As Jews around the world observe Yom HaShoah, Holocaust Remembrance Day, on April 24, Yonit Rothchild, a writer working with The Fellowship in Israel, shares the moving story of her grandfather, a Holocaust survivor. In this segment, his story begins.
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 I: The Holocaust Begins
My grandfather’s entire identity was forged by his experience in the Holocaust. He was already 23 when Poland was invaded on September 1, 1939, and he lived in America from the time he was 33 until his death at age 89, just shy of his 90thbirthday.
Yet, the six years he spent going through the Holocaust became the essence of who he was and what he lived for. If someone were to ask my grandfather where he was from — it was obvious that he was not an American native because of his heavy accent — he would look the person sternly in the eye and reply, “I am from the Holocaust.”
This stark statement hauntingly captures the indelible effect that the most inhumane and systematic murder of the Jewish people has had on the Jewish psyche and soul.
The Life Before
However, while the Holocaust overshadowed my grandfather’s life, there was life before and after the war. Before World War II, there were three million Jews living in Poland, a fact my grandfather often touted. I thought he was exaggerating. Yet, it is the truth; sadly, another equally true fact is that only 45,000 Jews remained afterward. Hitler nearly achieved his goal of making Poland Judenrein, Jew-free.
Prior to the ascension of Hitler, however, for at least eight centuries, Jews called Poland home. While life was not perfect, and there were bouts of anti-Semitism, life was generally good for the Jews of Poland. They were content to live humbly and quietly, able to study God’s word and practice their religion in peace. Judaism thrived in Poland, especially in the small village of Wodzislaw, where my grandfather and his family lived. While his family owned a large textile business, they maintained a traditional and simple lifestyle.
My grandfather was one of six children, three girls and three boys. The oldest, a girl, was already married when Hitler rose to power; my grandfather was the second child. My grandfather would boast that his mother was the most beautiful woman in town. She had blonde hair and blue eyes, genes passed on to him – traits that would later save his life. He would also recall that she was the best seamstress in the village and everyone respected her. His father most likely helped in the family business, but as an Orthodox Jew, he spent a majority of his day in prayer and study.
One question I regret never asking my grandfather is: “Did you see it coming? Did you have any idea about the utter devastation about to befall your family and our people?” I’ll never know. But what I do know is that on September 4, 1939, just three days after Germany’s invasion of Poland, the Germans were already knocking on my grandfather’s door.
At first, things weren’t so bad. My grandfather and his brothers were taken to do forced labor, and later my grandfather was sent to work on the railroad for the Nazis. He would leave his family during the week and return home for the Sabbath, which they would celebrate together.
Some time went by, and one day my grandfather heard rumors that following the Sabbath the Germans were planning to round up the Jews and ship them off. By this time, he had definitely heard reports about death camps and crematoriums. He came home for the Sabbath and told his family what he heard.
Instead of returning to work that Sunday, the entire family fled in the middle of the night — first to a forest, later to other towns, and ultimately to a ghetto along with many other desperate and frightened Jews. My grandfather never spoke about life in the ghetto, but other accounts speak of cramped living quarters where many families were squashed into one room, where disease was rampant, and food was scarce. Yet, at least families were still together.
Until one terrible day.
Liquidating the Ghettos
The night before it happened, my grandfather and his family already knew it was over. The Nazis were coming to “liquidate” the ghetto the next morning. There was nowhere else to run and nowhere left to hide. The next morning, the Nazis banged and yelled for the Jews to come out. Then they decided who would go where. In other words, they systematically tore families apart.
My heart breaks when I picture the scene. With the flick of a Nazi hand, my grandfather and his two brothers were sent to one side, to life. Their train (a cattle car) would lead to a concentration camp where they would endure harsh conditions and work in hard, forced labor. They were the lucky ones.
Everyone else – his sisters, his brother-in-law, and his parents – were sent to another line, to death. Their train would lead to Treblinka, where they were all sent to “showers,”’ which we now know were actually gas chambers where they were poisoned to death.
I have since been to Poland and I have visited such gas chambers. They are hauntingly lined with scratch marks from human fingernails clawing at the walls, grasping desperately at life, as they took their final breaths.
Those last moments in the ghetto, with a Nazi casually deciding the fate of his family, were the last time my grandfather would see his family.
Sensing this possibility, my great-grandfather, Moshe Grinblatt, asked my grandfather to make two promises: One, that he would continue to pray to God three times a day, as is the Jewish custom. In saying that, I think my great-grandfather was telling my grandfather to never lose faith, to never give up, and to never leave God, no matter how tough things might get. The second promise was to watch over his two younger brothers. As the eldest son of the Grinblatt clan, my grandfather was charged with the responsibility for the other two sons, who, like him, were now helpless in the clutches of evil; three more Jews for whom Hitler had a plan.
My great-grandfather’s last words to my grandfather were this: “Always remember who you are and where you have come from.” With that, they were separated.
And that is how six years in the fires of hell began.
Come back next week for the next part of Max's story.