'If you couldn't walk, they shot you'

As a child growing up in a Romanian village, Leslie Kleinman heard stories about the Nazis from Polish escapees.

"One man said they were pulling children's legs apart and killing them," recalled Mr Kleinman, who was 14 when the Nazis arrived in his village in the spring of 1944. "I thought it was just a story. When I got to Auschwitz, I realised it was true."

The eldest son of eight children born to impoverished Chasidic parents, he watched in horror as Nazi soldiers cut off his father's peyot and took him away. The boy was first sent to the ghetto, where he regularly risked his life sneaking out to find food. But he, his siblings and his mother were eventually sent to Auschwitz.

A Yiddish speaker, he heeded a Polish Jew's advice to lie about his age and was selected for forced labour. He never saw his mother or siblings again. "That man saved my life," he said of the Polish Jew. "I didn't know why he told me at the time, but I did the same thing for others later."

In January 1945, with the Russians 15 miles away, he was sent on a death march towards Dachau, with no source of food other than the grass underneath the snow. "I don't how I survived," he said. "I was just bones. People kept collapsing and if you couldn't walk they shot you. There were dead bodies everywhere. What I couldn't understand was that the Nazis couldn't care less about winning the war. It was more important to kill Jews. The hatred was that much."

At his lowest point, nearly unconscious, Mr Kleinman made a pledge to God that he would spend a year in yeshivah if he survived. Brought to Britain after liberation with other child survivors, he was able to keep his word.

He returned to Auschwitz for the first time last year. "I went to say Kaddish for my family and I stood on the spot exactly where I left them. I cried my eyes out. I have to tell my story now because there are people who don't believe it happened."

He now resides in Westcliff after living for some years in Canada and speaks to school groups about his Shoah experiences.

Last updated: 10:55am, January 27 2012