by Alex Grun, a student at Northeastern University
I have always known that my grandma, Olga Grun, survived the Holocaust. As a young kid I would peek at her arm, where her identification number was etched into her arm, an inescapable reminder of what she and many others went through. There will come a day where there are no more survivors, no more tattoos to remind us, but I’ll get back to this. As I grew older I became more and more curious about her story. Unfortunately, by the time I was old enough to be able to have a thoughtful conversation with her she couldn’t. My grandma is 89 years old today, and while I am very lucky to say that, she is no longer in a place in her life where she is able to talk about what she went through. She was one of the many imprisoned in the Auschwitz concentration camp in Poland and a lie was the only thing that kept her alive.
As I walked into Auschwitz, just two weeks ago, I could only try to imagine what it must have been like for her as she entered herself. There are two camps, and both have been pristinely kept; filled with various artifacts and prized possessions of the victims who entered a mere 78 years ago. There are thousands of suitcases that families brought thinking they would one day get to use. There are shoes and watches that are kept behind a large glass frame that runs the length of two walls. Finally, there is the hair, the hair of every person who entered that camp. Upon entrance they were all shaved down to the skin, the first step in erasing any identity of these people.
My grandma’s story begins with her and her family boarding a train with just a suitcase in hand and no real idea where they were going. As Hungarian Jews, my grandma and her family were told they were being sent to a work camp. As you enter the camp there is a sign hanging over the gate. It says “Arbeit Macht Frei” or “work sets you free”. Nothing could have been further from the truth for her and millions of others whose fate had been predetermined by the “final solution”. The final solution, authored/architected by Heinrich Himmler came about in 1942. In all it is estimated that 565,000 Hungarian Jews were murdered in the Holocaust and a total of 6 million Jews. For some perspective, there were roughly 16.5 million Jews alive before the Holocaust: that is 36% of an entire group of people eliminated. Recognizing the importance of preserving this culture and the memories of this time, Steven Spielberg embarked on a mission to document the stories of as many victims as possible. My grandma was one of those people and her interview is available today. Unfortunately, the interview was done in Hungarian and at the moment I don’t know as much as I would like to about her story. I plan on learning her story through organizations such as 3GNY and Together, Restoring their Names and I encourage anyone who is at all motivated to learn more to join me.
What I do know is this: When she arrived at Auschwitz with her parents and sisters they split the children and parents into two lines. In a separate line she watched as her parents were taken away. On that day, my grandmother watched her parents and scores of others walk to their deaths without knowing. One lie is the reason I am here today. My grandma lied about her age, and as a result she was deemed fit for hard labor in the work camp and was not sent to the chambers. Unfortunately, her sisters were not as lucky as she was. Luck is a hard thing to consider given that while at the camp she got typhoid, was nearly beaten to death, and contemplated escaping through a window.
I stood where she stood as she watched her parents get taken away. I walked the path my great grandparents walked to the chambers. All that is left of the three gas chambers is rubble. Once the Nazi’s realized they had lost, prisoners were ordered to destroy everything in an attempt to hide one of the largest exterminations in human history. It pains me to say that right now this is the extent of her story that I know. However, the reason I am writing this is because it is only the beginning of my journey in discovery. I plan on seeking a native Hungarian speaker who can translate her interview for me so that I can continue to learn. As I said before, there will come a day, much sooner than many of us may realize when there are no more survivors of the Holocaust to tell their story. And so now it is on us: the children, the grandchildren, and the great grandchildren. We must to do everything in our power to learn their stories and continue to pass them along because the world must never forget what was done.
This isn’t just on the relatives of those who were victims. I believe every person should take a little time to learn just one story that they one day will be able to pass along to the next generation. We love to say “never again” and I believe the first step to ensuring that history does not repeat itself is learning the stories of those that come before us. The next step is just as important. We need to share those stories no matter how painful they might be. The day before I returned for my last year at Northeastern I saw my grandma and in seeing her then, I saw someone completely different. I saw strength, perseverance, and pain. All I could say was “thank you” and “I will remember.” If you ever see me on campus, stop me, because I would love to tell you a story about an incredible woman.