Holocaust Survivor, Daughter Offer Business Advice Tips From Auschwitz

Gene Klein, Auschwitz survivor, gives business leaders advice about resilience.

ByABC News
September 12, 2013, 10:32 AM
The Kleins are shown in 1935, from left: Bertha, Oli, Gabi, Lily and Herman.
The Kleins are shown in 1935, from left: Bertha, Oli, Gabi, Lily and Herman.
Courtesy Smith Publicity, Inc.

Sept. 12, 2013 -- Author Jill Klein, daughter of Auschwitz survivor Gene Klein, has turned her father's saga into something unique amongst Holocaust literature: advice for business people on how to survive the tribulations of the office.

Her book, "We Got The Water: Tracing My Family's Path Through Auschwitz," takes its title from an entry in a diary kept by Gene Klein's sister Lilly, who also was interned in the infamous Nazi death camp. Lilly wrote in her diary of being sent to Auschwitz's showers. In her case, she was sent to a real bathhouse, not to the gas chamber:

"Then we went into the showers, and we were the lucky ones. We got the water. Millions of others got the gas, but we knew nothing about that then."

Her diary today is on display at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.

Jill Klein's book tells how four members of the Klein family--her dad, his two sisters, and their mother--survived the Holocaust. "It is not easy to think of your father being beaten or starved or made to work as a slave," she says. "But I needed to document his story, and his family's story, so there would be a permanent record of what happened before it was too late."

She holds a doctorate in social psychology from the University of Michigan and is a business professor at Melbourne Business School at the University of Melbourne in Australia. Her father, who was sent to Auschwitz when he was 16, later was sent to a work camp in Wolfsburg, Germany. Today he lives in Florida.

Some 400,000 Hungarian Jews, including the Kleins, were rounded up by the Nazis in the spring of 1944, forced from their homes and sent to death camps. The Kleins were put aboard one of the very first trains to Auschwitz.

The book tells of their privations and sufferings. But it also describes the coping strategies they evolved to keep themselves alive and to fight back against their tormentors.

Gene Klein, asked by ABC News if he already had these coping skills before being sent Auschwitz, says, "No, I don't think so. After a while, after I'd seen all the misery, all the dying, a survival instinct kicked in. I came up with two goals for myself: One was, I had to stay alive for my mother and two sisters. I knew my father had been killed, but I didn't know the fate of my mother and sisters. How terrible it would be, I thought, if they survived but I perished."

His second goal? "I told myself: If I stay alive, I win. If they kill me, they win. I didn't want them to win."

Jill writes in her book: "He saw his struggle to stay alive as a battle he was fighting with the SS. If he gave in, if he surrendered his life, then the bastards would win."

How resilient you are to misfortune, says Jill Klein, depends on how you view your own responsibility. There are two extremes—both bad. One is to assume no personal responsibility and to blame everyone else. The other is to put all blame on yourself.

"Healthy attribution," she says, "is to ask: What role did I play in this? What could I have done differently to prevent this? How am I stronger because this happened? What could I do differently next time?"

Critical, too, she says, is breaking down an overwhelming problem into smaller challenges. To reduce stress, she says, focus on what you can control, no matter how small that may be. Her father, seeing how many prisoners died overnight in their sleep, told himself: I am not going to die in my sleep; I am going to wake up in the morning.

Her two aunts, she says, managed to keep their sense of humor, even amidst death. They used scrap paper to write a kind of newspaper, which they shared with other women in their barracks. In it, they made fun of the camp's guards. They offered fashion tips. "Ladies, spring is coming," they wrote, describing how they would be re-tailoring their grey striped death camp dresses. They announced menus for the coming weeks: "Monday, water and potatoes. Tuesday, potatoes and water."

Jill Klein says that after the 2008 financial crisis she noticed a growing demand for advice about resilience from business audiences. She thought of her father's struggle to survive Auschwitz and began to wonder if it might not serve as a source of inspiration and instruction.

"We started doing sessions for executives," she says, "drawing on all these coping strategies my dad used." While the lessons are implied in the book, they are stated explicitly in the sessions. She and her dad do some of these together, both of them in person. In other sessions, Klein speaks alone but shows video clips of her father.

She says she and her dad started doing the presentations a year ago and have done about a dozen so far. They speak for free to not-for-profit groups. For-profit clients pay between $6,000 and $10,000. Further information about their presentations can be found at www.wegotthewater.com.

"They see dad," says Klein, "and they say to themselves: If he got through that, I can, too."