David Fine (1966)
This was an article that appeared on Jan5th It is Ernie Gross from Ernie's Deli and R&W
Holocaust survivor inspires rotary club
Updated: 6:27 am, Thu Jan 5, 2012.
Ernest Gross was 15 when he saw his parents and most of his siblings ripped from him forever.
Herded out of a train crammed with men, women and crying children, Ernest came face to face with the S.S. officers of the Auschwitz concentration camp in Poland. As they separated his mother, father and younger siblings into a line that led to an extermination area, a fellow prisoner quietly told the teenager that he should lie about his age.
“An officer came up to me, asked me how old I was. I said I was 17. He asked me again. I said with force that I was 17, and he told me to get in the other line. If he hadn’t believed me, I would have gone with most of my family to my death. They kept me because they thought I was old enough to work,” said Gross.
So began a nightmarish 11 months of near-starvation, back-breaking work and beatings as Gross was shuttled to various concentration camps. He narrowly managed to cheat death on more than one occasion during the Holocaust. Today, he’s an 83-year-old grandfather and a resident of Philadelphia.
Gross’ stories and good humor in the face of tragic memories impressed several dozen members of the Huntingdon Valley-Southampton Rotary Club on Wednesday evening. They invited Gross to speak during a club dinner at Bertucci’s Italian Restaurant on County Line Road.
Born in Romania, Gross and his family were deported to a ghetto in Hungary while he was still a boy in school. Life became progressively more difficult, as more families were squeezed into a small living space and found less and less to eat.
After the ride to Auschwitz in a train that allowed only standing room, he joined hundreds of prisoners, including some of his own relatives, in forced labor at a series of camps, where each man and woman slept constantly out of exhaustion or scrounged for an extra morsel of food when they weren’t working. He learned quickly that there was only one way to survive.
“You had to learn fast to be selfish. You help others, give someone else your piece of bread, you could die,” he said.
It was a bitter truth. One day he asked his cousin, who was sleeping in another barracks, to share only the skin of his potato. His cousin thought about it for a bit, then told him no.
Pulling out a small blue pail, Gross described the prisoners’ daily rations.
“Everyone was given one of these. You had to hold on to them, because it was what they dropped your food in. A little coffee in the morning, a piece of bread or some soup or a potato,” he said.
Gross held up a hard, dark brown loaf of bread, about 10 inches by 4 inches, typical of the bread he was given, to be shared with eight other people.
“One of the reasons I survived was because I learned to get an extra piece of bread,” he said.
Gross and other prisoners were beaten nearly every day.
“But your body got so numb that you didn’t feel it. They gave us work that felt like our bones would break. One day, we had to unload bags of cement and carry them to a truck. All day long,” he recalled.
Finally, Gross reached his breaking point. Reduced to mere skin and bones, and barely able even to walk, he was carted off to Dachau to be exterminated on April 29, 1945.
When he arrived there, he waited with other prisoners in line and saw the ovens. He knew it was the end, but he didn’t have the energy to care anymore.
Suddenly, Gross saw the German guards throwing down their guns. People started screaming that the Americans had come. It was unbelievable, but American soldiers had arrived to liberate Dachau, he said. He was taken to a sanatorium to recover.
In 1947, a social worker placed Gross with a family in New York, where he restarted his life, though he didn’t know a word of English.
“Today, I’m a very happy man. I go to synagogue seven days a week,” he said. He got married, had children, and eventually owned several food stores before retiring. He talked about his two wives, both of whom have died, with affection.
More than 60 years after the liberation, Gross found one of the American soldiers who rescued him. Meeting the man again was amazing, and now they are friends, he said. One of Gross’ older brothers also survived and found him shortly after the liberation. Gross later revisited Dachau, now a museum site, where he showed his second wife exactly where he had been standing on the day he was supposed to die.
Every time Gross talks about his experiences under Nazi rule, he can see the scenes come alive again in his mind. But, despite losing nearly his entire family, he’s learned to let go of anger and despair.
“When I feel the memories start to come into my mind, I cut them off. I also try to use humor to keep me going,” he said.
He’s eager to speak to people about it, so that his experiences aren’t forgotten.
“These young people here, they can tell their children about it,” he said, pointing out the younger people sitting at the tables, listening in rapt attention.
Sarah Goetz of Jamison, 18, said she was especially interested to hear that Gross isn’t holding onto anger.
“I don’t know how I’d feel, if I went through what he did,” she said. She was inspired to learn that Gross has chosen to focus on the good parts of his life while being able to talk candidly about his suffering. The daughter of a rotary club member and the relative of another concentration camp survivor, she attended because she wanted to hear a survivor’s story.
“I visited Dachau last summer,” she said. “I like hearing the personal stories that connect with the general history we learn in school. You hear what it was like from getting up in the morning to going to bed. The cold hard facts.”