Legion Magazine has a fantastic article about Werner Kleeman, a 91-year-old Jewish WWII veteran, whose story is rather unique and amazing.
Mr. Kleeman, a German citizen at the time, was rounded up and sent to the Dachau camp just after Kristalnacht. In what was surely a continuous series of amazingly fortunate events, Kleeman was able to secure his release from the camp, escape to England, and eventually emigrate to America.
Having learned English in high school, Werner was able to find a clerical job in London, and his siblings went to work as well, his brother as a carpenter and his sister as a domestic helper. Finally, in early 1940, four months after war was declared and Great Britain stood directly in the crosshairs of Hitler’s despotic ambitions, Werner’s visa to go to the United States came through. Once again, the young man went westward ahead of his family, hoping to deliver them to freedom as Nazi Germany was closing in. He raised enough in donations to buy the least expensive ticket he could find, and crossed the Atlantic. He had $2.50 in his pocket when he arrived in New York. Upon seeing the city skyline as the ship neared, he remembers, “I felt that I was safe. I took my suitcase and rode the subway to Jackson Heights to look for a relative.”
Kleeman was drafted into the Army in 1942 (where he became an American citizen) and was quickly selected to serve as a German translator. He worked with a unit that followed the first wave into France in 1944. In a story that rivals Forrest Gump, Kleeman crossed paths with Ernie Pyle, J.D. Salinger, and Brig. Gen. Theodore Roosevelt Jr. during his tour.
It was during the bloody Normandy battles that Werner lost much of his hearing, in the company of someone he would never forget. “On July 25, 1944, it was the biggest bombardment in World War II to concentrate on one small area, maybe three or four miles by six miles, where the Germans were sitting in front of Normandy to hold off the Americans. For two weeks, it rained every day. They couldn’t turn the bombers loose. All of a sudden one morning, word came: ‘Today is the day.’ I was burying animals up on the front line to clear the fields, so the troops wouldn’t smell them. About 9:30, I got word: ‘Get out!’ I took my jeep and went back 400 or 500 yards. I parked it at a farmhouse, where I crept under a table. A guy comes up next to me, and it turns out it was Ernie Pyle. He was looking for a haven, like I was.”
My favorite part of the story is when Kleeman returns to the very village whose residents sent him away to the camps.
When he reached the little farm village he had fled nearly seven years earlier, Kleeman found what he expected. “There were no Jews left. They had all been taken away and killed. The Germans had taken everything. There was nothing you could claim. I gave them two hours to get out of the houses they had taken or I would take them out in the woods.
It is really an amazing story and an excellent article. I highly encourage you to read the full version over at the American Legion Magazine. Kleeman also wrote a book titled, From Dachau to D-Day, although it is currently out of print (but used copies are easy to find). Of particular note, several years ago Steven Spielberg supposedly bid on the rights to a movie about Kleeman’s story. I couldn’t find any more recent news about a file, but I really hope that comes to fruition, as this would be a fantastic tale on the big screen.