Clara Knopfler was 17 years old when she and her mother were driven from their homes and forced to embark on a torturous journey through Nazi-occupied Europe. Of the 39 members of her family swept up by the Nazi-aligned Hungarian army, only the pair survived. Michael Mark was 17 when his family was forcibly separated before being taken to concentration camps in Germany. He’d never see his mom again.
In Thousand Oaks, Knopfler and Mark share their experiences with anyone who will listen in hope that their stories, and the atrocities committed during the Holocaust, will never be forgotten.
Both Knopfler, 92, and Mark, 94, are residents of University Village in Thousand Oaks. In May, they both took part in the community’s observance of National Holocaust Remembrance Day. Sheldon Mende, 80, chairman of the Jewish Leadership Council, says that the event featured an invocation by Rabbi Barry Diamond of Temple Adat Elohim, a proclamation from the city of Thousand Oaks recognizing the Day of Remembrance, and a video from the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C.
Mende says having both Knopfler and Mark speak of their experiences is important.
“It’s so far away from the younger people that we feel that it’s important that we tell them about it and that we don’t forget it,” said Mende. “We’ve tried to do whatever we can to prevent this type of thing from happening again.”
As a child, Knopfler lived in Transylvania. In 1944, when she was 17, her and her family were forced out of their home and into a ghetto following an invasion by the Hungarian army. Knopfler says that the ghetto had no toilets for the 10,000 people who were living there, and when her boyfriend at the time took a stand, he was nearly executed in front of them.
“They chose six men from the crowd, one of them was my father, and they had to hang him to a tree,” said Knopfler. “This is what will happen to anyone who refuses German or Hungarian orders, it doesn’t matter.”
One month later, Knopfler and her mother, Pepi Deutsch, 42 years old at the time, were transported to the Auschwitz concentration camps, where they spent a little over a week before being transported yet again, this time to a factory where they were forced to make gunpowder from old batteries for the German soldiers in 12-hour shifts. Knopfler says that the German in charge beat the women who were working there until she learned that he enjoyed German songs, and so she sang.
“After that, he never hit us anymore,” said Knopfler.
Of 60 women in her group, only 14 survived to become liberated when the Russian army drove the Germans out. Even then, as she and her mother took refuge in a nearby abandoned school, she could overhear the German civilians discussing whether or not to execute the survivors.
Following a three-month journey back to Transylvania, she found that her country was now known as Romania and that her family’s home was practically empty. A Christian neighbor, however, managed to save one of her dresses and returned it to her when the Germans left.
Knopfler speaks to anyone who will have her — from California Lutheran University students to lawyers and businessmen — on the importance of never forgetting what happened. With her mother’s guidance, Knopfler wrote a book, I Am still Here: My Mother’s Voice on their shared experiences.
On Oct. 27, 2018, a gunman opened fire at the Tree of Life Congregation in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, killing 11 people. Knopfler says that she will never refuse an invitation to speak to anyone who asks.
“Can I afford not to talk about?” said Knopfler. “If I were a Christian, it would be my mission; I am Jewish, so it’s my duty.”
Mark, 94, lived in the village of Norschaping with his family when the Nazi-aligned Hungarian government took control of portions of Czechoslovakia.
“That’s when everything changed,” said Mark. “They copied the German Nazis and the first thing they did were taking away Jewish people, it was terrible times.”
Mark hid his family’s jewelry and money in a jar in their backyard before his family was taken to smaller camps in nearby cities, transported in cattle cars by train. Without his bearings, Mark had to ask his fellow prisoners where they were when they had arrived.
“That’s the time we were told we were in Auschwitz,” said Mark. “We asked what we were smelling from the chimneys and the prisoners who were there before us said all of those who were selected, now they went to the gas chamber and now they’re burning their bodies and that’s what you see and smell.”
Sometime during the late winter months of 1945, Mark says that he and his fellow survivors were liberated by the American army who discovered them emaciated, cold and weak abandoned by the fleeing German soldiers. Sadly, his father, who had been with him and his group, did not make it. After a long journey home, which took him through the ruins of villages, Mark waited to hear the fate of his mother. Decades later, Mark would visit his mother’s grave two hours north of Stockholm, Sweden; she had died on Sept. 11, 1945.
“To this day I say there are no words what we went through,” said Mark. “I did keep saying, ‘how can civilized people do this? What was their crime?’ To this day I don’t understand.”
Mark has been married to his wife Sally for 65 years. During our interview, she reminded him of the recurring dream he had while performing manual labor for the Germans.
“I was dreaming, dear god, that I would be a bird and fly away and be free again,” said Mark.
Mark recently spoke to an audience at Point Mugu Naval Air Station and, like Knopfler, says that he is more than willing to speak to anyone who will listen regarding his experiences. When asked how many family members Mark lost during the Holocaust, he said that he was unsure because there were “so many.”
Knopfler’s book, I Am Still Here: My Mother’s Voice, was released in 2007 and is available on Amazon. Knopfler’s mother, Pepi Deutsch, died at the age of 101.