LEVITTOWN, Pa. –
‘Gross learned to find humor, hope, and forgiveness in the darkest of places’ Ernie Gross never found it easy since, from a young age, he was called a “boy who never laughed.” It happened in school as well. In his, he was ignored by his teacher, and his classmates always mocked him looking at his kosher lunch. They still help him down and then rubbed bacon and ham on his lips.
What about youth? It was the worst. Gross said, “Youth was like I went from bad to worse.” It was in April 1944, when Hungarian soldiers were standing at his house. He was in Romania, and it was the last day of Passover, and soldiers started forcing Gross, parents, and six siblings from their home. They told either you must be shot or move to the town’s synagogue. Later after weeks, they all boarded in cattle crowd, which was too crowded and moved towards Auschwitz. What happened after this took him decades to reveal. One recent day, from his home present in Northeast Philadelphia, Gross started telling a story, and he was narrating it in a thick Romanian accent. He painted a vivid image of his harrowing journey, which he is disclosing after 60 years, even for his three children.
When we consider a declining number of Holocaust survivors who are alive, Gross is one of them. He is 91 years old, and he can share his story. This year he marked as 75th anniversary of liberation from Dachau. Even now, Gross speaks at churches, synagogues, even at rotary events. Recently he started talking at Zoom calls, and he wants to spread the message of hope, which prevails over hate. He says, “I want to give a message. The message is relevant to our survival in today’s world like that day when I stepped out of the train.”
‘I didn’t have a name,’ and I was 15. When the family arrived at Auschwitz¸, Gross lost his parents. They were ahead, and they have to hold his younger brother and sister. They were all surrounded by German soldiers. Gross was standing in a line, and two of his brothers were with him. He noticed a prisoner he was looking at him and working at a camp. When soldiers were not looking, the prisoner suddenly jumped off the train. He approached Gross and asked his age. “How old are you? You should say 17. If you reveal that you are 15, they will send you to the place where your parents went.” After that, the prisoner said, pointing to the sky, ‘Do you see that dark smoke? In the next four hours, your parents will be there.”
Gross was watching, and SS officers were directing his brothers in the right direction. The direction was towards work camp, and another choice was towards gas chambers. Gross recalls, ‘My turn came.” When it was his turn, the guard was silent. He didn’t say anything. “I was completely nervous. He started scanning me, and he also thought about where to put me. I have mustered all my nerves to look older. I decided to stand tall, straight, and strong. I did it,and he told me to go to the right.” Gross joined his brothers and entered a vast building that was packed with prisoners. They didn’t think about the fate of their younger siblings and parents. They were later stripped of everything they were holding to- hair, clothes, and their names.
“71366 was my number, and there was no name, and it was just number.” Started learning to survive Gross started observing barracks, and he also witnessed how all those prisoners were living. “It is difficult to explain how helpless and lonely I was.” He was no with his brothers since they were all separated, and they were sent to another camp. “I was imprisoned in another camp, which was 50 kilometers away from Munich, Germany.” “My life after this for a few more years was like a test-taking for survival. For more than a year, they were shifting me from one camp to another. I always wanted to avoid camp7, the place where only persons not able to work went, and camp never provided food.”
“I was decided and determined to live.” It took him creative reasoning and rationing. “They gave me a small aluminum container for holding daily soup and coffee. I was keeping the same all times. Sometimes if I get lucky, I use to get a piece of potato in the soup.” “They were giving a small loaf of bread which must be shared by eight prisoners.” Gross always use to break his share into small crumbs and nibbling the same throughout the day. He also asked his neighboring prisoner why he is not doing the same. The man replied, “I have no idea, I will be here for lunch or not?
Gross said, “This type of person always died early since they gave up hope. But I was not like that; every day after waking up, I told myself that whatever happens or life would bring me, I want to be here for the next day. Throughout these difficult times, I never game up.” One he saw, a father begging his son to swap slices. They both were arguing, and they wanted a bigger piece. For survival, it is important to be selfish, Gross understood, and we must be selfish even with family. He learned all these and when his cousin was also imprisoned, and he refused to share a silver skin of the giant potato he was holding. Even though they were giving food, it was not enough to keep prisoners alive for a long time. “I felt unusual when I was waking up, but neighbor prisoners did not. Maybe they died the previous night. There was another group of prisoners, and they were appointed to take out died from barracks. After taking out dead, they were putting them into a small wagon. Among my neighbor prisoners,almost died because of starvation.”
“Now, I started thinking about another source of food.” Gross learned that, among neighbor prisoners, some were former smokers. They were ready to offer bread for cigarette butts. Gross started collecting the same when he was cleaning train stations. “I took at least two weeks for bringing seven butts, and I was happy that once I get a neighbor’s piece of bread, I will leave for seven more days.” Rise above hate “Even in the recent age, I can see images of hate. We must come out and rise above hate.” “Don’t lose hope; I did the same throughout my life. When you don’t lose hope, you can be happier and live longer. Irrespective of what happens, tomorrow can be better. Hence I am 91, but I am still alive.”