PORT HUENEME, Calif. —
Naval Surface Warfare Center, Port Hueneme Division (NSWC PHD) personnel were captivated by the story of one girl and her mother who endured tragic events at several concentration camps during World War II.
April 23 marked the command’s Holocaust Remembrance event, where Clara Knopfler spoke about her experiences and the importance of remembering the past. NSWC PHD Leadership in a Diverse Environment (LDE) Change Agent, Candice Zakaria, emphasized this message during opening remarks, saying “It is not only significant to bring light to the atrocities of the Holocaust to learn what happened, but also reflect on what universal lessons we can glean from this catastrophic moment in humanity.”
Knopfler then took the stage, beginning her story in May 1944 when she and her family, along with 550 Jewish residents of their small Romanian town, were transported to a ghetto, about 30 miles south.
There, they joined more than 8,000 people crowded together in a brick factory in muddy and unsanitary conditions.
A few weeks later, they were herded onto railroad cars and trucks, and taken to Auschwitz, the infamous concentration and extermination camp, where the men were separated from the women. Knopfler watched helplessly as her father and brother melded in with the other men.
That was the last she saw of them. She learned later that her brother was shot by a German guard and her father died from failing health while making his way home after the liberation of his camp.
Knopfler and her mother, Pepi, clung together as they were transferred from one camp to another doing a variety of jobs, from recycling batteries to digging antitank trenches.
“If my mom was not with me during that time, I would not be here today,” said Knopfler. “She had a quiet strength.”
A year later, after their captors fled before the Russian army, she and Pepi endured a three-month walk, returning to her home town.
Life improved for them. Knopfler returned to school, attended university, met and married Paul Knopfler; a survivor of another concentration camp.
In 1962, Knopfler―who would change her first name to Clara after immigrating to the United States with her family―settled in New York. Her husband, a pharmaceutical chemist, was killed in an industrial accident in 1991. She then moved to California in 2009 to join her son and grandchildren.
Pepi died in 1999 at the age of 101, but she inspired her daughter to write a memoir “I Am Still Here: My Mother’s Voice,” published in 2007.
“Meanwhile, I continue to tell our story. It is my mission. Those few who survived cannot live with themselves if they do not speak,” she said. “When this generation is gone, I hope what we went through will not be forgotten.”
She closed her talk with a recurring theme.
“You must talk to your children and grandchildren about these events. Don’t let them forget. I was chosen to come here to tell you―never let this happen again.”