In the month leading up to Yom HaShoah, Holocaust Remembrance Day, which falls on May 5 this year, Yonit Rothchild, a writer working with The Fellowship in Israel, will be sharing the moving story of her grandfather, a Holocaust survivor. This week, he faces death and a decision.
My grandfather, Max Grinblatt of blessed memory, had two requests in life: One was to watch over our children; the other was to tell the story of the Holocaust so that the world would never forget. This is his story.
Part II: The Will to Live
My grandfather’s experience in concentration camps was fairly typical. Harsh labor to the point where it actually killed people, impossible living conditions, and barely any food. In fact, one of the camps my grandfather was placed in was Buchenwald, the very site used to film the famous movie Schindler’s List, so I can very much picture how it looked.
My grandfather told us how they would get some kind of watered-down soup in the morning and one piece of bread at night. This slow starvation and malnutrition killed thousands. In addition, the clothing given to the victims was hardly appropriate for the cold, snowy winters — that is, if you were lucky enough to have a full set of clothing at all.
My grandfather survived the last two-plus years without a shirt on his back. Yet, somehow, despite these terrible circumstances, my grandfather and his two brothers managed to live and find the will to survive.
However, there was one time when my grandfather lost his will to live.
“Goodbye, My Brothers”
When he last saw his father, he promised to take care of his two younger brothers, Dovid Leib and Beryl. One day, Dovid Leib, the middle brother, had a cold. My grandfather and his brother Beryl suggested that Dovid Leib take a day to rest in the barracks and then return to working the following day. Dovid Leib, described by my grandfather as tall, handsome, and very intelligent, stayed back that fateful day with others who were more severely ill.
On that particular day, the Nazis decided that they would get rid of those who were ill and not contributing anything to the war effort. They came into the barracks and rounded up all who had stayed back from working that day. It didn’t matter that Dovid Leib only had a cold and would have recovered. He was grouped with all the other sick Jews and ordered to follow the Gestapo.
He must have known what was going to happen. As he walked with the doomed group of men, he passed by my grandfather and his other brother who were working in the fields. He waved to them and said, “Goodbye, my brothers. I am going to be killed in a few minutes. I won’t be seeing you again.” And that’s exactly what happened. The Nazis took the men a little farther and then shot each one point blank.
This was just too much for my grandfather to bear. He wept and his brother wept. For my grandfather, not only had he lost his brother – he had also inadvertently broken his promise to his father to take care of his brothers. At that point my grandfather gave up. He told Beryl that he was finished and that he planned to throw himself into the electric wires and end his life. Beryl said, “If you do, then I will, too.”
When friends heard about my grandfather’s plans they all tried to talk him out of it. Nothing seemed to work until they pointed out that if both living brothers chose death that would be the end of the family line. It wasn’t a decision that affected just them, but all those in their family who had already been murdered.
My grandfather listened. His friends had made a good point. He had already let his father down with Dovid Leib’s death. Could he further betray his father? On the other hand, the situation looked so hopeless. Why suffer more when death seemed just around the corner at any given moment anyway? And it wasn’t just my grandfather’s fate that he was deciding. His youngest brother had made it clear that he would follow whatever path my grandfather would choose.
Thankfully, he chose life.
I often think about this pivotal moment in my grandfather’s life. I have pointed it out to my own children. If my grandfather had given up that day, my mother wouldn’t have been born, I wouldn’t be here, and my children wouldn’t be here, either. If he had lost hope, he would have never met my grandmother and enjoyed over 50 years of marriage with her. He would have never held his grandchildren, danced at their weddings, or seen the first few of his great-grandchildren.
If my grandfather would have given in to despair, he would have never seen the birth of Israel or touched the stones of the Western Wall. If my grandfather had ended his life then, he would have never seen the fall of Hitler and the triumph of good over evil. He outlived Hitler and beat the Nazis by choosing to live when he felt like giving up. He didn’t know it then, but the moment my grandfather found the will to live was a moment of victory for our entire family.
I am so grateful that my grandfather didn’t give up on that terrible day and the painful time that followed. It has inspired me to hold on to hope during my own challenging moments. Above all, it reminds me that our individual lives are intricately connected with those who came before us and those who come after us.
Our decisions affect generations before us and generations after us. We bear a great responsibility; our actions are bigger than ourselves. Just as my grandfather remained hopeful and faithful through unspeakable challenges and suffering, I hope to retain even just a part of that tenacity, making decisions that take into account the lives of future generations.
Read part one of Max's story.