Valea Lui Mihai, Romania; Oradea, Romania; Birkenau, Auschwitz, Gross-Rosen, Oranienburg, Sachsenhausen, Mauthausen
Emeric Grosinger was born May 8, 1932 in Transylvania (Valea lui Mihai in Romanian, Érmihályfalva in Hungarian) to Emanuel and Ilona Grosinger. He had two brothers; Alex was 11 1/2 years older and Leslie was 10 years older. The boys went to school in their town through the fourth grade, and then continued their studies in the big city 40 miles from home (Oradea in Romanian, Nagyvárad in Hungarian), where there was a large Jewish community, middle schools and high schools. Each of them, in turn, boarded with a retired judge named Weiss.
Emeric tells his story as a 12-year-old boy, not as an 81-year-old man. “Although most things came home to me years later when I started having the time to look into it, the whole deportation, nothing hit me at first. It truly hit me when my son turned 12, turned my age, and my son is saying daddy this, daddy that, like a little kid, and I couldn't imagine that I had been that young and survived. Up until then I wouldn't even talk about it, but that got to me.” He started talking “ten years ago when Spielberg approached me and that's the first time I really opened up. I sort of put it out of my mind. I tried anyway, but you cannot bury that and now I am approaching the stage in life when it's time for me to at least pass it on, if anybody's interested. So I'll do it for my children and grandchildren, so they'll have something to hang their hat on. Hopefully.”
In September, 1943, Emeric went away to school in Oradea/Nagyvárad. Even though World War II was raging, “everything was relatively normal for us; there was no ghetto, we didn't have to wear the yellow star, but there were some beatings perhaps, but not in an organized fashion.” At the end of March, beginning of April, Emeric contracted scarlet fever and was taken to the contagious diseases hospital in Nagyvárad/Oradea. On March 17 or 18th, when the Germans occupied Transylvania, “the ghettos and yellow stars started.” Alex and Leslie were attached to the Hungarian army on the Eastern Front doing labor work, road building and fortifications; so they were not involved in any deportation.
In May, when Emeric and his parents were going to be deported, Emanuel made arrangements to hide in a cabin in some wetlands that was accessible only by boat. The problem was that Emeric was in the hospital in Nagyvárad. So they sent a Gentile friend to try to get him out from the hospital. Instead, the authorities put him in the local ghetto. “My parents were faced with the dilemma: are they going to go into hiding and not go to the ghetto and wait out the end of the war; but what is going to happen to their youngest child, the almost 12-year-old boy? So they decided to go into the ghetto.”
Three weeks later, they were packed into cattle cars and shipped to Auschwitz. “On the way, nobody would guess where we’re going, except I had an aunt in the same car who said that we were going to be shipped to Poland and lined up and machine gunned to death. Nobody believed it, because supposedly we were all good citizens. My father served in World War I in the Hungarian army and was decorated. He and the other veterans knew something happened in Poland, but they didn't think it would happen to us.”
They were taken into Birkenau “and all of a sudden we arrived on this railroad platform—confusion, yelling, schnell, schnell, fast, German soldiers with submachine guns, dogs barking, and utter confusion.” As they disembarked from the wagons, Emeric was confused. “I don't know where I'm supposed to go. There was an officer directing people. I paid no attention; I simply walked over to where my father was and nobody stopped me. At that time, I didn't know that I avoided being selected as perhaps too young and unable to work. My father and I were together and we were taken to showers, which actually were showers, cold water, and we were disinfected by other prisoners, wiped down with kerosene, especially our private parts.” After 4 or 5 days, his father was taken away. “There was always some kind of rumor; the word was transport, but I didn't know what it meant. They took him somewhere else for work. So we were separated and that's the last time I saw my father.”
Emeric was put in a barracks with 700-800 young kids, most of them were about two years older. “Four of us were from the same hometown; two of them went to the same school as I did, but two grades ahead of me. So we were happy to be together. We did some work, like pulling the wagon and beautification of the camp, picking up trash and so forth. We slept on the concrete floor next to each other, body by body to keep each other warm, and when somebody turned around it was a major tragedy; 30-40 people had to make the same turn. The food was some black water called coffee, which who knows what it was.”
Around the middle or end of June, they were lined up military fashion, “and this officer picked out those whom he thought were able to work; those who were not able to work went a certain way and were locked up in a barracks waiting to be dispose of in the gas chamber, the crematoria. I was one of those who did not make the cut and were awaiting our fate. As a 12-year-old I knew what was happening, what was going to be, but at the same time I did not comprehend it intellectually, the full impact of what is going to happen. However, I happened to go to the back end of the barracks that had two windows on each side. Around 4:00 in the morning, there's a disturbance and 4 or 5 Polish Jewish boys who were smarter than myself broke the window and jumped out. I followed them and jumped out; I was the last one to get out. We went into another barracks and the next morning they took away those who were in the locked barracks to the gas chamber and crematoria. By that method, I escaped, by sheer luck.”
