Life is Beautiful: real-life parallel

"Life Is Beautiful" could be the story of Joseph Schleifstein's childhood.

The Italian film, a fable that won three Oscars last month, follows a young boy who survives the Holocaust hidden by his father in a Nazi concentration camp.

Though a real-life parallel seems almost impossible, wartime records show that Schleifstein was 2 years old when he and his parents, Israel and Esther, arrived in Buchenwald in eastern Germany in 1943.

Now a 58-year-old New Yorker, Schleifstein recalls arriving at the camp and being placed in his father's clothing sack to avoid being snatched away by the Nazis. Other children and the elderly were taken away and later murdered.

He was located last week by the New York Jewish Week after that newspaper obtained archival records from the AmericanJewish Joint Distribution Committee. The records 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.

Schleifstein, a foreign-film buff and Upper East Side resident, saw "Life is Beautiful" in January.

"In all honesty, I saw the parallels immediately," said Schleifstein, who trades stock on the Internet after taking early retirement two years ago following 25 years at AT&T.

"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."

The behavior of the fictional boy also rang true to Schleifstein.

"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."

Schleifstein liked the movie. "But it was a comedy and what happened was definitely not a comedy."

His life, of course, does not completely mirror the film.

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 didn't 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, the boy 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."

The boy 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.

Israel Schleifstein died in 1956; Esther Schleifstein died two years ago.

Leon Levy of Brooklyn, who called the Jewish Week after reading a story about the archival records in the March 26 edition, said he also lived in Dachau after the war. Israel Schleifstein was a member of the Jewish committee there and "helped me get an apartment," Levy said.

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 him.

His story is highly unusual but not unique.

"Hitler's Death Camps," a book by Konnilyn G. Feig, a former San Francisco State University professor and a Corte Madera resident, pointed out that a boys choir existed at Buchenwald.

The book also noted 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 became an all-star player on the Israeli national handball team.

In 1948, Schleifstein and his family immigrated to the United States. They moved into the Brooklyn home of Schleifstein's uncle, Julius Schweitzman.

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."

Schleifstein's younger brother, Benjamin, lives in Flatbush. He was born in Brooklyn in 1950 and 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."

Benjamin Schleifstein viewed his father "as a real hero" who "had to be somebody special."

For many years, Joseph Schleifstein did not discuss the war. Schleifstein, who is divorced, even kept 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 didn't want that stigma."

But in recent years, Schleifstein said he has begun to come to terms with what happened. He returned to Germany for the first time last year and said he 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."