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‘I’ll never forget it, but I don’t want to forget it’: Nazi prison camp survivor, his U.S. Army liberator, tell their stories

By Phyllis Zimmerman, Special to the Press & Journal
Posted 3/7/17

HUMMELSTOWN — Most likely, no one expected to laugh when a Holocaust survivor and his liberator spoke at the Central Pennsylvania WWII Roundtable on March 2, but that’s exactly what happened when …

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‘I’ll never forget it, but I don’t want to forget it’: Nazi prison camp survivor, his U.S. Army liberator, tell their stories

Posted

HUMMELSTOWN — Most likely, no one expected to laugh when a Holocaust survivor and his liberator spoke at the Central Pennsylvania WWII Roundtable on March 2, but that’s exactly what happened when the at-capacity crowd heard Ernie Gross.

Gross, of Philadelphia, was liberated from a concentration camp in Dachau, Germany, on April 29, 1945 by Don Greenbaum, a member of U.S. Gen. George Patton’s Third Army. Although Gross will never forget the suffering he endured as a Romanian Jew at the hands of Nazi tormentors, he’s since tried to make the best of life, he said.

“I made up my mind when I was liberated I was going to make 10 people a day laugh,” Gross told the hundreds who attended the roundtable presentation at Grace United Methodist Church in Hummelstown.

Somehow, Gross managed to insert humor into his otherwise stark recollection of what happened when his Jewish family was captured from their home in Romania in 1944 by Hungarian occupiers and eventually were detained at Auschwitz. His parents and younger siblings were gassed and cremated at the infamous concentration camp while his older brothers were sentenced to heavy labor. Gross saved his own life by telling German SS officers that he was 17 when he was really 15. He, also, was sentenced to heavy labor.

“That night, I dreamt about God. In my dream, I kept sneezing. Then God sneezed and I didn’t know what to say to him. It’s a good thing I woke up,” Gross quipped to the audience’s laughter.

Gross and Greenbaum were reunited in the 1990s after the two men learned they lived in the same area. Today, the close friends share a passionate obligation to share their story to all who will listen.

“Next Friday, I will turn 92. In 10 years, there will be no one left to tell this story,” Greenbaum stated. “Six million Jews were slaughtered by Germans (during the Holocaust). What’s 6 million? I’ve been to Penn State football games… multiply how many you see there by 10.”

Eventually, Gross and his brothers were transported to a sub-camp in Dachau, Germany, in a cramped train with deplorable conditions. Buckets sufficed as toilets that soon overflowed. One brother, already emaciated and exhausted, didn’t survive the weeklong journey.

At Dachau, Gross was forced to carry 50-pound bags of cement on his shoulder.

“I thought my bones would break,” he recalled, but a SS solider simply told him to walk faster.

“The German officers would go home and kiss their kids and have a nice dinner with their wife and family and then go out the next day and do more killing. I never in my heart could understand how they could do this,” Greenbaum noted.

Greenbaum was awarded a Purple Heart after his Jeep was hit by German fire in November 1944. He had barely recovered, though, when “anyone (in the U.S. Army) who could walk” was ordered to serve in the Battle of the Bulge. On April 29, 1945, Greenbaum and other troops from Patton’s Third Army were en route to seize a German army supply depot when they discovered the Dachau concentration camp. The locals there told them that they never knew the camp existed.

“Seventy years later, I can still smell the dead bodies. I’ll never forget it, but I don’t want to forget it,” Greenbaum recounted.

When the prisoners realized that U.S. Army men had come to liberate them, they crawled to kiss their feet. Gross weighed around 85 pounds then and spent two months in a sanitarium afterward to recover. When a U.S. social worker asked him where he wanted to go to live, he said Philadelphia.

“That was the only U.S. city I knew,” Gross said with a laugh. He went on to marry and raise a family in Philadelphia.

In 2015, Gross and Greenbaum and others returned to Dachau as part of a film produced by the German History Channel. The film, which featured two other Dachau survivors and their liberators, left many in the WWII Roundtable audience in tears.

As it turned out, one of the film’s photographers was the grandson of a Nazi party member, but the film crew emphasized how sorry they were about all that happened there during World War II.

“They wanted us to know that they weren’t the same Germany that they were in the 1930s,” Gross said.

The Central Pennsylvania WWII Roundtable is a nonprofit organization that provides a forum for World War II veterans, historians and citizens. Meetings are held first Thursdays of the month at 7 p.m. at Grace United Methodist Church, 433 E. Main St., Hummelstown. For information, visit www.centralpaww2roundtable.org.