would help her family. The woman refused her, saying, “Nacha, if you’re not going to run away, I’m calling the [police].”
Nancy said she was told the Nazis had trained dogs to sniff-out people of Jewish decent. Whether they could or not, it instilled terror in the hearts of those she encountered, including this woman who had once offered to hide her.
“I was so close to death, you have no idea. I came out from her place, and [another woman] saw me. She said the same thing. ‘What are you doing here?’ They knew me from our store,” Nancy said. “I started running, like 100 horses could not catch me.”
“I risked my life many times,” Nancy said, explaining that she would often sneak out of the camp to see a friend of her father’s, who owned a general store, and would give her anything she asked him for.
When she was first interned in the labour camp, Nancy worked eight-hour shifts in the kitchen, which was considered preferable to other jobs. After six months, she was moved to manual labour. Later, she was sent to Auschwitz for six months, before being sent to Bergen-Belsen. When the Russian army was getting close to the Auschwitz concentration camp, the Germans forced thousands of prisoners to march west for three days to Bergen-Beslen. Many prisoners did not survive that death march. Nancy and her aunt survived the march and arrived in Bergen-Belsen in January 1945. They were liberated four months later.
When Nancy and the three women entered the men’s side of the camp they encountered a horrific scene. The ground was covered with thousands of dead bodies. From the corner of her eye, Nancy thought she saw movement coming from a young man, about 19 years old, whose eyes were cracked open. His arm was twitching. Something drew her to him. Nancy felt determined to try and save this young man. The others were not so sure.
“What’s the matter with you, Nacha, are you crazy? Can’t you see he’s dead?” Nancy’s aunt said to her.
Nancy replied, “He’s not dead yet, but if we let him lie here, for sure he is going to die.”
“We took him; I can’t remember how we got him back to our room,” Nancy said. “He was very, very sick.”
What compelled a teenage girl, freshly liberated from years of hunger, forced labour, and absolutely miserable conditions to try and save a boy near death — whom she thought she recognized as a friend of her brother’s, but who she really didn’t know at all — at a time in her life when she herself was weak and had nothing? Looking back, Nancy says she was motivated by the hope that in showing kindness to this boy, perhaps someone, somewhere, might do the same for her parents and brothers.
The young women settled Howard, then known as Chaim, on one of the bottom bunks. For three weeks, Nancy did her best to nurse him back to health. Howard, however, was not able to keep much of what they gave him down, and he was not getting better. In his lucid moments, he begged Nancy to fetch a doctor, but she did not know how or where to find one. The war was still going on.
One day, while Nancy and the other women were out of the room, Howard woke up.
“I crawled out of bed,” Howard said. He dragged himself across the room, managed to open the door, and heaved himself outside. He lay in the middle of the road, too weak to go any further.
Miraculously, a military vehicle passed by. They picked Howard up when they saw him and transferred him to a military hospital where he remained for six months. By the time he got out of the hospital, Nancy and the other women were gone.
More than fifty thousand Jewish people died at Bergen-Belsen in the last months of the war. The camp had no gas chambers. Instead, prisoners died from starvation, disease, and inhumane treatment.
Howard had no immediate family left in Europe. He’d had nine siblings, and had grown up in Wierzbnik, Poland, the same town as Nancy; however, they did not know each other from before the war. Howard’s one brother died in an accident before the war.
In 1928, an uncle in Canada tried to help the family immigrate. The Kleinbergs traveled to the city of Warsaw, which was in the middle of a full-blown pandemic. Because of the dire situation, the Canadian officials were very selective in who they allowed into Canada. Howard’s mother and all of his siblings were cleared to leave the country, but his father was deemed underweight and ineligible for Canada.
At the time, it was hard to imagine what would soon be happening in the country. Howard’s parents sent their four eldest children to Toronto, Canada. The rest of the family returned home.
When war broke out, Howard’s eldest brother was killed in combat. A few years later, when Germany and Russia split Poland in half for their own purposes, another brother was killed in a Russian raid.
