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 realizes that true freedom is a slow process.
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 IV: Journey to Freedom
What does it mean to be truly free? If it means being able to declare who you are publicly, then even after a Czechoslovakian mayor told my grandfather that he was free, he really wasn’t – yet. Night doesn’t end with sudden sunshine, and so, too, the long dark period of my grandfather’s life didn’t conclude in happy parades. Freedom for him came slowly, in increments. For now, he was still Genic Czakovsky, the Czechoslovakian, and he could not reveal that he was truly Mordechai Grinblatt, the Jew.
However, the victory of escaping the Nazis was not to be diminished. My grandfather and his brother were overjoyed. They were weak and sick at the time they escaped – in fact, my grandfather remembered that more than half of those that escaped with him died in the days that followed. Slowly, the brothers regained strength, and the mayor informed my grandfather that since his parents were most likely dead, he would be adopted by a Czech family who lived on a farm. My grandfather could choose three others to join him, so of course he picked his “friend” Joseph Czaikov, his brother in disguise.
An Adopted Family
My grandfather could not say enough about the family that took him in. They nursed the boys back to health and did not ask anything of them in return. I’ve always wondered if that kind family suspected that my father and the other boys were Jews. We will never know, but what we do know is that they did not ask nor did they try to find out. They simply embraced the boys with love. I like to think that they were righteous gentiles with biblical values and the best of intentions.
Years later, once he was living in America, my grandfather and his brother Beryl, now “Benny,” planned to go to Czechoslovakia with a significant amount of money to give to the town that saved them as a gesture of gratitude. Unfortunately, my Uncle Benny became ill and passed away before they had a chance to go. I’ll never get to thank those who saved my grandfather and uncle, but I’ll never forget their kindness either.
Still, as wonderful as that family was, it was not the right place for two Jewish boys. The family planned to marry the boys to family members of their own, and my grandfather, remembering the promises he made to his father, knew that he needed to stay true to his roots. And that meant he and his brother needed to leave – and so they did.
The two brothers tried to return home. But after one day back in their Polish hometown, they discovered that there was nothing and no one left for them. The only home they had ever known was gone forever. Caring neighbors pointed them in the direction of a neighboring town where other Jewish survivors had gathered, and indeed, my grandfather found a cousin in that town. Yet, after some time, one of the most telling and tragic episodes of my grandfather’s saga occurred.
The survivors, all men, found shelter in a synagogue. They stayed there as they struggled to find food and continue to live. One day some of the local Polish residents decided to attack them. The assumption is that they feared that the Jews might try to reclaim their property, which many Poles had already taken for themselves. The other possibility is that they were simply anti-Semitic and felt that it was their job to finish what Hitler had started. But for whatever reasons, they broke into the synagogue and began to murder the survivors, causing my grandfather and the others to flee. As for their cousin, he and my grandfather both thought the other had been killed. It wasn’t until 1980 that they discovered each other was still alive and were reunited.
While this episode pales in comparison to the atrocities committed during the Holocaust, it is so terribly tragic because it occurred after the Holocaust, and not by Nazis, but by citizens of Poland. My grandfather understood that he still had a long way to go before finding complete freedom.
Life, Death, and a Restart
Eventually, my grandfather and his brother found their way to the American zone just southwest of Munich, Germany. There, they were treated with an abundance of kindness and respect. Together with his brother, my grandfather lived in a displaced person’s camp and volunteered to help the Americans through the aftermath of the war. Even when General Eisenhower visited the site in 1945 and personally offered my grandfather entry into America, my grandfather insisted on staying in Germany to help as long as he was needed because he felt such a debt of gratitude to the American army.
In 1947 my grandfather met and married my grandmother, Sala Kuperberg, also a Holocaust survivor. About a year later, my grandmother gave birth to a baby boy. Tragically, in another throwback to darkness, my grandmother was told that the nurse accidently dropped the baby, who died two days after his birth.
I can’t imagine how my grandparents weathered this misfortune. Finally, there was the promise of rebirth after so much death, and then death came knocking on their door once again. It turns out that many German nurses “accidentally” dropped Jewish babies born shortly after the war leading many to conclude that it was intentional. Either way, that baby boy died and anti-Semitism in Europe was very much alive.
It was through these periods of darkness and light, encountering people both good and evil, that my grandfather made his way toward freedom. Finally, in 1949, he boarded a ship to America where he, along with his wife and brother, were sent to live in Columbus, Ohio. Named for the man who discovered the country where all could enjoy the unalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, my grandfather built a new life in this city where he was finally free to be who he was: Max Grinblatt; Jew, Holocaust survivor, and now, proud American.