Monday, 17 April 2017

Born in a Forced Labour Camp

Is not this a brand plucked out of the fire? (Zechariah 3:2)

      I am writing this on Easter Day, an appropriate day, one might think, to reflect on the miraculous. Take Paul Israel Kraus, for instance. His first claim to fame is that he is the longest documented survivor of mesothelioma, a lung cancer caused by asbestos. His second is that he is probably the only Jewish Holocaust survivor in the Australian Lutheran Church, for he was born on 20 October 1944 in a Nazi Forced Labour Camp. But the real heroine of the story is his mother, Clara.
     Born Klara Sara Elfer in 1914, she was married to Emerich Israel Krausz. As his name implied, they were Hungarian Jews, for all male Jews of that time and place had the middle name of Israel. From 1935, knowing that the Nazi was slowly closing in, they tried several times to migrate, and as the war progressed, they moved frequently. It was in the Central Slovakian town of Subotica in 1944 that their luck finally ran out. With several other members of the family, they were shipped off to the Mathausen Concentration Camp. By then, 30-year-old Clara already had a two-year-old son, Peter, and was heavily pregnant with a second.
    Mathausen was not an extermination camp. Its function was simply to work the men to death, while serving as a holding centre for women bound for the gas chambers of Auschwitz. In July mother and son were herded aboard a cattle truck bound for the latter destination. However, it was far from being an express route. Because of Allied bombing, much of the railway system had been rendered impassable, and their train was diverted. Somewhere along the way she managed to get out of the line to Auschwitz and onto the one to the Viehofen Forced Labour Camp near St. Pölten in Austria, which they reached after a stifling three day journey in which many victims perished.
Paul's birth certificate
    Trapped among 180 people, some of them children, in this hell-hole, of course, she couldn't work. Food was also scarce, and malnutrition is not good for a pregnancy. The SS made frequent visits, in which case she would go into hiding. Try to imagine giving birth in such nightmarish circumstances. Then, shortly after her confinement, when she was at her lowest, and all human aid had failed her, something happened. She had a vision. For a person in extremis this might not seem extraordinary, except for one thing: she was a Jew, and the vision was of Jesus. I am reminded of the theophany experienced by her fellow Jew, Hugh Montefiore as a teenager, which ultimately led him to become a bishop. (And in the Middle East these days, such visions are far from exceptional.) Then and there she made a vow that, whether or not she had a future, from that day forward she and her sons would be followers of Christ.
     But by then the days of the Third Reich were numbered. The only question was whether the prisoners would outlast it. In a slave labour camp, babies and toddlers are useless mouths, and nursing mothers not much better. But survive they did; after all, she had received a theophany from the Saviour. As 1944 turned into 1945, and Easter passed into late April, everyone could see the writing on the wall. The sound of the Allies' guns formed a distant rumble on the horizon. The guards no longer thought of anything but their own survival.
Clara Kraus in later years
   Ten days before the end of the war in Europe, the SS descended on Viehofen and drove the inmates off on a forced march back to Mathausen, and execution. But they were too late to get Clara and her children. With her uncle, aunt, and cousin, they had bolted that morning.
     Foodless and footsore, they set out for home, relying on the charity of farms and villages on the way. And soldiers, Russian and Italian, now swarming like ants over the carcass of the Reich, were also willing to provide assistance to these wretched flotsam of war. Once back in Budapest, against all hope and expectation, Clara discovered that her parents had survived the war. Then, four months later, who should arrive but a visitor, gaunt from his privations? It was her husband, Emerich. Left quietly dying at Mathausen, he had been rescued on VE Day by the Americans, who nursed him back to health.
    In 1949, the family - Clara's parents as well as the Krauses - began a new life in Australia, where they became citizens six years later. Emerich passed away in 1977 as the result of prostate cancer, but Clara survived to celebrate her 96th birthday in 2010.
     As for Paul, in 1997, at the age of 52, he was diagnosed with metastatic mesothelioma, and given just six to nine months to live. But he is still alive. In 2013 he received operations for metastatic prostate cancer, and a brain cancer, meningioma. But he is still alive. Of course, he is living on borrowed time - aren't we all? - but he is still active, and has written several books, including one on surviving cancer, and another on his mother's wartime experiences.

References: Paul Kraus, 'God's deliverance: from war to peace', The Lutheran (Adelaide), April 2017, pp 5-7
Paul's website. His Wikipedia entry.
Clara's obituary.

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