75 years since Auschwitz liberation: Philadelphians bear witness to uncertainty, resilience and luck

Ernie Gross
Photo credit Holli Stephens/KYW Newsradio
PHILADELPHIA (KYW Newsradio) — For the hundreds of thousands who were forced to pass through metal gates that promised “arbeit macht frei” — “work sets you free” — most did not live to tell their stories.

For those who did, they were only able to survive one of the darkest times in modern history by virtue of three attributes: physical strength, mental strength, and luck.

Ernie Gross was considered one of the lucky ones. 

At 90, he’s one of the few remaining Holocaust survivors of the 21st century, setting the tone for an unfortunate imminent reality that firsthand, in-person testimonies of these atrocities will eventually no longer exist.

“And every individual survivor has an individual story,” said Chuck Feldman, president of the Holocaust Awareness Museum and Education Center, housed in KleinLife in Northeast Philadelphia.

The work never ends for Feldman’s team, especially on International Holocaust Rememberance Day. This year, in particular, is a significant one, as it marks 75 years since the Soviet-led liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau. U.S. forces liberated Dachau four months later.

Only mere generations removed from the Shoah, Feldman said it’s almost like a race against time to encourage remaining survivors to share their stories to as many people as possible.

“If in fact you were in one of the death camps … you had to have been a teenager or a little bit older, because if you were younger than that, you were immediately put to death,” he explained. “So our (concentration) camp survivors are at this point 90 years old and above.”

‘How old are you?’ A lie for survival

Gross, his parents and his six siblings were taken to Auschwitz when he was just 15.

“There was a train and as soon as the train stopped, they told us to come out as fast as possible,” he recalled. “You can't take anything with you. If you have luggage, you have to leave it there.”

German soldiers clamored around him.

“We were standing in line — we don't even know it’s Auschwitz. We don't even know why we are here.”

But by a stroke of luck, or maybe pure happenstance, Gross talked briefly to a prisoner, who was tasked with loading the leftover baggage onto a truck.

“He said, ‘When you face (Josef) Mengele,’ ” — the SS physician who famously performed human experiments on prisoners — “ ‘you better say you're 17. If you say you're 15, you're gonna go where your parents went.’ I said, ‘Where did my parents go?’ ”

The prisoner gestured to the left: immediate death in the gas chambers.

“Then he tells me to look up in the sky. He says, ‘You see how dark the smoke is? The sun cannot get through it. This is going to be your parents in four hours.’ ”

Eventually, Gross stood before Mengele.

“I thought, they're not going to believe me (that) I'm 17. We're getting closer and closer, and I'm getting nervous and shaky. I saw Mengele and next to him was a German shepherd, and he looked at my two brothers — right away, he told them to go to the right,” meaning they were headed to a labor camp.

“Now it's my turn, and I got more scared from the dog than from him because the dog looked at him, then he looked at me. I was afraid any minute he's going to jump me. He asked me in German, ‘Wie alt bist du?’ (‘How old are you?’). And because I was nervous and shaking, it didn't come out. Then, he asked me again, ‘Wie alt bist du?’ (‘How old are you?’). 

“By that time, I knew already I better stand up straight to look a little taller and I should say it loud. I did that; he told me to go to the right. 

“I was happy — at least I'm safe now.”

With his two brothers, Gross joined hundreds in a large building, where they received their “supplies.”

“They gave me a cup from aluminum. They told me, make sure you don't break it, make sure nobody steals it from you, because this is how you're going to get your food. … I had string in my pocket, so I figured, I'm going to (tie) it on me. Wherever I go, this goes to make sure nobody's going to steal it from me.”

He held onto that cup until one day, things changed.

Suddenly, Jewish prisoners were being shuffled around to other labor camps. Weak and defeated, Gross was put on a train to Dachau.

“It was drizzling, and I was tired. My feet couldn't carry my body anymore, and it got to a point that I already saw the building. Instead of being scared of what's going to happen to me in a half-hour, actually, I was happy to get it over with, because I was no longer able to cope.”