In 1942 the Germans ordered a roundup of the town’s Jewish citizens. The young and able bodied were conscripted for slave labour. The rest of the population — the elderly, the sick, and young children — were marched to the railway station, forced into cattle cars, and sent by rail to their deaths in Treblinka. Such was the fate of Howard’s parents and elder sister. He and one remaining sister were sent off as slave labourers.
Howard’s sister was sent to work in a steel mill. During her work, molten iron spilled on her foot, which became infected. Rather than treat her, she and 125 other girls were taken into the woods and shot.
“Only I survived,” Howard said. He was alone.
After Nancy saved him and Howard was discharged from the military hospital, he made contact with his older brothers and sisters in Toronto. Two years later, on May 3, 1947, Howard arrived in Halifax and came to live in Toronto. Once here, he was reunited with his siblings who had immigrated to Toronto in 1928.
Nancy left Europe and traveled to the United States, but soon made her way to Toronto as well.
“Six weeks later I got the news that the girl who saved my life had also arrived in Toronto,” Howard said. “I was so happy… I knew that when you go and greet a girl you should buy flowers. That’s exactly what I did. I bought a corsage, I took one of my sisters with me, and I went to see the girl that saved my life.
“I came to the door where she was living. I knocked on the door. I saw this beautiful young lady open the door, and I started to mumble, ‘Thank you for saving my life.’”
The couple dated and fell in love quickly. Howard, however, was determined that if he married Nancy she would never want for anything. He worked long, grueling hours for three years in order to save up enough money to give her the life he wanted them to have. He wanted to ensure she would be comfortable, and that she would never have to work.
Nancy had immigrated to Toronto and moved in with one of her cousins. “She used to tell me when I was courting Howard, ‘if you marry this boy, he will be very good to you,’” Nancy said. “And it’s true. The best thing I ever did was save him, because I couldn’t have gotten a better husband.”
On March 14, 1950, they had a beautiful wedding, attended by their family and friends. This year, they celebrated their 70th anniversary, and are proud to have four children, 14 grandchildren, and (so far) 11 great-grandchildren.
They don’t have a secret recipe for staying in love, Howard said. When things got hard, they faced their challenges together rather than letting things tear them apart. They always treated each other with respect, patience and affection.
As Holocaust survivors, they have bravely shared their story many times over. Often, they share their stories with school children. When they first began doing these talks with children, Howard admitted he was skeptical their story would resonate, but he discovered very quickly that it did.
“The room was so quiet, you could hear a pin drop,” Nancy said. And Howard shared that at the end of their talks the children will often come up to hug them.
The couple have even returned to Nazi concentration camps to lead educational tours for children with March of the Living. On one tour of Auschwitz, they were in two different buses, each with 40 children.
“At the end of the tour, all the girls on the bus were saying, ‘I want a husband like Howard,’” Nancy said, having led the girls’ bus.
“And the boys were all saying, ‘I want a wife like Nancy,’” Howard said.
Now in their mid-90s, the couple still speak at events when they can. Their love story is well known, and was even featured on ABC’s Regis and Kelly. They now live at Kensington Place Retirement Residence in Toronto, where they continue to enjoy life. When asked what they enjoy doing most together, Howard said that over the years he felt they had become a bit like one person. Everything they do, they do together.
“We were destined to be together,” Howard said.
Questions and answers with the Kleinbergs:
Q: What advice do you have for young people today?
A: “Whenever I finish speaking to the kids, they always ask me about life. So I gave them a little pep talk. I tell them they should make sure to continue their schooling. They should make sure to become educated so as not to have to worry about making a living.”
Q: What is your secret to happiness?
A: “Make sure not to be jealous. Jealousy breeds hatred. Don’t be jealous if someone else has a bigger house or drives a nicer car. Try to be happy with whatever you have because happiness makes life worthwhile.”
Q: What do you enjoy doing together?
A: “We love being with our children, our grandchildren and our friends. We enjoy talking things over — what we’re going do, who we’re going to call, where we’re going to go. For many years I worried a lot about making a living. I would leave the house early in the morning and come back late at night. But now, we are inseparable. I know some husbands can’t wait to get away from their wives. Not me. I enjoy being with Nancy and never tire of her company.”