Miguel Grausz, is a man who generally prefers his privacy. Standing before the lectern at the Myerberg Senior Center in Pikesville on Thursday Sept. 5, his address to the gathering of almost 50 people was brief and to the point. It marked the fulfillment of a promise, one made in response to an unspoken request.
Miguel’s mother, Esther Pasternack Grausz, died a number of years ago in Israel, but she had always wanted to pay tribute somehow to the American military forces who liberated her and others in the spring of 1945. A Hungarian Jew, Esther survived Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp and Plaszow work camp in Poland, as well as a death march, before her liberation at approximately age 18 from a concentration camp in Germany.
On behalf of his mother, himself and his wife Evelyn and their children, Miguel stood before members of the Jewish War Veterans of The United States of America, the Jewish Uniformed Service Association, the Maryland Army National Guard, the Baltimore Jewish Council and The Associated Jewish Community Federation of Baltimore to present a plaque of thanks and a $1,000 donation to the center toward activities in support of veterans. The family chose this vehicle for fulfilling Esther’s wishes at the suggestion of local relatives: Dr. Emanuel “Manny” Goldman and his wife Noa, who is Miguel’s first cousin.
The plaque specifically acknowledges the US 2nd and 69th Infantry Divisions. A handout at the event offered some background for those unfamiliar with the fateful intersection of US military history with the lives of survivors like Esther:
“As Allied troops moved across Europe in a series of offensives against Nazi Germany, they found tens of thousands of concentration camp prisoners in deplorable conditions. Malnutrition and disease were rampant, and corpses lay unburied. The soldiers reacted in shock and disbelief to the evidence of Nazi atrocities. In addition to burying the dead, the Allied forces attempted to help and comfort the survivors with food, clothing and medical assistance.”
During the battle for Leipzig, Germany in April 1945, read the handout, the “Fighting 69th” came upon Leipzig-Thelka, a subcamp of the Buchenwald concentration camp. On April 18, SS
guards had forced 325 male prisoners at Leipzig-Thelka who were too ill or weak to work into oil-soaked barracks and set the structures on fire, according to a report by a US Army chaplain dated April 28, 1945. Anyone who tried to escape was shot by the guards or electrocuted on the electrified fences in the attempt. The Fighting 69th had arrived on the scene only one day later.
“According to the report, the swift advance of the 69th prevented the SS guards from committing a similar atrocity at a nearby camp housing some 250 women,” the handout read. While the Goldmans could not confirm that Esther was a prisoner in this second location, she was at least in a camp nearby when she was liberated on April 27, 1945.
Esther went on to marry, and raised three children. The family lived in Argentina, then Israel. She was a longtime donor to the March of the Living.
Unlike some survivors, however, Miguel said his mother was not reticent to share the stories of her experience during the Holocaust in the decades that immediately followed those years of horror. She told him about it when he was still a child, he said: “She thought it was a command to tell the stories.”
Miguel lives in Ranana today. He said his mother never made a “straight request” that he do something to honor the soldiers who opened the door to the rest of her life — to his own existence — but offered that she had a way of making the unsaid feel known.
After Esther’s passing, Miguel wanted to find something to do to fulfill his mother’s desire to honor the soldiers. When he broached the subject with his cousin Noa and her husband two years ago, the Baltimore educators asked if Esther had left any specific instructions. Noa’s late father was Miguel’s uncle, Esther’s brother.
“He said ‘No, I’m not sure exactly what to do,’” said Goldman in an interview after the ceremony. “So I said, do you mind if I take some initiative, and I promise you that I’ll stay in touch with you routinely and see how it should be presented?”
“To have something with time and written form has a certain perpetual nature about it,” said Goldman; but in addition to the plaque, Miguel also agreed with the idea of incorporating a monetary donation that would go toward veteran services. The Myerberg Senior Center was proposed as a home for the plaque and recipient of the donation by Baltimore Jewish Council Executive Director Howard Libit and other community leaders Goldman consulted with “because it’s a place where people come and they would see the plaque” and the $1,000 donation could be earmarked for veterans programming.
Vietnam veteran Marshall Sapperstein was among the attendees at the ceremony. He said he appreciated the gift to the Myerburg as a member of the Veteran’s Day program committee, “but more importantly, just the thoughts that went into presenting the gift to the to the Center and being able to be one more thread carrying on the remembrance of the intolerance that Nazism generated and the struggle for the whole world to defeat Nazism. And I guess because I’m a history buff of World War II, it makes it personal instead of just reading books and studying and reviewing records; there’s a living memory that can be attached to the war.”
Sapperstein said it is important for the younger generation of Jewish Americans to consider being part of the armed forces of the United States because “when you’ve served in the military, whether you make it a career or whether you just served two or three years, it gives you a stronger tie to the heritage of our country and the strengths of the country.”
“I really think that there’s gotta be a way to inculcate in the younger generation, the children who are growing up now, that it’s an honor to be able to serve our country; to be in the service, whether it’s in the military, whether it’s public health service; that
serving others and protecting our freedoms, starts with the individual, not with some entity we call the military.”
“I think that’s a way of honoring those who’ve served before,” he said.
After his remarks to the gathering, Manny Goldman spontaneously invited everyone to recite the pledge of allegiance. “I really, I wasn’t sure about the pledge of allegiance, because today there are so many sensitivities,” he said. “But the flag, irrespective of one’s point of view, and I really mean that, the flag represents America; and, as [we] know, this is a wonderful country. It has its flaws like any nation state. But when all is said and done, not a bad country. Not that bad. We’ve made our mistakes and we continue to make our mistakes, but not a bad country, a very generous country, a very charitable country, amazingly charitable. “
Miguel and Noa both emphasized that if Esther could offer a message to people, it would be one of life. “Because she was saved, new children were born. She had the bravery to get married, to have a family, and to live a normal life, and to have wonderful children, and they have children, and life goes on,” said Noa. “That’s what I think her message was: Thank you for saving my life. She wanted so much to say thank you.”