This semester, Canon-McMillan High School students in Meg Pankiewicz’s Holocaust literature course have studied the historical background of the genocide through books and film.
On Wednesday, though, Holocaust survivor Frank Grunwald, 88, provided a living history lesson.
Grunwald, whose mother and 16-year-old brother died in the gas chambers in Auschwitz, spoke via Zoom for more than two hours about his survival at Nazi concentration camps before he was liberated by U.S. soldiers in April 1945.
Grunwald and his brother, John, lived in Prague, Czechoslovakia, with their parents, Dr. Kurt Grunwald, a physician, and Vilma, a housewife.
Grunwald’s father was an accomplished pianist and photographer, and both of his parents had a love for art in music, which Grunwald inherited. His parents weren’t practicing Jews.
But in the spring of 1939, when Grunwald was 6 years old and his brother was 10, Germans invaded Prague.
Within months, the brothers were expelled from school, and the family was evicted from its apartment – it was taken over by a Nazi family – and forced to live with distant relatives in an apartment across the city.
Later, the Grunwalds were deported to Theresienstadt, called Terezin, a ghetto and concentration camp for Czechs, where food was scarce.
Grunwald’s father was assigned to work as a physician at a primitive clinic, and his mother was assigned to work in a kitchen. There was no communication with the outside world, but the prisoners – which included painters, musicians and scholars – fostered a culturally vibrant atmosphere.
But Terezin was a staging place, and the Grunwalds and the 5,000 others who lived in the camp were deported to Auschwitz-Birkenau, where more than 1 million Jews died.
Grunwald and his family arrived in Auschwitz in December 1943. It was there that Grunwald received his identification tattoo: number 169,057.
But, unlike others who arrived at Auschwitz and were immediately separated into two groups – children, mothers, and elderly who were almost immediately sent to the gas chambers, and able-bodied men who were selected to work in German factories – the Czech prisoners were placed in a family camp.
The Nazis forced them to write post cards to friends and family telling them that they were in good health and well taken care of.
“We were extremely lucky. We were not going through a selection, which was unbelievable,” said Grunwald. “We think it was done for propaganda reasons; in 1943 there were rumors circulating through Europe that Jews were being killed by the hundreds of thousands in concentration camps. Nazis possibly established the Czech family camp to contradict those rumors.”
But the Czech prisoners only remained at Auschwitz for six months before they were required to go through a selection process overseen by Dr. Josef Mengele.
On July 6, Grunwald’s brother, who had a limp from a disability, was selected for the gas chamber. Grunwald, too, was directed to the left side of Mengele’s table – at the time he didn’t know what that meant – but Willy Brachman, a German prisoner who Grunwald worked for as a messenger, pushed him into the other line with a group of older boys.
“He, for a moment, risked his own life by saving mine,” said Gruwald.
Grunwald’s mother chose to remain with John, and on Dec. 11, she, his brother, along with Grunwald’s grandmother and about 85% of the Czech family camp, died in the gas chambers. Vilma Grunwald was 39 years old.
Grunwald, who didn’t know his father’s fate, survived a death march – walking for two days on snow-covered roads without food or water – enroute to a train that took the prisoners to Mauthausen, a camp in Austria. He worked there and at sub-camps until he was liberated at a camp in Pine Forest near the village of Gunskirchen in 1945.
“People who walked too slowly were shot and thrown on the side of the road. It was a very unnerving time,” said Grunwald, who credited two prisoners who were dentists with saving his life by forcing him to walk even though he was weak and delirious.
During a train stop on the way, prisoners were allowed to disembark, so they scooped up snow and added the sugar and lemons that Czech women threw onto the train for them, and made lemon ice.
“Ever since then, I have been in love with lemon ice,” Grunwald said, smiling.
It was at the Pine Forest camp when Grunwald began to doubt he would live much longer.
“By this point, this is the first time I am thinking there’s just no way I’m going to survive this,” he said.
Days later, he awoke to the sound of machine gun fire, and then saw American soldiers walking toward him.
“I knew then that the war, for me, was over,” said Grunwald.
Grunwald and his father reunited, and later moved to the United States.
Decades later, though, Grunwald found in his father’s drawer a letter that his mother had hurriedly written on paper just an hour or two before she was taken to the gas chamber.
Vilma Grunwald slipped the letter, now in the Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C., to a German guard, who surprisingly delivered it to Grunwald’s father.
Grunwald read parts of the letter to the students. It reads, in part, “You – my only and dearest one, do not blame yourself for what happened, it was our destiny. Stay healthy and remember my words that time will heal – if not completely – then at least partially. Take care of the little golden boy and don’t spoil him too much with your love … Into eternity, Vilma.”
To this day, Grunwald is moved by the tone of his mother’s letter, which, he pointed out, contains “no anger, or hatred or bitterness.”
Grunwald said he used his memories of his mother to help him navigate his life after he was freed from the concentration camps.
“I missed my mother terribly. I felt lonely, like I needed more support. I used my mother as support. I tried to remember all the (love) and emotional words she gave me when she was alive,” said Grunwald. “Through art and music and the support of my mother’s teachings, and the realization that everybody is different, it really helped me build a fairly healthy life, I think.”
Grunwald, a retired industrial engineer who worked in product design and development for companies including General Electric and Ford, begins teaching a course on invention and innovation at Purdue University next week, and, surprisingly, one of the components of the class is the importance of empathy.
“Empathy is important and should go into everything we do,” said Grunwald. “Everything is based on empathy and it should be the underlying force behind everything you do. You should be able to feel what the other person feels.”
Throughout the meeting, Grunwald showed photos of his family and concentration camps, and he shared sculptures and art he’s completed over the decades.
When asked by student Emily Wilson for his best piece of advice for life, Grunfield offered some thoughts: Don’t judge yourself by what other people can do. Everyone’s got unique talents; don’t be driven by money, do what you enjoy doing; beware of selfish people; and be careful of propaganda.
“Extreme is always the wrong way,” said Grunwald, referring to information controlled by the Nazis – ranging from “Jews Not Allowed” signs to newspaper coverage.
Canon-Mac senior Olivia Lackovic sat in on Grunwald’s Zoom presentation.
“It was absolutely amazing to be able to hear from him. My generation isn’t going to get an opportunity to hear from survivors much longer because there are so few left,” said Lackovic. “His story was so moving, especially when he talked about his mom. Despite what he went through, he just radiated positivity through the entire meet.”
Note: A documentary about Grunwald’s life, “Misa’s Fugue,” is available on Amazon Prime video. Pankiewicz, a doctoral student at Gratz College who is pursuing a doctorate in Holocaust and Genocide Studies, organized Grunwald’s visit through Classrooms Without Borders.