Steve Klesitz: Nine Years as a POW

Chace Anderson
By Chace Anderson December 15, 2015 09:52
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Steve Klesitz at home today

When he was released from Tiszalok prison camp in Hungary in late 1953, Steve Klesitz had spent one-third of his 27 years as a POW.

Born in a German-speaking village in Hungary, the present-day Tuolumne County resident grew up going to school and working on his family’s farm.

“In 1942, my older brother volunteered for the SS. About that time my father died of cancer, and at 16, I quit school to run the farm,” Klesitz recalls today.

By 1944, Hitler knew he was losing the war and was in desperate need of manpower. So the Germans began drafting 17- to 44-year-olds into the SS. Klesitz was drafted in September.

“I was a teenager when I was dragged into the war,” he says. “All I knew was if they called you, you had to go. There was no such thing as ‘I won’t go.’ We didn’t know anything about the death camps, other than the fact that Germans were collecting Jews in 1944. I only found out about the camps in 1953, when I got home.”

Klesitz became a member of the 22nd SS Cavalry Division, and like all SS members, had his blood type tattooed inside his left bicep.

Sent to engage the Russians as they closed in on Budapest, Klesitz was hit in the face by shrapnel from an artillery shell in December of 1944. His upper lip was sheared off and many of his teeth were knocked out.

“We had the white sides of our coats turned out for winter fighting, and when I looked down, the front of mine was red from the blood pouring down my face,” he says.

“My mouth felt like it was full of gravel. I spit out shrapnel and teeth.”

While he recovered, Budapest fell in February of ’45, and Klesitz was among some 5,000 German troops who surrendered. He and others like him became part of the spoils of war – slave labor for the Russian conquerors.

Thus began a journey of survival in which Klesitz endured starvation, hard labor, unimaginable living conditions and winter cold that dropped as low as 68 degrees below zero. He lived at times with little or no sanitation, and on many occasions he witnessed fellow prisoners being beaten.

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Steve (front left) with his family, early 1930s

Klesitz’s first stop was a holding camp in Temeschwar, Romania.

“They put 400 of us in a space like my kitchen and half my living room today,” says Klesitz. “Standing in there we were right next to each other. To lie down, we had to be in rows with our knees bent, all facing one direction. To turn over, the whole row had to turn. And always full. If someone died, they brought in another guy.

“For food we had a little soup – water, some salt and maybe a leaf of cabbage. Some weak ones died each day. A wagon came by, and we dragged the dead out. One morning I woke up and told the guy next to me to wake up too. But he was dead.”

In the spring of 1945, Klesitz was loaded into a tiny boxcar with 60 or 70 more men. “We began a five-day trip through Romania I will never forget,” he recounts, a strong accent still coloring his speech. “No food, no water, no nothing for five days. Boards to lie on and no toilet, just a crack in the door.”

After one night in the Romanian refinery town of Ploesti, the Russians loaded the men on a larger rail car, and they began a 34-day journey to Siberia.

For the next five years, Klesitz worked in four Soviet labor camps, moving each time north along the Gulag trail. He cleared stumps, built roads and sewer lines, and unloaded coal for steel smelting factories. He worked in ammunition plants and copper mines.

From late 1945 to 1948, through his early 20s, Klesitz was at a camp called Nizhny Tagil.

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Klesitz at 18, just before he was drafted

“It was a very bad time in Russia; food shortages everywhere,” he says. “Russian citizens had little food, and we were given even less. We had no energy, and they didn’t make us work. I got to below 100 pounds.

“We didn’t think of home or holidays; we didn’t think of girls or what our families might be doing. We thought of food and nothing else. Only food.”

In 1948, the Russians released many of their German prisoners – but not Klesitz. “Those who had the blood-type tattoo inside their biceps stayed,” he explains. “That’s how much they hated the SS.”

At the end of 1950, Stalin finally sent Klesitz and others back to Hungary, but not to freedom. “Communists now controlled the country,” he explains. “Because we fought in the German Army, we were sent to a forced-labor camp next to the Tisza River called Tiszalok.”

For three more years, Klesitz and the other prisoners used picks, shovels and horse-drawn carts to dig an alternate channel for the river so that it could pass through turbines in a new hydroelectric plant.

“In many ways, Tiszalok was worse than Siberia,” he says. “You never knew what to expect. There were so many beatings, and you were always afraid.

“There was a time when we were digging the new river bed. One day this prisoner asked another, ‘Why do you work so hard? We don’t get nothing for this.’

“A spy heard those guys talking. Later, the one who had asked the question was called out. They beat him so hard, and they did it to him for two weeks. When he came back he could hardly talk. I remember him whispering, ‘If I ever get back here I’m going to kill so many of them.’ He hated the communists so bad.”

In December of 1953, Steve Klesitz was finally released and at long last became a free man.

By this time he had learned that his mother, sister and brother had emigrated to Toronto. After getting surgery to repair his damaged face in Stuttgart, he joined them in

Canada in 1954. Within two years he was joined by Lisa, a German nurse who had helped care for him during his recovery.

The two married, Steve found work in auto body shops and in 1957 their son, Ron, was born. Weary of Canadian winters, the young family in 1963 moved to Redwood City where Lisa’s uncle lived.

By 1969, Klesitz had opened his own body shop in San Jose. After raising four children, he and Lisa divorced in 1978. She was killed a few years later while out walking, struck by a teen driver.

Klesitz often vacationed in Tuolumne County and marveled at its climate, its proximity to the Bay Area and the fact that he could both water and snow ski. In 1987, he bought a house in Sonora and has lived in the county ever since. Today at 88, he still water skis in the summer and snow skis in the winter.

So how did Steve Klesitz survive the misery and privation of nearly a decade of forced labor?

“It could kill you if you dwelled on it too much,” he says. “You cannot break your head every day on the misery. I always tried not to take it so seriously.

“I always knew I wanted to survive, to get out and one day get ahead. I kept thinking ‘One of these days we’re going to go home.’

“When I was released I was older, maybe mellow a little bit. Those years taught me you couldn’t get mad or crazy. The time will come. And it did.”

He pauses a moment and recalls all he has survived.

“I sometimes have a dream about that time, but when I wake up I laugh and say, ‘Oh, I’m so happy that I’m here and not there.’ ”


 

Read more WWII memoirs online

Read more of Steve Klesitz’s story at memoircenter.com, home to the nonprofit Tuolumne County Veterans History Project. The all-volunteer project has recorded more than 50 local World War II veterans’ stories, given in book form to each vet and preserved in their entirety online. The effort was made possible with help from the Sonora Area Foundation.


 

This story appeared as part of our cover story, Survivors: Lessons in Resilience,” in our Winter 2014-’15 issue. Click on these links to read the other survivors’ stories:

Richard and Mary Anderson, “Facing Fire’s Terrible Toll”

Sandi Young, “Coming Home to a Moonscape”

Mine Grassetti, “Escaping the Holocaust”

Ken Baldwin, “Surviving Depression”


Copyright © 2015 Friends and Neighbors Magazine

Chace Anderson
By Chace Anderson December 15, 2015 09:52
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