Last week, Greensburg High School welcomed a number of Holocaust survivors and war heroes as guests for the Fall Chautauqua.
Fred Gross, 76, of Antwerp, Belgium, shared his experience with the attentive high school students.
He opened his story by describing the Holocaust as, “The darkest period of mankind.”
Fred had been three and a half years old when, on May 10, 1940, Germany invaded Holland and Belgium.
Fred’s father had been a diamond dealer, allowing for the Jewish family to live comfortably enough to afford vacations. Fred described his father, Max, as a streetwise gambler. These traits, Fred said, would ultimately lead to the Gross family’s survival. Fred had two older brothers, in addition to his mother and father.
Fred’s mother, Nacha, had been preparing for the Sabbath dinner when the German attack began that Friday night, May 10, 1940 (The beginning of a vicious 18-day Battle of Belgium, ultimately leading to Belgium’s surrender).
The Gross family fled to the nearby beaches to escape the fighting, and were stranded for two days amidst the battle. Aware of rumors that Jews were being carted away to die, the Gross family packed what they could and began their lives as refugees for the next five years.
The journey was a long one. Initially located north of France, the Gross family traveled south, and moved along the circular border of France with approximately 20,000 other refugees.
They slept in barns, a hardship made even less comfortable because of Nacha’s hay fever.
At the beginning of the journey, Max met a person who was willing to purchase a car with him. Ten people from two families shared the car, but it broke down not long after its purchase. The Germans were 45 miles away.
Desperate to get away, the Gross family hitchhiked on a truck with several other people.
Fred discovered a photo of his family’s escape on the truck online. The discovery of the photo was an important one for Fred.
“It validated for me, that I was really there,” Fred told Greensburg students, “I was a witness.”
The Gross family continued traveling south, near the Italian border.
One night, a farmer whose barn they had been sleeping in, came to tell the family they had to leave. Nazi tanks were nearby, and there were rumors of an attack.
The family moved to a town that was welcoming refugees into a gymnasium. The mayor of that town went on to conform to Vichy-France’s orders to round up refugees and send them to a French-run concentration camp.
“We’re going to take you to a nice place where you can rest,” the families were told.
Four-year-old Fred was forced to sleep in his own urine at night, while the rest of his family was used for labor.
Two weeks into living at the concentration camp, Fred’s brother, Sammy, escaped.
Sam confronted an official and pleaded for his family, “We are being treated like criminals,” Sam had said. “We did nothing to deserve this.”
The official gave the Gross family permission to leave, despite Vichy-France being involved with enforcing anti-semitic and anti-intelligentsia laws. The same civil servant was later convicted for killing 4,000 people.
The family continued on to Nice, France, on the Italian border. Upwards of 10,000 refugees were being harbored by the largely Italian government. The Italians, though part of the Axis, were sympathetic to the refugees. The Gross family found shelter in a hotel in the resort-like city.
Fred said that during the time in Nice, his father made many connections through his gambling. The night the Gross family received word that the Germans would be raiding Nice for Jews, a Catholic man whom Max met at a casino took the family in for six weeks.
The family harboring the Gross’ eventually became fearful that their neighbors would tattle. The Gross’ were asked to leave.
The Gross family moved yet again. By this time, they had begun traveling north, moving to the Swiss border.
The family moved to a nun convent. The Catholic nuns arranged to move the family to Switzerland.
At the border, the Swiss police said that only people with family would be allowed to enter.
Fred paused his story to Greensburg students, to explain that his mother suffered from depression as a result of her own childhood. Part of Nacha’s depression stemmed from her mother’s eventual estrangement. Nacha’s mother lived in Switzerland.
Nacha was able to prove that her mother lived in Switzerland, and the Gross family, excluding Sam who had escaped to Portugal, were allowed inside the borders.
The Gross’ returned to Belgium at the end of the war, where they were placed into a displaced person’s camp. Fred was temporarily adopted by a foster family where he was abused sexually and physically.
Fred shared that he still has problems being close to people. Touching, especially, is difficult for him.
In 1946, the Gross family reunited and moved to America.
Fred eventually married and had four sons, all who attended college. Fred became a journalist during the 60s, and eventually wrote a book, “One Step Ahead of Hitler: A Jewish Child’s Journey through France” describing his experiences.
Fred added, that he feels extremely lucky to have survived. Out of six million Jews who were murdered, 1.5 million of the slaughtered were children.
Contact: Tess Rowing 812-663-3111 x7004