The reminders are scattered throughout Michael Gruenbaum’s Brookline, Mass., home of 41 years. On one wall, there’s a framed slip of paper with German writing, and a 65-year-old teddy bear usually sits on a second-floor dresser. Together, they trace a story of unlikely survival during the Holocaust.
The reminders are scattered throughout Michael Gruenbaum’s Brookline home of 41 years. On one wall, there’s a framed slip of paper with German writing, and a 65-year-old teddy bear usually sits on a second-floor dresser.
Together, they trace a story of unlikely survival during the Holocaust.
“It’s an amazing story,” said Rebecca Elberding, an archivist at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C. “It’s a mother saving her children, and there’s something very human and basic about that.”
Gruenbaum, 79, said he was “elated” to hear that the Holocaust Memorial is featuring his late mother, Margaret, on the November page of its 2010 calendar. The museum will be mailing the 2010 Membership Calendar to members at the end of this month.
“She really deserved it,” he said, fighting back tears. “She had a lot of energy, and a lot of perseverance, and that’s why I’m here today.”
In 1942, when Gruenbaum was 12, occupying German authorities deported him from Prague in what's now the Czech Republic to the Terezin concentration camp, along with Margaret and Michael’s older sister, Marietta.
Earlier, Michael’s father had been arrested by the Gestapo and killed.
Conditions at Terezin in the Czech Republic were harsh. Out of 140,000 people who passed through the camp, 34,000 died of disease and malnutrition, according to Edgar Krasa, a Newton resident and Terezin survivor who lectures about the camp.
More than 84,000 people were deported to other camps, mostly death camps in the East, Krasa said.
“Luckily, no one knew what was going on in the East,” said Krasa, recalling the years he lived in Terezin before he was deported to Auschwitz in Poland. “Living with this [knowledge] for months and months would have been terrible.”
Margaret, however, suspected that the situation was dire in the East. Shortly after being deported to Auschwitz, her sister-in-law had sent Margaret a letter with downward-sloping handwriting. In the code that the two of them had created, that meant that Margaret needed to try anything in order to stay at Terezin.
For the time being, Margaret kept busy. An artistic woman, she was put in charge of making teddy bears for the children of German soldiers.
In 1944, Margaret received a notice informing her that she and her children would be transported elsewhere.
It was the news she had dreaded.
Margaret sensed that she had to act quickly. She tracked down her work supervisor, a Dutch Jew, and told him about the notice.
Her supervisor, whose son played soccer with Michael, approached the German officer in charge of the department and made a bold request.
“If you want these teddy bears, you better pull this lady out of the transport,” Michael Gruenbaum recalled the supervisor saying.
The move paid off. The officer signed a slip of paper excusing Margaret from the transport. At the request of Margaret’s supervisor, he excused Michael and Marietta Gruenbaum as well. But their troubles were far from over.
The authorities at the camp were under orders to deport 1,000 people. But after making exemptions to people like the Gruenbaums, they had only 950. That meant the “protected” Jews who had been excused from the transports — including the Gruenbaums — were no longer protected.
The day of the transport, the Jews who had been given reprieves waited in three rooms in one of the camp’s assembly buildings.
“First, they went to the room that was right next to the stairway,” Gruenbaum said. “You could hear soldiers giving loud orders, and they had dogs barking, and it was quite a scene. And they pulled everybody out of that room and sent them on a train.
“Then they went to the second room, and they still had some more people that they had to get out. So they took some people out of that room.
“Suddenly it was quiet,” Gruenbaum recalled, lowering his voice. “We could hear the train leave, and suddenly everybody realized that we were saved for another day. You never knew what the next day would bring, but for that day, at least, we were saved.”
The following year, the Russians liberated Terezin, and the Gruenbaums were free. They stayed in Czechoslovakia for two more years. In 1947, Margaret attempted to move the family to the United States, but because of immigration quotas, they needed to stay in Cuba for two years.
When the three Gruenbaums arrived in New York Harbor in 1950, they saw boats spraying water in the air and assumed the boats were welcoming their freighter into the country.
“We thought, ‘Boy, what a reception!’” Michael recalled. Soon, though, the immigrants on the ship learned that it was Independence Day in their new country.
“July 4th is a big, big day for me,” Gruenbaum said. “It’s the beginning of a new life, really.”
Once in the United States, Gruenbaum started a new life as an engineer. He married his wife, Thelma, in 1956, and their three sons each attended Heath School and Brookline High.
In 2004, after more than a decade of interviewing survivors around the globe, Thelma Gruenbaum published “Nesarim, Child Survivors of Terezin.” The book profiles the 10 survivors, including Michael, from a group of 40 boys who played soccer together at Terezin.
Last year, the eight living members of the group reunited in Prague, bringing with them their wives and nearly 50 children and grandchildren. Among the crew of former soccer buddies is the son of Margaret’s supervisor — the one who saved the Gruenbaums from the transport. Michael and the supervisor’s son remain in touch, and Michael is flying to New Mexico next month to visit him.
Amazingly, Michael said, the group’s supervisor at the camp, who was about 20 years old at the time, is still in contact with each of them.
“He calls each one of us about once a week [or] every other week and wants to know what’s going on,” Michael said. “We are his children.”
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