Ernie Gross is a Holocaust survivor, and surely one of the strongest people you’ll ever meet. At age 89, his life is filled with activity and purpose. He reads Torah at a local minyan twice a week. He is a Holocaust Education lecturer who takes seriously his obligation to share his story, painful as it may be. Most days, you’ll find Ernie having lunch with friends at the Jewish Federation-supported Kleinlife, where he tries to brighten each person’s day. “I make sure every day I make ten people laugh,” says Ernie in his Romanian accent. “Even people I don’t know, I go over and show them this,” he adds, taking from his pocket a laminated card that reads KEEP SMILING. Sitting on the couch of his Northeast apartment where he lives alone, Ernie explains that he constantly extends himself to others because his life experience has taught him one lasting lesson: “Everybody counts,” he says.
In April 1944, 15-year-old Ernie was ripped from his life in Romania to become a prisoner at Auschwitz. His first day, he remembers being told, “See that smoke? That will become your parents.” He endured a barefoot march in the snow, a brutal work detail carrying 55-pound bags of cement, and an eventual 200-mile death march to Dachau. Ernie barely survived starvation with small pieces of bread and a rare potato, a delicacy he’d obtain from nicotine-desperate prisoners who’d trade him for the cigarette butts he’d cleverly retrieve while cleaning Nazi toilets. When Dachau was liberated by the American army on April 29, 1945, Ernie weighed an emaciated 85 pounds. He had lost his parents, three brothers and a sister, as well as too many extended family members to ever get a precise number.
Ultimately settling in Philadelphia, Ernie married and had three sons, but never discussed his Holocaust experiences with any of them. He was privately trying to unlearn a dark worldview. “To be selfish is how you survived,” he says. “But when I was liberated, my brain couldn’t stop doing that. I had to retrain my brain.” He started small, by buying flowers at Roosevelt Boulevard stoplights, taking pleasure in the delight on the sellers’ faces. He moved on to bigger things, like when his cousin Meyer, who had once declined to share a potato in Auschwitz, called to ask for help with his rent. “I had to decide. Should I get even with him? Take advantage of him? Then I remembered a Hebrew word, tzedakah.”
Ernie discovered the antidote to his sorrow and isolation was to be generous. And after more than six decades of silence, he began yearning to tell his Holocaust story, so that those dark days should never be forgotten. We at the Jewish Federation were there to amplify his voice. Through our annual Holocaust Youth Symposium, Ernie now speaks with hundreds of students of all faiths each year. He has received hundreds of letters from teenagers moved by his lectures. And not a moment too soon. A recent study by the Jewish Material Claims Against Germany found that 41% of Americans ages 18 to 34 thought two million or fewer Jews were killed in the Holocaust; 66% didn’t know what Auschwitz was. Holocaust educators say no teaching tool can compare to the voice of an actual survivor.
“I know that I’m here on borrowed time,” explains Ernie of why he pushes himself to tell his difficult story. “To teach students, that’s why I’m doing it. And if I can help a few people it’s worth it for me.” For Ernie, strength is cyclical. Our communal strength helps bolster him, and in turn, he strengthens us. As an active member of his Kleinlife community, he joyfully contributes to the lives of others; as a Torah reader he keeps his shul thriving; and as a participant in our Holocaust programming, he selflessly keeps history alive. We should all aspire to be as strong as Ernie.
When you are strong, you know what you believe in, what you stand for — and therefore, who you are, and with whom you stand.