Hy Kloc was born in Germany in a “displaced persons” camp to two Polish Jews who’d lost their families to the Holocaust. Libby and Sam Kloc, left homeless by World War II, somehow found each other in Siberia after the war and joined the wave of humanity that marched, like a scene from an epic film, across Russia to find refuge with the Allies.
Kloc has long considered it both a “privilege” and a “duty” to tell his family’s story, to bear witness to the unspeakable reality of fascism and genocide, and to the uncountable opportunities his family received as refugees in America.
Never has he felt that obligation more powerfully — both because he now has kidney cancer, but also now that our country has gotten a brutal reminder that anti-Semitism remains virulent and violent.
“I can only change the little that I can change. It starts with me telling my story,” Kloc says. “I just have to keep telling my story. It’s important that people remember. It’s important that not just Jewish people, but everyone, remembers.”
At age 72, Kloc knows when his generation is gone, the last people with direct connection to the Holocaust will be gone, too.
“It happened and it shouldn’t be forgotten. It’s just that too often heinous things get rewritten, and that becomes the new narrative. And so what (I can do is) spread the word that no, this actually happened.”
Kloc spent three terms as a Democrat representing Boise in the Idaho Legislature. He decided to retire in the spring after undergoing surgery to remove a kidney and adrenal gland; he’s getting chemo for cancer in the remaining adrenal gland. The drugs are shrinking the tumor, he says, and his doctors are optimistic. He’ll remain on the auditorium district board, but you can tell getting “the Big C” has changed him. He’s less jovial, more softly spoken, more determined than ever to share his story.
Saturday’s shooting that killed 11 people at a Pittsburgh synagogue only hardens that resolve.
Displaced by war
World War II displaced millions, and more than 300 camps were set up for the eastern Europeans and concentration camp survivors who had no homes to return to.
Kloc’s family spent three years in the displaced persons camp in Essen, Germany. It had a newspaper and a movie theater and elections for leaders. Many children, like Kloc, were born there. “Having a family and trying to recreate some semblance of a family life was one way that somebody who had gone through this incredible experience could have some stability,” says Kloc, “could return to some kind of normalcy.”
His family was lucky. His mother had an uncle who’d come to New York in the late 1930s who sponsored their immigration to the U.S. and provided a place to stay as they made a new start in America. Kloc remembers little from that time except the seasick passengers on the Atlantic crossing, then the Statue of Liberty appearing to shouts of “America, America.” For a long time, young Hy thought that was lady liberty’s name.
Arriving in New York in 1949, Hy and his big brother Jack slept with their parents, four to a bed. Their father took a job in a paintbrush factory, but after losing the tips of three fingers, sought less-hazardous duty: Sam became a baker. Kloc’s mother, Libby, worked for decades in sales at another bakery. Hy remembers a childhood rich with cakes and bread and cookies.
“Being a kid, I didn’t know anything about poor or rich,” he says. “This was the way it was. … Life was good for me.”
But Hy knows now what it took for his parents to put their struggles behind them. They took night classes. They learned English. They became citizens. Life was hard. But with a home, with jobs, his parents had a chance at a life denied so many others.
“I never got the feeling that we felt like victims,” Kloc says. “They may have, but I never sensed that in the conversations because they were just happy to be alive, have their family with them.
“I think my family story is pretty much the immigrant story. You know, coming here with a couple kids on their arms, not knowing the language, no money, and they are still able to succeed. They did more than just survive. They succeeded.”
In Brooklyn, the Klocs were surrounded by other refugees in mostly Jewish neighborhoods. He remembers card games, where players with tattooed arms dealt the cards. “I would look at the arms of some of the friends that came over and they all had numbers (tattooed) on them.” He asked his mother.
“She didn’t want to talk about it,” Kloc says. “But it was all around you, everywhere. All my friends were born in the DP camps. … There were a lot of people who had had similar experiences. And they were starting new.”
Fighting the Nazis
His father was proud of his service in the Polish underground and liked talking about hiding in the forests outside Warsaw, fighting German soldiers who, he said, were not “supermen.” Libby didn’t talk about the past: not the Nazis, not how she ended up working in mines in Siberia, not how she lost her oldest child, a big sister Hy never met and whose name he never learned.
When Hy’s little sister Bonnie came along, the baby girl helped take away a measure of his mother’s pain. As an adult, Hy came to recognize his mother’s lifelong struggle with depression.
His parents worked with a group that helped settle new refugees. They always talked about “doing something” with the opportunity they’d been given.
“We always had a saying in our family that — it sounds much better in Yiddish — but you don’t have the right to complain if you don’t get involved.”
Kloc worked a variety of jobs: teaching, driving film to the photo developer, market research. He lived in Chicago and Detroit before he came with his wife to Boise in 2001 as the fundraiser for Boise State Public Radio. His one personal experience with anti-Semitism in Boise was a saleswoman who didn’t want him to “jew” her down on the price of a table. She didn’t know enough to know she was insulting him.
“The only people who are really concerned with anti-Semitism, unfortunately, are Jews,” he says.
And while some anti-Semitism is ignorance, “unfortunately, there’s another narrative that is taught to kids about Jews … the stereotypes like controlling the banks, being the superpowers behind all of the conspiracy theories.” It’s such thinking that aims a bomb at liberal billionaire George Soros. “Being born Jewish, that’s why he deserved a bomb?” Kloc asks.
‘It’s not paranoia’
Perhaps, says Kloc, the murders in the Pittsburgh synagogue can serve as a warning to non-Jews who’ve wanted to believe that anti-Semitism is exaggerated, or gone, or benign.
“Maybe we can learn something out of this, that it really exists. I think for too many years, people argued that this was all just paranoia. It’s not paranoia. It’s true.”
The other lesson he hopes his own refugee story teaches is the power of America to welcome people in search of a better life. He notes that the U.S. turned away in 1939 the St. Louis, a ship with more than 900 German Jews seeking refuge from the Nazis.
“I truly hope we learn something from that lesson. That we are supposed to be the standard-bearers for good things. The refugee issue in this country right now, it’s hard to imagine people not wanting to help. … I would hate to think we have gotten so callous that we would turn the needy away.”
His life shows there is a better way.
“You have a duty to help your fellow man, by not turning away, by giving them a helping hand to raise themselves by their own bootstraps.”