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Holocaust survivor speaks at Westfield

Elizabeth Schuth

Feature Editor

January 31, 2023

A moment of silence - Holocaust Survivor Frank Grunwald waits to begin his presentation as the sophomore class files into the auditorium.

They slowly shuffled into the auditorium, settling into their seats as their attention was grabbed by the figure of an elderly man standing alone on the stage. The quiet chorus of squeaking chairs was swallowed up by a voice that sounded like a gravel-trodden road, a slight accent poking out like shy pieces of grass. Within an hour Mr. Frank Grunwald’s presentation had left their souls feeling hollowed out and inspired.

Holocaust memoir Night is required reading for the entire sophomore class, serving as a motivator for sophomore English teacher Mrs. Holly Wheeler to arrange the presentation on January 12 in the auditorium.

“(Night) is so powerful and tragic,” Wheeler said. “… it’s the one (book) that really resonates with students. I thought to myself (that) they’re so far removed from this topic even though there’s wars and tragedies, but sometimes kids don’t understand that unless they witness it in person … kids will tune me out or history teachers, but when they have that personal connection I think that will be forever ingrained in their memories.”

Throughout his presentation, Grunwald discussed his experience in the Holocaust, beginning with his childhood in Czechoslovakia through his liberation from Grunskirken in 1945. At age 6, Grunwald was moved to Auschwitz in a special area of the camp known as the Czech-Family Camp.

“(The Czech-Family Camp) was something very unique; it had never been done before,” Grunwald said. “They did it as a propaganda ploy … so they could take pictures, they could take videos ... including postcards that we had to write to various friends in Europe. (These) postcards had to say something very positive like ‘we are all in a work camp’ and ‘ we are all doing well.’”

During his speech, Grunwald mentioned the impact of art on his survival, including his friendship with artist Dina Babbitt, known for her watercolor portraits of Romani victims of the Holocaust.

“I went to visit my mother,” Grunwald said. “As I'm leaving I’m exiting the barrack and I look to the right and I look to the left … and I realized that there is a young woman [Dina Babbitt] with an easel painting a picture. I was immediately drawn to that scenario. Now I’m thinking what the heck is this person doing here painting a picture in a concentration camp in this barrack? Basically, (Josef) Mengele found out Dina was an artist, and he got this idea that he would like her to document the portraits of the (Roma) he was going to kill.”

Eventually, Babbitt would introduce him to a fellow prisoner, Willy Brauchman, who after Grunwald was placed in line to be sent to the gas chambers, shoved him into another group to save his life.

“He spoke about the selection process in which people were either chosen to be killed or make it out alive,” Sophomore Asha Adhikari said. “He was in the group that was initially going to be sent to the gas chamber, but he was saved and … that experience was jarring to me.”

Throughout sophomore English classes, the pyramid of hate is also discussed, which helps to explain the dominoes that had to fall in order to create a mass genocide like the Holocaust. These seemingly small actions like saying slurs are part of what motivates teachers like Mrs. Wheeler to continue to educate about the Holocaust.

“People don’t understand when they say something mean to someone, whether it’s religion, gender, or culture, it can build up to that (genocide) in the wrong atmosphere,” said Wheeler. “When you’re with the wrong people saying the wrong things, it can build up to (harmful) actions.”

Grunwald concluded his speech by discussing the death of his mother, as well as surviving two death marches across Eastern Europe.

“I think there were many lessons that I found beneficial in my post-Holocaust life,” Grunwald said. “Judge people based on their individual actions and behavior. Help others whenever you can. Have strong respect for who you are and what you believe in. If you respect and honor yourself, you will also respect others.”


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