By Kate Hawthorne, Staff Writer
“There are stories that the entire world must know. Today we are here to hear these stories,” said Rabbi Gurevitz to the large crowd gathered in the Rohr Center at Haverford College. On Wednesday, Nov.16, the Tri-Co Chabad hosted a program called “Crossing Connections: Holocaust Testimony.” The two guests were 91-year-old American liberator Don Greenbaum and 87-year-old Ernie Gross. They met each other 71 years ago at the liberation of Dachau, a death camp near Munich. They reunited about four or five years ago when Gross realized he wanted to start telling his story. Last year, they were both featured in a documentary for the anniversary of the liberation of Dachau, known as “The Liberators.”
Don Greenbaum was 18 years old when he arrived at Dachau with the US troops. He was a member of the artillery and his job was “Forward Observer” – he went ahead of the company to locate the enemy and reported back about what he found. He fought through France, Belgium, Holland, and Luxembourg without much resistance, but when they reached Germany the warfare intensified. On November 9, 1944, while in Germany, Greenbaum was wounded in action (for which he received the Purple Heart) and was sent to a military hospital to recover before returning to the front in time for the Battle of the Bulge.
In 1945, his unit was ordered to destroy a supply depot outside of Munich. A mile outside of Munich, Greenbaum and the other “Forward Observers” found a sign that said “Dachau.” As they continued past the sign they began to smell a bad odor, and a mile away, the sky was black overhead. Shortly after, they found 25 box cars filled with corpses. Beyond the box cars they found a camp filled with emaciated people and surprisingly little resistance. Greenbaum and his unit did not have enough food to feed them, but radioed to the troops behind them to tell them to bring extra supplies, which they distributed to the people before continuing on. Fifty years after Greenbaum left the army, as Holocaust deniers became more vocal, he began speaking about his experience.
Ernie Gross was one of seven children in a family of nine from Hungary, one of only two siblings who survived the Holocaust. On April 15, 1944, the last day of Passover, Gross and his family “went to sleep in freedom.” At 5 a.m. the next day there was a knock at the door, and two Hungarian police told them, “If you have money or jewelry leave it on the table… in an hour be in the synagogue… when you leave the house don’t lock the doors.”
The entire Jewish population of their town was held in the synagogue without electricity, water or plumbing for three days with both the doors and windows closed. After three or four weeks of rail travel, with only one stop in between, the family arrived at Auschwitz. When Gross disembarked the train, he was warned by a worker to say his age was 15, rather than admitting that he was, in fact, a year younger.
This tip likely saved his life, as he was directed to the right instead of the left, like his parents and his two younger siblings, to the gas showers. While in Auschwitz, Gross lost track of his two older brothers and went on alone to the city of Calvarim (Camp number one). While there, he learned a very important lesson that helped him survive: put yourself first… don’t share food, not even with family, because every bit helps.
After he was liberated, he kept this mindset for quite some time. Later on, he was sent to Camp Lagerältester, one of the last stops before a death camp. People remained there for one to three days before being shipped off to a death camp. In Gross’s case, the camp was Dachau. Just as he was arriving at Dachau, a jeep pulled up and Gross’s Nazi escort was scared off by the Americans. Gross included many jokes in the telling of his story, as a way of coping with the horrors he faced during the Holocaust.
Listening to stories like these are important because in ten or so years there will be no Holocaust survivors that remember the events. People need to learn from history before it repeats itself. Gross and Greenbaum both made this very clear in each of their own speeches. Gross, however, ended the speech with these words, part joke and part serious message: “Follow these four steps. One, find a partner in college ‘cause once you’re out of college, it’s not easy. Two, find a hobby … Three, you have to get a job that you like. … Four, you have to believe in God, as everything that has happened, happened because of God. And five, you have to remember I told you so.”