My Grandfather’s Holocaust Story
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 90th birthday.
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.
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.
Part III: The Great Escape
My grandfather had many names. Shortly after his birth, he was named in the synagogue Mordechai Gimpel ben (son of) Moshe. That name accompanied him throughout life, first by his Jewish family and friends in Poland, and then anytime he participated in a Jewish ritual or life-cycle event for the rest of his life.
My grandfather also received a non-Jewish name when he was born. He was officially Mordka, a secular version of his Jewish name, which appears on all his official documents until his immigration to America. After the Holocaust, when my grandfather moved to the United States, he became Max, a solid American name that he proudly went by for most of his life.
Still, there was one more name that my grandfather assumed during his lifetime which was probably the most important name of all. My grandfather became Genik Czakovsky for a short time in 1945 – and it was this name that saved his life.
A Glimmer of Hope
My grandfather’s escape from the Nazis began with a glimmer of hope. In the winter of 1945, my grandfather was wasting away in the Buchenwald concentration camp when he heard the sound of warplanes flying overhead. At first he thought that the camp was about to be bombed. But what those American pilots dropped from their planes was not bombs, but papers.
They dispersed thousands of leaflets all over the concentration camp with the words, “Don’t give up. The war is coming to an end. It won’t be long!” My grandfather’s joy, as well as that of the other inmates, was immeasurable. They had survived years of hell, and now they were just months away from freedom.
However, the Nazis also knew that the war was coming to an end. They were well aware that they would not emerge victorious. So they began the process of destroying the evidence of their unspeakable crimes. This meant getting rid of the remaining prisoners. They didn’t want anyone left alive who could tell what they did.
A Gutsy Gamble
My grandfather was woken in the middle of the night and placed together with those still alive in Buchenwald onto an open cattle car. It was snowing as the train pulled away, and the open cart allowed the cold snow to fall on my grandfather’s shirtless body. As the transport moved on, some died from the sheer cold.
At one point, the train stopped along the border of Czechoslovakia. There were a number of non-Jewish Czech prisoners on the train. (Don’t forget that five million non-Jews were also killed in the Holocaust.) When the train halted, the Czech prisoners began to shout to their countrymen: “We are your brothers! We are Czech! We are starving, and they are killing us!”
One thing led to another, and the mayor of the town approached the Nazis demanding the release of all the Czech prisoners. The Nazis agreed – for a hefty ransom per prisoner – but were ruthless in who they considered eligible for release. The first order was to determine who was Czechoslovakian. They called for all Czechoslovakian men to come forward. Sensing that this was his only chance at survival, my grandfather looked at his brother and said, “We have blond hair and blue eyes. We are not Jewish; we are Czech.” My grandfather’s brother understood; they were about to gamble with their lives.
A New Name
The next step was to determine who could go and who had to stay on the train of death. Each person who stepped forward as a Czech was asked why they had been taken by the Nazis. If the individual had a plausible story about being in the wrong place at the wrong time, he was granted freedom. If not, he had to stay on the train.
When it came to my grandfather’s brother, Beryl, he told the Nazi that his name was Joseph Czaikov and he made up a story which the Nazis believed. He had gambled and won, and was allowed to stand with the other men to be freed. My grandfather was next. He stated that he was Genik Czakovsky, but his story did not convince the Nazis. He was ordered to the line doomed to stay on the train. He had lost.
But what happened next is what I see as nothing short of a miracle. The next man to be questioned was a Gypsy, dark-skinned, and very obviously not Czech. One has to wonder why he even tried to pass off as one in the first place. When the Nazis took one look at him and ordered him to stay on the train, the Gypsy went crazy and created a scene. That distraction gave my grandfather the cover he needed to switch to the line of those determined to be Czech, and he did.
My grandfather could hardly believe it when he was placed in a truck with his brother and the other men let off the train on that cold, snowy day. The mayor announced, “You are now free!” The town provided the first set of clean clothing my grandfather had worn in six years and his first shirt in two-and-a half years. He received the proper food and shelter that had become a distant memory.
Slowly, my grandfather regained his health and humanity. He still had a long road to travel, but he was free. The nightmare was over. He had cheated death and won – with much help from above.
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.
