On Tuesday, November 9, 2010, Peggy Lebenson, Union Temple’s own Charlie Rose, interviewed Semone Grossman, Holocaust survivor, at our Commemoration of Kristallnacht, the concentrated attack on the Jews of Germany on this night seventy-two years before.
Peggy’s format enabled Mr. Grossman to sit comfortably in our midst, speaking his harrowing story without having to stand and deliver a speech. He traced his early history as a boy in a small town now in Poland that had been at times a part of Germany. He took us with him on his journey from ordinary living through the growing privations and dangers of the early Nazi period. Semone described the gradual loss of freedoms for Jews as Jewish children were deprived of attending public schools, as they were no longer allowed to sit on park benches, eventually not allowed to leave their homes after an early curfew, and deprived of an adequate diet. Ultimately the Jews of his town and neighboring towns were rounded up and sent to slave labor or death camps.
The reasons that Semone Grossman survived to tell his story are many. First and foremost was his mother’s observant eye. As the family stood in line during the round-up, she watched the selections, the very young and the old ordered to the left, the stronger adults ordered to the right. When someone in the line fainted, distracting the selection officer, she pointed to the right, ordering her son, “Run, run.” His mother’s vigilance and his obedience of her command was the first in a series of chance events that enabled him to live. The other children and the elderly who went left were transported to their deaths.
Semone thus became the youngest member of the various labor camps that he inhabited during the years of his captivity. Perhaps his young age protected him from the worst of the back-breaking work, as apparently he was assigned work less arduous than the older prisoners. One of his jobs was tending to the camp commandant, cleaning his quarters and delivering him meals. He would pile on the food for the commandant and sneak some for himself and some of the other inmates. As Semone, now in his eighties, spoke, we could imagine him as the hungry boy he was describing. As he answered questions, his child-like mischievousness, his inherent likability, and his wiliness became clear to us.
That night I was aware, as many of us were, that we are nearing the time when we won’t have the chance to ask questions of a person who has come through this experience and lived to tell about it. No longer can we take this privilege for granted.
Semone’s upbeat tone seemed especially remarkable, and our questions reflected our amazement at such resilience in the face of the enormity of what he lived through. The first questions tried to elicit how his parents explained what was happening, as the restrictions on the Jews became more and more harsh. He had no way to grapple with these questions even though asked three different ways. Peggy later intuited his inability to address this question: his parents were from a culture with little recognition of the psychological lives of children and were absorbed in the tasks of surviving and providing enough food for themselves and their children.
Several questioners asked how he felt about Germans. He responded in a way that seemed unlikely: he seemed willing to forgive and even to forget what had been perpetrated by the German people. He had, after all, been given many lucky breaks. He gave the example of the good guard who gave Semone his address in a village outside of Munich. The guard had offered to help Simone after the war if he could make his way to Germany. In fact Semone did get to Munich, looked up the guard, who then found Semone an apartment. The Germans he met in Munich were also kind to him. He expressed no bitterness, held no resentments, to the amazement of many of us.
Eventually in 1949, through the help of a cousin living in America, he immigrated to the U.S. He figured he’d sleep in a park but instead this young, resourceful, and lucky man found an apartment and then a job, working in a gas station. He was given the task of parking cars and came to realize the money that could be made in owning land where cars could be parked off the street. How he came to own a group of garages throughout Manhattan and Brooklyn is yet another chapter of this man’s lucky, lucky, lucky life.
Peggy asked the last question, “What advice could you give us, could you give to my young daughter, sitting over there?” Again he avoided the question.
“I have a 17 year old and 22 year old daughter. I know they won’t listen to my advice.”
Yet we came away with a sense of being in a room with a man whose life and resilience teaches us more than any sentence he might utter. One sentence stayed with me: “I live every day like it’s the first and last day of my life.”