Then, another stroke of luck: “The German soldier near me is throwing down the weapon; he's running away. We are standing in line and we don't even know what to do. I turned around. I see there are the American soldiers, that we were liberated.”

Had the Americans arrived an hour later, Gross would not be alive today. Only he, his younger sister and his older brother survived.

“I was only (at Dachau) for half a day. I was never in the barrack; I never lived there. They only took me there to eliminate me that day.”

Walking into the unknown

Fresh out of high school, Don Greenbaum was eager to enlist in the U.S. Army.

“We all wanted to go,” said the Bala Cynwyd resident. “My entire graduating class wanted to go into the Army and support our country.”

Altruism became a stark reality when they landed on Utah Beach shortly after D-Day.

“We realized that training was over. We saw the body bags, we saw the ambulances, we saw the guys coming home. Someone's brother, sister, uncle — whatever it was, were wounded. From that day on, for the next 4,000 miles and 286 days, we were in constant combat.”

In 1945, a 20-year-old Greenbaum and his unit were given orders to take out what they thought was a German supply depot — used for ammunition, food, gasoline — on their way to Munich after the Battle of the Bulge.

“We knew nothing,” he said. “About a mile, mile-and-a-half outside of the so-called supply depot, which was called Dachau, a tremendous odor hit us. Men got violently ill; we were vomiting all over the place. The odor was so bad that 75 years later, I can still identify that odor.”

Dachau looked clean and orderly from the outside — beautiful, even — Greenbaum remembered, but he was not prepared for what they found behind the gates.

“We weren't notified as to what to look for. No one said, ‘Hey, you're going to walk into a death camp.’ ”

“We didn't know who they were. They didn't know who we were,” he said.

Fortunately, one American knew enough Yiddish to tell the prisoners, “We’re American soldiers. We came to liberate you. You’re free.”

“They started to leave the camp,” Greenbaum said, “but they had nowhere to go.”

“The machine gun pits, the crematoriums, all the clothing lined up in a pile, piles of skeletons, bones — just horrible. … I grew up really fast.”

A responsibility to bear witness 

Today, the world is made up of about 15 million Jews — still far less than the globe’s pre-World War II Jewish population.

“Adolf Hitler made it his mission to kill every Jew on the planet,” Feldman said, “with the goal of killing every one of the 18 million Jews who at that time were on the planet. He succeeded, unfortunately, in killing one-third of them.”

The Nazi regime established more than 44,000 work camps between 1933 and 1945, according to the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum. Of those sites, about a half-dozen were primarily or exclusively death camps.

As a result, Feldman and Holocaust Awareness Museum Education Director Geoff Quinn are dedicated to getting audiences in front of survivors.

Feldman said his organization has worked to mandate Holocaust education in schools, succeeding across 12 states. He said it’s the only way to combat hate.

“It is definitely a race to make sure as many students as possible are able to hear this survivor testimony,” echoed Quinn. “My hope is to help motivate the next generation to continue this work.”

As the survivor population depletes, anniversaries like this one are especially important.

“We're not going to have another 75th anniversary. It's a really important milestone,” Quinn said. “It's important to commemorate instances and these anniversaries with the individuals who had to endure it. It holds a lot more meaning that way.”


Trauma lives on over time

The psychological traumas of the Holocaust have often persisted across generations.  

Sara Botwinick, a marriage and family therapist who specializes in working with Holocaust survivors, said psychological injury often occurs in people who have suffered man-made traumas.

“Especially Nazis, they were really famous for — in very vicious ways — to humiliate people and to break them with the cruelty,” she said.

That trauma is so deep, it manifests as silence, or even an “assault on the human connection.” They kept their experiences from their families, their loved ones, for decades. Although each individual is different, Botwinick has found many of the survivors she’s worked with have made an effort not to be seen as victims.

“One thing that becomes very clear is that they are striving to be extremely independent and they are not exactly looking for help.”

