Community / The World

A Holocaust survivor tells his story

Gratitude, love, and optimism — three tenets Dana Hall students got to experience in the rawest form during a special assembly on September 20. Alex Gross, a Holocaust survivor, was interviewed by his grandaughter Marissa Lehv ’21 during a special assembly. Marissa says the interview was “difficult but it was a meaningful experience to hear him speak and let him share his story with the rest of the school.” Gross told the Dana Hall community about his experiences in Auschwitz, a concentration camp in Poland, during World War II. After the interview with Marissa, Gross spoke to the AP European History class and had a conversation with interested students in a smaller setting during lunch. “Hearing his story put all the numbers and facts into focus and allowed me to put a face to the history I’d been learning about for years,” said Laura McHugh ’21.  

Gross was born in 1928 in Czechoslovakia, the youngest of six boys with one younger sister. When Gross was 11 years old, his town was annexed by Hungary. Boys that Gross had known his entire life and considered his friends became Hitler youth and tormented him endlessly. In March 1944, Gross and his family were forced to the Munkács ghetto, a restricted quarter where Jews were detained. They stayed in the ghetto for a few weeks before being sent in a cattle car to Auschwitz. In Auschwitz the Jews were lined up and sorted into two groups: people going to the death camps and people going to the labor camps. Gross lied to the Nazi officers, saying he was eighteen, so they would send him to the work camps instead of to his death. His parents were sent to the death camps. 

In Auschwitz, Gross was forced to work eighteen hours a day, beaten, and starved nearly to death. “We were treated so inhumanly, there are no words to describe it,” Gross reflected. Gross survived in Auschwitz for 8 months and says, “I don’t know to this day how I survived.” His stepbrother was in the same camp, but if either one was caught looking at each other, they both would have been killed. 

As the Nazis began to lose the war, Gross and the remaining prisoners were forced on a death march from Buna, a concentration camp in Poland, to Gleiwitz, another concentration camp. From there, Gross was put in a coal car with 120 others and moved to Buchenwald, a concentration camp in Germany; most people froze to death on this journey. In Buchenwald on April 11, 1945, Gross was freed by United States forces. Gross was liberated by an American soldier, the first black person Gross had ever encountered, whom he as “an angel if there ever was one.” 

After liberation, Gross went back to Czechoslovakia where he reunited with all of his siblings. His is believed to be the only family where all eight children survived the Holocaust. Soon Gross and his sister were adopted by the Ralfs, a British family that he describes as “true angels on the face of the earth.” After living with them, Gross immigrated to the U.S where he lived with his seven other siblings. 

Despite the tragedy Gross has endured in his life, he still remains positive and optimistic. He refers to himself as “the luckiest man alive.” Gross is filled with gratitude for the United States. He fought in the Korean war as a way to show his appreciation and patriotism for the country that liberated him. He reminded the assembly of how lucky they are to live in this country and go to a wonderful school. Gross himself never got a formal education, but speaks 7 languages and has an honorary doctorate from Emory University. 

For a very long time, Gross refused to speak about his experience. But after much prodding from a professor at Emory University, and following the example of Elie Wiesel, a Holocaust survivor and author of 57 books that earned him a Nobel Peace Prize, Gross decided to speak about his experiences. In addition to speaking around the country, Gross wrote a memoir, Yankele: A Holocaust Survivor’s Bittersweet Memoir (2001). Gross speaks to ensure that history doesn’t repeat itself. He hopes to spread the message to “never hate anybody, period.”

Photo credit: Molly Kieloch 

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