As part of an occasional series focused on individual lives, and in anticipation of International Holocaust Remembrance Day (January 27), I dedicate today’s blog to the memory of Konrad Kaplan (aka Conrad Caplan), a Norwegian Jew, and an unsung hero of WWII, who died 75 years ago this day, on January 10, 1945.
Odd Nansen makes only a few, brief mentions of Kaplan in his diary. On November 11, 1943, Nansen learns that Kaplan is the only member of his entire family still alive in Auschwitz: “He had been spared for some reason, probably because he is in a kommando [work squad] where they needed him.“
Nansen was right—Kaplan had an important job.
On the ramp.
Where the unsuspecting passengers of the continuously-arriving transports were sorted: “All the healthy and able-bodied were picked out; the rest were for the ‘baths’.”
Almost exactly one year later (November 16, 1944) Nansen, who describes Kaplan as “full of heart and the urge to help others,” learns of the unbearable moral dilemma Kaplan faced every day:
“All the small children went into the ‘bath.’ Every woman with a child in her arms went the same way, and all the old and feeble. This was known to all who worked on the ramp, but the poor creatures who arrived with the transport had no suspicion of it. Therefore it might well seem brutal and incomprehensible to a young, strong woman when Konrad Kaplan came and took the child out of her arms and gave it to an old woman instead. Konrad wanted to save the young woman, and he had to do it like that, with no words or explanations, but peremptorily. For in any case the child and the old woman were going to die.”
Nansen elaborated on Kaplan’s role at the ramp in a book he wrote shortly after the war, but did not publish until 1973, Tommy-en sannferdig fortelling [Tommy: A True Story]. Here I quote his description of Kaplan’s final actions as Auschwitz begins to be evacuated in the face of Soviet Army advances:
“When the Auschwitz camp was later evacuated, the boy still stood on the ramp. Then he had to deal with convoys which were taking the prisoners away. The only thing he could do for his fellow captives was to get them better clothes than the rags they had. The last I know about him was that he stood half naked and starvation thin and waved to a convoy that rolled away. He had given away his own clothes to those who needed them. It was mid-winter, minus fifteen degrees centigrade [5˚F.]. He stayed at his post, like a captain on a sinking ship. Unknown and as quietly as he did his deed in life, he took his place among the martyrs in the death columns of genocide.”
Konrad Kaplan had just turned 22.