Although their numbers are dwindling every year, there are still many people alive today who remember and lived through the Holocaust during World War II. One of these men spoke to us about his experience as a young boy in a Czechoslovakian work camp, and how his mother – through hard work, quick thinking and just pure luck – managed to keep herself and her two children from the death camps in Poland. He also discusses the need for young people to learn about the Holocaust and the reasons why it happened.
- Michael Gruenbaum, author with Todd Hasak-Lowy of Somewhere There is Still a Sun
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16-33 Somewhere There is Still a Sun: A Holocaust memoir
Marty Peterson: Although their numbers are dwindling every year, there are still many people who remember and lived through the Holocaust during World War Two. Michael Gruenbaum is one of these. He’s a concentration camp survivor, who has written, with Todd Hasak-Lowy, a memoir of his experiences in a book for young people titled, Somewhere There Is Still a Sun. But, why a book about the Holocaust for young people? Will they forget what they’ve learned about that time in our history?
Michael Gruenbaum: I don’t think it’s a matter of forgetting. I don’t think they know anything about it. You know, it’s not been brought to their attention very much.
Peterson: In his own way he’s trying to bring the Holocaust to the attention of teens. And, since he was a teenager during his time in the Nazi camps, he felt that kids today could relate to his life there. Gruenbaum starts his story before the war, when his family lived a very good life in Prague, Czechoslovakia.
Gruenbaum: We lived very comfortable. My father was a very prominent and successful lawyer. We had a car, believe it or not. We were one of the few people that had a car. My father used to go on excursions on the weekends, and then to visit his parents who lived about two hours away. And we lived in a large apartment, we had a cook and a governess and so we lived a very comfortable life.
Peterson: After Hitler’s troops invaded the city, though; it was a different story for Gruenbaum and his family.
Gruenbaum: We had to move from that apartment into a much smaller apartment in the ghetto. We had all kinds of restrictions we had to sort of tolerate or get used to. Like I wasn’t allowed to go to school anymore. I lost six years of schooling during the Nazis. We were not allowed to go to any movies or parks, we had to sit in the back of the streetcar, we had to turn in all of our jewelry, radio, skis and bicycles, cars. We were not allowed to travel anywhere. We were allowed to buy groceries; only certain groceries and we had to buy during certain hours of the day.
Peterson: Living in the ghetto under those conditions was just the beginning. Gruenbaum says that the worst part of the Nazi occupation was yet to come.
Gruenbaum: I was torn away from my mother. You know my father was already arrested while we were in the ghetto, and was tortured and killed right away. But my mother and my sister and I ended up in Terezin, in the camp, and the minute I arrived I was no longer allowed to live with my mother. I was sent to a school building where I was assigned to be in Room 7, and the teacher there, he named it the Nesharim that’s like eagles. And so there were 40 kids in that room bunking together and all together there were about 80 boys that went through that room during that two-and-a-half year period that I was in.
Peterson: Those boys who left during the time Gruenbaum was there were sent on transports east, to a destination that no one at his camp in Czechoslovakia, Terezin, seemed to know about. People who left Gruenbaum’s camp never came back, and weren’t allowed to write many letters back to their relatives. Those who did get permission had their messages heavily censored by the Nazis. But Gruenbaum’s mother was very clever, and she worked out a code with her sister-in-law who had been transported east.
Gruenbaum: The agreement was that if the writing was slanting upwards it meant that the destination was much better than Terezin. If the writing was sloping downwards it would be worse.
Peterson: Gruenbaum’s aunt did manage to send a postcard about her work as a seamstress at her new location, and the writing was slanted down. From then on, his mother was set on not letting Michael, his sister or herself be transported away from Terezin, and he says she used everything she could think of to keep the family together and safe.
Gruenbaum: We were already summoned to three different transports and my mother was able to go to the people who made up the lists and reminded them of all the good things my father had done for the Jewish community in Prague, and other parts of Czechoslovakia. And because of that, they pulled us out.