Gross’ first wife was also a Holocaust survivor, but they never once talked about their experiences. She died more than a decade ago.

“When I (reviewed) my life with my wife, I realized I really didn't know much about her,” Gross admitted. “I didn't know what she went through, what kind of work she was doing, and how she was in the camp.”

Even now, among a rare faction of people with these shared experiences, some survivors cannot talk about it.

“It just doesn't come out of your mouth,” Gross explained. “You feel like crying because when you talk about it, it's more like you see it in front of you and it's very hard to take.”

For many like Gross, they had to unlearn certain survival behaviors once rehabilitated. “If I want to survive and you have something, you don't share it with nobody,” he said. “If you share it, you might not survive.”

“There were situations where survivors had to do things to save themselves that might have damaged other people's prospects of surviving,” Botwinick added.

In order to heal, Botwinick said survivors had to learn how to trust again and rebuild empathy.

“Human connection gets reestablished and they believe in humanity again in some ways. … That's how healing starts again.”


Generational gaps encourage storytelling

According to Botwinick, trauma experienced by survivors has been passed on to their children. When survivors started to create families of their own, parents felt compelled to be overly vigilant.

Children — who by now are well into adulthood — may have internalized the enormity of what happened. 

“Sometimes children of survivors, they feel like they are very small compared to their heroic parents, that they could never achieve what their parents achieved, and they don't have that self-confidence,” Botwinick explained.

But for survivors’ grandchildren, she said it’s slightly easier for them to share, since the generational gap adds breadth between them.

“The grandparents in some ways are maybe now much more softened up and have developed maybe different types of relationships with their grandchildren, because there was maybe more distance.”


Choose to keep smiling

Looking at the world today, Quinn admits that seemingly very little has been learned from the Holocaust.

“What's going on all over the world, both in our country and outside, that's happening with this rise in anti-Semitism, as well as just this whole movement of hatred across racial lines or sexual orientation lines,” he said.

Eszter Kutas, executive director of the Philadelphia Holocaust Remembrance Foundation, said anti-Semitic incidents have doubled in recent years.

“Not only are we facing this huge spike of anti-Semitic incidents, we also are facing a time in which now that we are over 75 years removed from the war, the knowledge of and connection to the second World War is rapidly decreasing,” she explained.

With the prevalence of social media, the spread of hateful ideas is easier than ever.

“Today, you just make one statement and … it starts to spread like an illness,” she said. “It makes the general population get used to seeing that imagery and normalizes these kind of behavior, when these kinds of behaviors are not normal. These messages are very, very strong and hateful.”

Without proper education — particularly, Holocaust education — it's harder to illustrate the connection between propoganda and genocide.

“Eighty percent of the general population has never been to a Holocaust museum,” Kutas explained. “Studies show that about 40 percent of millenials only believe that 2 million Jews were killed during the Holocaust, and 22 percent of millenials have never heard of and cannot name what the Holocaust was.”

“What can we do better as educators and as a society to really get this message across of acceptance and tolerance, and especially making sure that violent action isn't taken?” Quinn inquired.

Gross asked himself the same question. After his first wife died, and never having talked to her about his own experiences, he decided to start speaking publicly. 

He feels a responsibility to bear witness and condemn hatred — but also, forgive.

“You cannot forget, but you have to forgive because if you don't forgive, you are the one who is suffering — and what for?” he said.

Although terribly difficult to share his story, the mere appreciation for life lifts his spirits.

“Nobody says you need to be sad,” he declared. “When I walk into KleinLife” — the Northeast Philly resident goes there for lunch every day — “and I see a lady or a man and they look like they lost their last friend, I take this out.”

Gross pulled out a blue card from his pocket. It reads, “KEEP SMILING.” 

“Keep smiling,” he said, “and they do. They start smiling.”


Article written and edited for online format by KYW Newsradio’s Rachel Kurland. Photos and videos by Holli Stephens.