'Jews may not want to look at this'

Tuesday is Holocaust Day in Israel: and the anniversary of a 1948 massacre that triggered the Palestinian refugee crisis at the heart of today's conflict. Robert Fisk meets an Auschwitz survivor living at the site of the atrocity
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"I will show you my museum," Josef Kleinman says, and scampers into a back room. He returns with a faded old khaki knapsack. "This is the shirt the Americans gave me after I was freed from Landsberg on 27 April 1945." It is a crumpled, cheap check shirt whose label is now illegible. Then he takes out a smock of blue and white stripes and a hat with the same stripes running front to back. "This is my uniform as a prisoner of Dachau."

Familiar from every newsreel and from Schindler's List and 100 other Holocaust movies, it is a shock to touch – to hold – this symbol of a people's destruction. Josef Kleinman watches me as I hold the smock. He understands the shock. On the front of the smock is the number 114986.

Down in the entrance to his block of flats, there are flyers reminding tenants of the forthcoming Holocaust Day. Givat Shaul is a friendly, bright neighbourhood of retired couples, small shops, flats, trees and some elegant old houses of yellow stone. Some of these are in a state of dilapidation, a few are homes. But one or two bear the scars of bullets fired long ago, on 9 April 1948, when another people faced their own catastrophe.

For Givat Shaul used to be called Deir Yassin. And here it was, 54 years ago, that up to 130 Palestinians were massacred by two Jewish militias, the Irgun and the Stern Gang, as the Jews of Palestine fought for the independence of a state called Israel. The slaughter so terrified tens of thousands of Palestinian Arabs that they fled their homes en masse – 750,000 in all – to create the refugee population whose tragedy lies at the heart of the Middle East conflict today.

Back in 1948, Palestinian women were torn to pieces by grenades around the old houses that still exist in Givat Shaul. Two truckloads of Arab prisoners were taken from the village and paraded through the streets of Jerusalem. Later, many of them would be executed in Deir Yassin. Their mass grave is believed to lie beneath a fuel storage depot that now stands at one end of the Jerusalem suburb.

So a visit to Mr Kleinman's home raises a serious moral question. Can one listen to his personal testimony of the greatest crime in modern history and then ask about the tragedy which overwhelmed the Palestinians at this very spot – when the eviction of the Arabs of Palestine, terrible though it was, an act of ethnic cleansing in our terms, comes no- where near, statistically or morally, the murder of six million Jews? Does he even know that this year, by an awful irony of history, Holocaust Day and Deir Yassin Day fall on the same date?

Mr Kleinman is no ordinary Holocaust survivor. He was the youngest survivor of Auschwitz and he testified at the trial of Adolf Eichmann, the head of Hitler's programme to murder the Jews of Europe. Indeed, Mr Kleinman saw Dr Mengele, the "Angel of Death", who chose children, women, the old and the sick for the gas chambers. At the age of just 14, he watched one day as Mengele arrived on a bicycle and ordered a boy to hammer a plank of wood to a post. Here, for the record, is part of Kleinman's testimony at the Eichmann trial:

"We weren't told what was to happen. We knew. The boys who couldn't pass under the plank would be spared. Those boys whose heads did not reach the plank would be sent to the gas chambers. We all tried to stretch ourselves upwards, to make ourselves taller. But I gave up. I saw that taller boys than me failed to touch the plank with their heads. My brother told me, 'Do you want to live? Yes? Then do something.' My head began to work. I saw some stones. I put them in my shoes, and this made me taller. But I couldn't stand at attention on the stones, they were killing me."

Mr Kleinman's brother, Shlomo, tore his hat in half and Josef stuffed part of it into his shoes. He was still too short. But he managed to "infiltrate" into the group who had passed the test. The remainder of the boys – a thousand in all – were gassed. Mengele, Josef Kleinman remembers, chose Jewish holidays for the mass killing of Jewish children. Mr Kleinman's parents, Meir and Rachel, and his sister had been sent directly to the gas chambers when the family arrived at Auschwitz from the Carpathian mountains, in what is now Ukraine. He survived, along with his brother – who today, a carpenter like Josef, lives a few hundred yards away in the same suburb of Givat Shaul/Deir Yassin. Josef survived Dachau and the gruelling labour of building a massive bunker for Hitler's secret factory, constructed for the production of Germany's new Messerschmitt ME262 jet fighter aircraft.

After his liberation by the Americans, Josef Kleinman made his way to Italy and then to a small boat which put him aboard a ship for Palestine, carrying illegal Jewish immigrants who were to try to enter the territory of the dying British mandate. He could carry only a few possessions. He chose to put his Dachau uniform in his bag – he would not forget what happened to him.

Turned back by the British, he spent six months in the Famagusta camp on Cyprus, eventually ending up in the immigrants' camp at Atlit in Palestine. He arrived in Jerusalem on 15 March 1947, and was there when Israel's war of independence broke out. He fought in that war – but not at Deir Yassin. I gently mention the name. Both Josef Kleinman and his wife Haya nod at once.

"There are things which have been written that were wrong about Deir Yassin," he said. "I was in Jerusalem and I saw the two truckloads of prisoners that came from here. Some reports say Arabs were killed, others that they were not. Not all the people were killed. There is much propaganda. I do not know. The Arabs killed their Jewish prisoners. There didn't have to be much fighting for the Arabs to leave."

But when he saw those Arabs leaving, did they not, for Mr Kleinman, provide any kind of parallel – however faint, given the numerically far greater and infinitely bloodier disaster that overtook the Jews – of his own life? He thinks about this for a while. He did not see many Arab refugees, he said. It was his wife Haya who replied. "I think that after what happened to him – which was so dreadful – that everything else in the world seemed less important. You have to understand that Josef lives in that time, in the time of the Shoah (Holocaust). Of the 29,000 Jews brought to Dachau from other camps, most of them from Auschwitz, 15,000 died."

But is it just about the enormity of one crime and its statistical comparison to the exodus of Palestinians in 1948? A group of Jews, Muslims and Christians are campaigning for Deir Yassin to be remembered – even now, at the height of the latest war in what was Palestine. In London today, the killings at Deir Yassin will be remembered at St John's Wood Church at 6pm. They will be commemorated, too, in Washington and Melbourne and in Jerusalem. As the organisers say, "many Jews may not want to look at this, fearing that the magnitude of their tragedy may be diminished. For Palestinians there is always the fear that, as often before, the Holocaust may be used to justify their own suffering".

The Kleinmans do not know of this commemoration – nor of the organisation's plans for a memorial to the Palestinian dead in their little suburb of Givat Shaul. Josef Kleinman won't talk about the bloodbath in Israel/Palestine today. But he admits he's "on the right" and voted for Ariel Sharon. "Is there any other man?" he asks.