Paul Kraus believes he may be the only Australian Lutheran Holocaust survivor. He has cheated death time and time again, from the horrors of war and the ravages of illness – a fact Paul knows is due to God’s saving grace. This is his remarkable story.
For my parents, the 10 years before my birth in October 1944 were indeed uncertain ones. Both were Hungarian Jews. My mother, Clara, came from Budapest and my father, Emery (Jim), was from Banska Bystrica, a village originally in Hungary but belonging to Slovakia after World War I.
From 1935 onwards, it was clear that the net of Nazism was slowly closing in around them. My parents tried to migrate to New Zealand, Australia, the United States and South America but they were unsuccessful as they could not raise the money required.
Their lives were directly threatened on Palm Sunday in 1943, when Belgrade, the Yugoslav capital where they were living and working, was badly bombed. They escaped to a town my father had lived in as a child – Subotica in Central Slovakia – where they again began to re-establish their lives.
It seems like history has played out God’s wonderful message of deliverance, forgiveness and true healing in my life.
Within 12 months the men were taken for forced labour and, by the end of 1944, were transported to the infamous Mauthausen Concentration Camp. In the middle of 1944 my pregnant mother, together with my two-year-old brother Peter, was forced into a ghetto reserved for Jews who were destined for Auschwitz, an inescapable death sentence for both of them.
An incident that belied coincidence, but had all the hallmarks of divine intervention, resulted in my mother being called to jump from one line of prisoners to another, along with my brother. The first line was headed for Auschwitz, the second to an Austrian labour camp. She arrived in the labour camp in July 1944 after spending an unbearable and stifling three days in a cattle train, during which a number of people died.
Once in the camp she was unable to work because of her pregnancy. The Nazi elite corps, known as the SS, made regular visits but she hid whenever they came to the camp. The story of her survival is nothing short of miraculous.
Shortly after my birth in late October she had a vision of Jesus while in her cell and accepted him as her Messiah. She had become a believer in Jesus and promised Almighty God that whether or not she had a future, she and her sons would be his followers. She fervently prayed for survival for herself and her family and promised Jesus she would always follow him.
About 10 days before the war ended in 1945 she escaped from the camp. The Austrian guards were no longer a threat, recognising that the war was almost over.
However, it was rumoured that if the notorious SS arrived, the inmates would be death-marched to Mauthausen. The SS did come later on the day my mother escaped, and they did take all the prisoners to Mauthausen. There were many deaths. My mother would have died had she not had the courage to head into a dangerous unknown with a small child and a baby.
So began a trek filled with foreboding, as she attempted to return to Budapest. Soldiers from different nations, especially Russia and Italy, gave her small amounts of food and provided her with shelter. As she neared Budapest, her greatest fear was that she would not find her family alive.
However, her parents had miraculously survived the war. Not until I was almost a year old, many months after our return, did my father come back to us, although he was almost unrecognisable in his appearance. He had been liberated from Mauthausen on the last day of the war. He was on the brink of death but was nursed back to some kind of health in an American field hospital.
In 1949 we, along with many thousands of other post-war migrants, came to Australia as refugee immigrants. We rented a small house two doors from an Anglican church in Sydney and, to fulfil my mother’s promise to God, the three of us began to attend St Paul’s Church in Chatswood.
As with so many migrants who arrived in Australia in the 1950s, life was not easy. Australia at the time was overwhelmingly Anglo-Saxon, with no hint of the multicultural society it was to become. Prejudice against foreigners was strong and my parents were subject to an undercurrent of anti-Semitism.
Despite these attitudes, Australia was a wonderful land of freedom when compared with the hatreds left behind in Europe. My parents worked hard with a positive mindset, took whatever work was available, and grew to love their new home. We all became Australian citizens in 1955.
I began school shortly after we arrived but I was scarred by the insecurity of not speaking the language and felt alienated. This resulted in poor self-esteem that haunted me throughout my school years
I left school early and tried many jobs.
Finally, however, I matriculated to university and attended as a mature age student.
I always followed Jesus, even in the midst of storms in my life, and knew that God loved me whatever my circumstance.
I met my future wife as an undergraduate. We eventually married and God blessed us with two sons. I taught in a Catholic high school and wrote a number of Higher School Certificate textbooks and other history books. We attended the local Anglican church for many decades.
In June 1997, at age 52, I was diagnosed with advanced mesothelioma, the asbestos-related cancer. This was more than 30 years after I was exposed to asbestos while working at a factory during university vacations. The medical profession gave me six to nine months to live.
Of course I was devastated but from the beginning I did not believe it was my time to die. God guided me to healing by directing me to address what needed healing in all areas of my life – body, mind and spirit.
However, 16 years later I was diagnosed with prostate cancer, for which I continue to receive treatment. In the same year I was also diagnosed with having a brain tumour, for which I had successful surgery. I have wondered why God speaks to me so often in dramatic circumstances!!
On two occasions I visited Germany for treatment of the prostate cancer. The treatment halted the spread of the cancer and helped to save my life.
When I visited the German hospital the second time, I began to experience what was subsequently diagnosed as panic attacks. When attempting to find out the source of the problem, the wonderful doctor at the hospital pointed to my birth certificate stamped with the Nazi insignia. He believed I would be fine once I returned to home to Australia.
There is a new area of science called epigenetics which believes that our cells have memory, and somehow mine had resurfaced to haunt me. I was very thankful to the German doctors for saving my life and never ceased to be amazed that the nation which so many decades earlier had tried to kill my family was now instrumental in my healing.
While in Germany we attended a Lutheran church and, on our return home, I felt spiritually unsettled and prayed for direction on where my wife and I should worship. God’s Spirit directed me to attend LifeWay Lutheran Church at Broadmeadow in Newcastle, New South Wales. I instantly loved the worship there and I felt a warmth from the members of the congregation, many with German backgrounds. My wife and I felt spiritually at home there.
God’s light and love has been shown so beautifully in this Lutheran church. We thank him for his loving kindness, ‘in the shadow of [his] wings’ (Psalm 36:7).
It seems like history has played out God’s wonderful message of deliverance, forgiveness and true healing in my life. I thank the pastors, Mark Schultz from our mother church in Epping in Sydney and Pastor Michael Rudolph in Newcastle, for their love, warm pastoral care, clear Biblical teaching and for celebrating holy communion each week.
‘Great is your faithfulness, oh Lord’ (Lamentations 3:23).
This feature story comes from The Lutheran April 2017. Visit the website to find out more about The Lutheran or to subscribe.