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Remembering the Holocaust

Survivor shares horrors of and personal triumph within Nazi Regime

Jeannette Grunfeld, circa WW II. The Holocaust survivor poses here in an ambulance uniform; she was an ambulance driver for Britain during the war after escaping from Nazi Germany. © Unknown 1944

Jeannette Grunfeld in 2008. She is much older, 96, but still youthful in her heart. Despite the horrors of the Holocaust, she lives in victory - and continues to have faith in God. © Adam R. Cole  2008

The events cascade in horrific linear fashion. A childhood, begun in pure innocence, with hopes and dreams, suddenly turned to a matter of mere survival. She watched as her world crashed before her eyes, with new laws, new regulations, and a new attitude meant to dehumanize and eventually exterminate her people. In the harsh environment that suddenly surrounded her and her family, the school classroom became a pulpit for propaganda, friends were no longer allowed to associate with her, and he father was brutally beaten to the point of paralysis and forced to give up his business.

Jeannette Grunfeld, 87, (this author's grandmother), is one hundreds of thousands of children to be part of those tragic events in Nazi Germany and became one lucky ones to survive what later became the Holocaust, the intentional extermination of the Jewish people that resulted in 6,000,000 deaths. Grunfeld never saw the brutality of the camps up close, fortunately, though she lived through the brutality leading up to it; she escaped on a special children’s train bound for England nine months before the war broke out, saying good bye to her family forever at the station.

For someone that has seen the very worst that humanity has to offer, Grunfeld’s outlook on life is strikingly positive. She takes the motto: you do the best you can.

It has been a life motto that has allowed her to overcome an endless string of tragedies that smeared her childhood and then an ensuing battle for survival as a teenager in London during the war.

All over the world, survivors of the Holocaust are becoming fewer and fewer – making it ever-important to grasp and share in the journey of their struggle, such that we never forget or repeat those horrors. This is look into the journey of one of those survivors. May the horrors of her life juxtaposed with the infinite treasure of freedom give us all a renewed perspective on life and how we should all come to treat each other—and stand up for each other.

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Grunfeld was born June 4, 1921 in Cologne, Germany to Friedrich Solomon (who went by his middle name) and Marianne—nicknamed “Jenny”—Marx. Jeannette’s dad was an urban cattle rancher, selling livestock at the local market while also selling insurance for the cattle market as well.

Jeannette, who went by “Hanni”-pronounced honey, had an enjoyable upbringing, at first. Her parents often threw parties at the house on Saturday nights, filling the dining room with guests and laughter. She spent quality time with both her mother and her father, shopping (usually of the window variety) with mom and attending/participating in sporting activities (primarily soccer) with dad. From her dad, she learned an essence of benevolence; Solomon would often provide for homeless people to an extent where he would take them home and feed and dress them.

Jeanette regularly attended the local synagogue, Glockengasse, an orthodox temple that had a long history in the community. Her parents observed Shabbat, a weekly observance that is considered a day of rest for Jews, going from Friday evening to Saturday evening. Marianne cooked a special meal and the candles were lit on Friday evenings at the Marx home.

Grunfeld attended a Catholic school for her primary education, though also took classes at a Hebrew school a couple days a week as a means of expanding her Jewish horizons. As she progressed through school, she cultivated dreams of one-day entering the medical field as a nurse.

Things began to change for Grunfeld, her family and German Jews throughout the country in 1932 when the Nazis became the dominant political party and then in 1933 when Hitler was made chancellor. From that moment on, the party—led by Hitler—would begin a [death-filled] march toward greater authoritarian rule, purging of non-Aryan citizens and ultimately global domination. The Nazi emphatically proclaimed: “The Jews are our misfortune.”

The Nazi rise to power set off alarms for some Jews but most just shrugged it off, including Solomon Marx. He like other Jews, felt such a deep connection to the country that he could not conceive that his countrymen would turn on him. In fact, Solomon had served in the army as part of World War I. Solomon decided not to heed warning to get out.

Nazi terror only deepened in the years to come, backed by a propaganda campaign to make the Jews out to be enemies and absolutely inferior. The Nazi regime issued a boycott against Jewish businessman. The Nuremberg Laws, a set of laws that constituted what the Jews exactly could and could not do in German society, were instituted in 1935. It was close to this time that Solomon faced the Nazi hatred head on; he was attacked, beaten to the point of paralysis and forced to give up his business. Jeannette was brought to hysterics at seeing her crippled father.

“I couldn’t understand why they would do such a thing. It hurt [tremendously] to see my father in such a condition,” Grunfeld would recall.

The terror came to a historic head on Nov. 9, 1938 with Kristallnacht, the night of broken glass, when hundreds of Jewish businesses and synagogues saw their windows shattered and establishments looted at the hands of Hitler’s henchmen.

It was through this period of struggle, of violence, of brutality, seemingly for no reason, that Jeannette began to wonder a question that she would struggle with for many years thereafter: “If God’s chosen people, why do we have to suffer?”

It was a few months after that tragic night of broken glass, on Jan. 18, 1939, that Jeannette would board a train bound for England as part of the Kindertransport. She left with a small suitcase of belongings; the most sentimental of her things was a poetry book—called a “X” in German—that contained mementos that people she was close to had written in. It would become the only trace she would hold onto of her German world and the people that inhabited it. Jeannette issued a heartfelt goodbye to her parents on that day, saying that she loved them and would never forget them.

Grunfeld would live out the war in London and would sign up to be an ambulance driver; she was part of Ambulance Station 103. She saw the wartime role as “a way of getting back at Hitler.” The women of Ambulance Station 103 would race to the site of where bombs had fallen to help victims, many of them being women and children. It was a dangerous time, a scary one as well, but one Grunfeld pushed through just the same. You do the best you can.

The years of the war were difficult for Jeannette, especially being without her parents, but in the moments of hardship, she would recall a phrase that her mother always imparted in her: “there’s always someone with a bigger package to carry.”

A sense of peace spilled over England and the rest of the world with the death of Hitler and the unconditional surrender of Germany. Jeannette had hoped to be re-united with her mom (she had gotten word that her dad had already passed) but found out that she, too, was gone.

A bright spot amidst the gloom was that she received an affidavit from a family friend in the states to live there; she took up the offer and arrived in New York X (date here). She would marry Theodore Grunfeld, a war veteran, and a professional painter, shortly thereafter.

Jeannette was never able to pursue her dream of a nurse, but she fulfilled another purpose: as a loving mother. Raising two kids, Stephen and Bunny (childhood nickname that stuck), she tried to instill in them the deep benevolence for humanity that her father and mother espoused. Seeing how hatred could crush the world, she passed on to them a deep love and love for others as one of life’s highest aims.

Grunfeld now lives in a quiet American suburb, tending to a small garden and feeding the birds on a daily basis. She attends synagogue regularly, just like she once did back in Cologne, finding richness in the weekly sermon by the resident rabbi.

For a long time, Grunfeld continued to ask the question of why? and doubted the existence of God. But by meeting a great Indian theologian

These days Grunfeld is often asked to speak at special dinners for survivors and was recently invited to give her testimony at a play about the Kindertransport. She’s taught young and old about the tragedies of the Holocaust, imparting her story nearly a hundred times, probably more. She says that she “hopes that if people know what happened, it will never happen again.”

Despite everything she has endured, this survivor lives out her days with a smile, not a frown. It is due mostly to another bit of wisdom her mother always shared with her: if you laugh, the world laughs with you.