Joseph Schleifstein, a self-confessed foreign film buff, read a review of "Life is Beautiful" in January and then went to the Paris Theater on 58th Street to see it.The Italian film, a fable that two weeks ago won three Oscars, is about a Jewish boy who survives the Holocaust hidden by his father in a Nazi concentration camp.
"In all honesty, I saw the parallels immediately," he said. "Trust me, I related to the movie. It brought back a lot of memories … in terms of being hidden in Buchenwald with my father and him being protective of me.
"Also the behavior of the child: he did not cry, and I was the same way. I also thought I looked like the kid in the movie, and we were the same age. … I had a little tear in my eye when I saw it."
Schleifstein, 58, was located this week by The Jewish Week, which last week used archival records from the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee to describe the remarkable similarities between his childhood (the details of which he has kept secret from even his own children) and that of the fictional boy in the film.
"I liked the movie," said Schleifstein, who lives on the Upper East Side and took an early retirement two years ago after working 25 years at AT&T. "But it was a comedy and what happened was definitely not a comedy."
Schleifstein, now an Internet stock trader who looks remarkably like he did in a photograph taken 50 years ago, has a quick sense of humor, which he displayed during an interview Tuesday at the offices of The Jewish Week.
"Just say I’m charming and witty," he joked.
Schleifstein said he recalls arriving at Buchenwald and being placed in his father’s clothing sack to avoid being taken away by the Nazis, along with the other children and the elderly (they were later murdered). The JDC records show that Schleifstein and his parents, Israel and Esther, arrived in Buchenwald in eastern Germany in 1943, when Schleifstein was 21/2 years old.(Schleifstein’s younger brother, Benjamin of Flatbush (he was born in Brooklyn in 1950) said he remembers his mother telling him that his father had screamed at her in Yiddish: "I’m taking the kid, I’m taking the kid." Noting that his father died in 1956, Benjamin Schleifstein said he viewed his father "as a real hero. When I read what he did in the newspaper: he had to be somebody special."
Schleifstein said he vaguely remembers being smuggled into the camp and initially hidden by his father. But eventually, he said, the Nazi guards learned of his presence and used him to take roll call in the morning.
"I remember saluting them," he said. "I became the Germans’ mascot and would say, ‘All prisoners accounted for.’ … I guess they didnít feel a need to kill me."
And besides, he said, the Nazis considered his father, a harness and saddle maker, invaluable.
"Why kill me and spoil a good worker," he said. "They needed my father."
But when there were formal inspections by visiting Nazi officials, he said he was hidden.
Schleifstein said he also has memories ("bits and pieces") of hiding in the three ghettos to which his parents were moved after his birth in the Sandomiez ghetto south of Warsaw.
"Time doesn’t mean anything to a kid," he said. "I remember being put in cellars and hidden in the dark. To this day I can’t be in the dark. For years I had terrible nightmares and a fear of death. … I remember being very fearful. In a recurring nightmare, a big boot was coming down on me, about to squish me. I’d wake up screaming at night."
Schleifstein and his father remained in Buchenwald until Gen. George Patton and the U.S. Army liberated the camp on April 12, 1945. Schleifstein’s mother had been separated from them when they arrived and worked at the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp until it was liberated. The family was reunited after the war and lived in the German town of Dachau.
Leon Levy of Brooklyn, who called The Jewish Week after reading last week’s story, said he also lived in Dachau after the war and that Israel Schleifstein was a member of the Jewish committee there and "helped me get an apartment."
Another Brooklyn resident, Dora Lass, said she too remembered the elder Schleifstein when she lived after the war in Dachau. She said her husband, Chaim, was in Buchenwald with him and told her how the elder Schleifstein had smuggled his son into the camp.
"He said the people in the camp made sure the boy had plenty of food," she said. "He said the boy was quiet and gave them no problems. He was a smart little boy."
Schleifstein said he also remembers seeing other children in the camp, although none as young as he was.The book "Hitler’s Death Camps," by Konnilyn G. Feig, pointed out that there was a boys choir at Buchenwald. And it said that in the final weeks of the war, a 4-year-old boy, Stefan Jerzy Zweig, was smuggled into the camp in his father’s rucksack. During inspections, the boy was gagged and tucked beneath the floorboards. Zweig later immigrated to Israel and in 1964 was an all-star player on the Israeli national handball team.
In 1948, Schleifstein said he and his family immigrated to the United States, moving into the Brooklyn home of Schleifstein’s uncle, Julius Schweitzman. Schleifstein’s mother died two years ago.
But before immigrating, Schleifstein said he remembered posing in 1947 in Dachau for a picture in his prison uniform.
"My father wanted me to put it on but I didn’t want to," he recalled. "I was crying. I didn’t want to be on display."
After the war, Schleifstein, who is divorced, did not discuss the war years, even keeping it a secret from his two children, Karen, who now has two children and lives in Marlboro, N.J., and Ira of Englishtown, N.J.
"The perception of people who went through the Holocaust was that they were damaged stuff," he explained. "Look what they looked like. A lot looked like walking skeletons, smelled badly and were sick. I didnít want that stigma."
But in recent years, Schleifstein said he has begun to come to terms with what happened. He said he returned to Germany for the first time last year and harbors no bitterness.
"I think that hate destroys the hater," he said. "I think that what the Germans did was awful. But you have to go on and you can’t let it taint the next generation. Looking to the future means forgiveness."