Part V: Life and Legacy
My grandfather lived the American Dream. He and my grandmother worked hard, accepted help from no one, and were able to save enough money to buy a business, a car, a home, and ultimately to live a comfortable, if modest, lifestyle. They were more than grateful for the opportunities that America afforded them. The only thing, however, was that the American Dream wasn’t my grandfather’s ultimate dream.
Although he loved America and had extreme appreciation for his new country, his deep desire can be summed up in the words of the Israeli national anthem, Hatikvah (The Hope), “To be a free people in our land, the land of Zion and Jerusalem.”
Dreaming of Zion
Even as a young boy in Poland, my grandfather dreamt of Zion. Ze’ev Jabotinsky, a Russian-Jewish leader in early Zionism, began to tour Poland and other European countries in the 1930s. He warned the Jews of impending disaster (although even he had no idea just how devastating the Holocaust would be) and encouraged immigration to what was then called Palestine, modern-day Israel, which at the time was controlled by the British and composed of both Jews and Arabs.
My grandfather vividly remembered meeting Jabotinsky personally. It was a highlight of his life. He was completely convinced about Jabotinsky’s call to work toward Jewish sovereignty in our ancient homeland. He enrolled in Jabotinsky’s youth movement, but had to hide it from his parents, who were initially against Jabotinsky’s philosophy. Even before the Holocaust proved Jabotinsky’s ideals to be correct, my grandfather was already an ardent Zionist who understood that the Jewish people have only one true home.
Yet, as fate would have it, my grandfather never got to live in the Jewish state. He rejoiced in its founding from afar and was a staunch supporter of Israel for his entire life. The first time my grandfather came to Israel was in 1970, just three years after the reunification of Jerusalem. I can only imagine his joy when he visited Israel and saw for himself the fulfillment of a 2,000-year-old dream, and in a way, his own personal one.
A Passing and a Discovery
My grandfather passed away peacefully in 2006, just short of his 90th birthday. In 2009, my mother received a most unusual gift on her own birthday. A few months earlier, she had contacted the registry at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum and applied for information about her father, mother, and six other relatives who were murdered by the Nazis. Out of all those people, it was her father’s information that showed up on her birthday, just days before his third yahrzeit (anniversary of death).
My mother shared the finding with me and my four siblings. We were all amazed at how many documents were discovered and delivered. It was emotional and at the same time surreal to see the records, documents, and personal signatures that testify to the horrors that our beloved family members endured.
There was one particular document that stood out from all of the rest. The Allied Expeditionary Force Registration Form was faded and pale like all of the others. The form, which was filled out when my grandfather entered the Föhrenwald Displaced Persons Camp in Germany, contains nothing other than simple facts and information: name, birthday, gender, etc. However, the banality of the document betrays the plethora of emotions that it evoked from us.
The upper right corner of the document asks for the applicant’s nationality. My grandfather could have written Polish, as he was born and spent his entire childhood to adulthood in Poland. Instead, he chose to write STATELESS. Beneath that one simple, cold word, lies the tragic series of events that left millions, like my grandfather, alone, lost, and homeless in every sense of the word.
Further down the document and slightly to the left, the form asks for the applicant’s “desired destination.” For that, my grandfather had one clear answer: PALESTINE. Israel was and is the only possible answer to the 2,000-year persecution of the Jewish people. While my grandfather never lived in Israel, his final resting place is in Israel. He never gave up on his Zionist dream.
But that isn’t the end of my grandfather’s story. Today, two of his grandchildren and almost all of his great-grandchildren have made their homes in the Jewish state. All of us are part of a story bigger than ourselves. My grandfather continued the story of his ancestors, and his story is continued through his descendants. In 2011, I gave birth in Jerusalem to my only blond child – the same blond hair that once saved my grandfather’s life.
My son is named after my grandfather, and while I hope he and all my children continue his legacy, I am also grateful that they live in a very different world. We live in a world where a Jewish state exists and where we are privileged to daily live the dream that my grandfather could only imagine. We have an army to protect us and a strong nation that surrounds us.
We will never forget who we are or where we have come from, and we will continue to build a better future – one where the Holocaust, which defined and described my grandfather’s life, will happen NEVER AGAIN.