Peterson: Another time, Gruenbaum says his mother convinced the Nazis to keep them on because her work was vital to filling a large order of Christmas gifts for the SS to give at the holiday.
Gruenbaum: We ended up in the assembly area and our number was about 1350 out of the 1500. So that gave my mother a little bit of extra time as she ran over to the place where she was working, which was the arts department. She went to her boss and she says, “look we have this order from the German SS man to produce these Teddy Bears for Christmas for his children and his friends’ children and this order will not get filled. You’d better tell him.” So he went to the SS man and told him that, and the SS man said why don’t we pull her out of the transport? And my mother’s boss said, “well, that’s okay but you know she has two children, and if they go, she will want to go with them.” So he said, “all right. Pull them out too, but nobody else.”
Peterson: Another tragedy averted, but Gruenbaum and his family weren’t out of the woods yet. Even the liberation of Terezin by the Russians in 1945 was fraught with problems.
Gruenbaum: Just a few weeks before, some of the people that had been sent east was coming back and they brought back typhoid, and so there was a typhoid epidemic in Terezin. And what happened was, even though we were liberated, they would not allow anybody to leave until the end of the month. So, on the one hand it was jubilation that we were liberated, and on the other hand it was so dangerous, because of the illness that spread there.
Peterson: When they finally got to leave, Gruenbaum says that their immigration to the U.S. didn’t go through right away. Since there were quotas of how many people were allowed into the States, he and his family lived in Cuba for two years where he attended an American high school. Gruenbaum says that his family was very lucky to have gotten out of the camp when they did, and his mother was responsible for making much of that luck. He said she was optimistic and persevering, and he titled the book Somewhere There Is Still a Sun after a letter she wrote after Terezin was liberated. Gruenbaum shares the final paragraph of that letter.
Gruenbaum: “We do not yet know how the future will shape up for us. None of our old friends are alive anymore. We do not know where we are going to live. Nothing. But, somewhere in the world there is still a sun, mountains, the ocean, books, small, clean apartments and perhaps, again, the rebuilding of a new life.” I think that’s such a fabulous letter and that’s where the title of the book came from.
Peterson: Gruenbaum says that he has good and sad memories of his time in Terezin, and he hasn’t forgotten about the other boys – now men – who inhabited Room 7, and managed to survive their ordeal despite the odds.
Gruenbaum: I waited 43 years before I went back, and when the Communists were overthrown, I went back with my whole family and then the next year we set up a reunion of survivors of Room 7, and so we met there again. Altogether I’ve been there five times. We’ve been in touch all along, but we really didn’t meet until 1992. We had our first reunion in Prague, and then we’ve met every four or five years since then. And the last one we had was in 2008. We met at the house of our teacher who survived and lived in Los Angeles, and he was 90. We were celebrating his 90th birthday, and there were 62 people so you can imagine how we always said that Hitler would probably be turning in his grave if he knew about that.
Peterson: Gruenbaum says that he hopes his book will help young people learn about and appreciate the suffering that the Jews and others endured under Hitler and the Nazis. As he said at the beginning of our story, he’s afraid that kids today are not being taught about the Holocaust, and he’s happy about a program in his home of Brookline, Massachusetts, that is doing something about it.
Gruenbaum: There’s an organization here in Massachusetts called Facing History and Ourselves. And they have, for the last 35 years, 40 years, been trying to spread the word about genocide and what happened to the Jews during the Second World War. And so they now have 15,000 teachers all over the world teaching courses in this specific area.
Peterson: You can read about a young man’s life inside a Nazi work camp in Czechoslovakia, and his mother’s efforts to keep her son and daughter alive, in Michael Gruenbaum’s memoir Somewhere There Is Still A Sun, available now at stores and online. For more information about all of our guests, log onto our site at Viewpointsonline.net. You can find archives of past programs there and on iTunes and Stitcher. Our show is written and produced by Pat Reuter. Our production directors are Sean Waldron, Reed Pence and Nick Hofstra. I’m Marty Peterson.
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