This happened to him again mid-August. “I was caught again, too young. Dr. Mengele came in with his bicycle and rode it through camp. He was a very elegantly dressed German officer, with shiny boots like mirrors, and gave a mischievous smile and sentenced you to death or to work or to life. I was locked up again. By this time I knew enough to situate myself in the back end of the barracks. Sure enough, some Jewish boys from Lodz were again smarter and better than myself, but I latched onto them. And I got out again.” In September or October, there was one more incident. ”They put up a 2 x 4 and you had to go under it; if you were taller than that, you’re fine; if you're not tall enough, you didn't make the cut. I was tall enough because I was a big kid.”
Emeric was with a few friends. One day, one of them, George Weiss, who worked on the detail, told him that he had been to the women's camp across the road “and he spotted my mother. He said he's going to try to get me on the detail. He did and I went across and sure enough I saw my mother. It is so unbelievable knowing the circumstances that this should happen. I understand that she got punished for it, for daring to leave her barracks to see me; and that's the last time I saw her.”
Around the middle of November, Emeric was shipped to the main camp at Auschwitz. “We were tattooed on our arm, which I still have; my number is B 14 5 18. We're starving. There's some kind of beet soup. Comes Christmas 1944, the first time, at least in my humble estimation, we were served something edible, some mashed peas--that was the sweetest thing I ever ate!” There, he met up with a 35-year-old cousin of his father's. “I'm happy to meet him. On January 18, the whole camp is lined up and taken on a march. This old man, a buddy of his, and I, I'm in the middle, arm-in-arm we marched. Anybody who fell down was shot immediately. I was too young to understand what was happening but, according to the grown-ups, the Russians broke through the front and the German army was going the opposite direction trying to stop them.”
The following morning, they arrived in a burned-out railroad station and were piled into open boxcars, used to transport coal “so that you could not move, sit down, stand or anything, just jammed in. We arrived at a camp called Gross-Rosen; they disembarked us. Naturally the railroad car was full of bodies that didn't make it, died from malnutrition and disease and cold. I was shielded by the bodies really. Gross-Rosen was a horrible camp. Again, no food, no yielding from the cold.”
After four or five weeks, they were packed again into railroad cars. “While we’re going through Poland, Germany, wherever, the Allies are bombing the railroads. Every time there is a bombing, the guards run away and we’re left there. But fortunately, we've never been hit and I honestly believed that we will not be hit; they know better. Of course that was a 12-year-old dream.”
About a week later, they arrived in Oranienburg, and were taken to Sachsenhausen. “This is the first camp I’ve been to that they actually gave you something to eat, which was again unusual. Everybody was really walking skeletons and keeling over from hunger. They put us in decent barracks, there was heat and they gave us some food. Turns out that Oranienburg is right outside Berlin and Sachsenhausen prisoners are fairly well treated because their job was to go into Berlin and surrounding areas where the Allies were bombing to dig up the unexploded bombs. And I don't have to say, it's a dangerous job. Sometimes they blew up and there you go.”
After only a week to ten days, “we were packed again into railroad boxcars, but with two armed guards in the middle of the boxcars and, on both sides, prisoners who are all emaciated and just barely living. As we slowly pulled into a railroad station, our doors were open, and I'm seeing women with the Red Cross insignia running around; it’s utter confusion, they throw something to eat. That's the only time we ate on that trip. This was the first time I sensed as a kid that something was going on.” He found out thirty years later that this was about two days or three days after the firebombing of Dresden.
About nine days later, they arrived at Mauthausen. “As we walked up from the railroad station into the main camp on top of a hill, we passed stone quarries; the face of the camp and the walls are made out of stone. This goes through my mind that as a kid I read a book about the French Foreign Legion in Africa, and that's how they have their fortifications. We are lined up and by this time I was separated from my friends, and I am completely on my own. I happened to glance up and recognize somebody I knew from my hometown. I considered him again an old man; he was about 23 or so. We’re happy to see each other and we're talking and standing around just like everybody else. There's no room; the camp is crowded. A German officer and his adjutant or secretary went down the line asking everybody what are you, who are you, was bist du? And the secretary writes down who it is. So this fellow next to me says, when they get to us and they ask what are you, you tell them you are Hungarian, you're not Jewish; and if they ask us, we’re brothers. So I said fine. When the officer gets to me, he says, was bist du, what are you? I said, Ungarische, Hungarian. So he thinks for a second or two. He said Jude, Jew, but the secretary wrote down Hungarian. Same thing happened with my friend. How do we know he didn't change it? These people, all this group of people, humanity, dying, skeletons, no place to go, lying on the floor and they give them some barracks, nothing, everything barren, except him and I.”
They were put into barracks number two by the gate with the Hungarian government officials. “Some were members of Parliament, some were secretaries of this or that, some were prominent newspaper men who came out against the Nazis, wanted to join the Allies, and were captured by the Germans. These are high-ranking political prisoners, they are not treated as ordinary prisoners. They have the run of the camp, free to move within the camp and are not bothered, and they have bunks to sleep in with blankets, which is an unbelievable feat. But food was still a little scarce.”
In the middle of March, a half dozen Red Cross trucks from Switzerland pulled into camp. The prisoners unloaded packages of food and stored them in the basement of the hospital next to the crematorium. “I was starved out. I went through a basement window into the hospital, tied the bottom of both pants legs, tore open packages of everything, mostly sardines and all kinds of canned goods, and filled up my pants. I made about 5 or 6 trips. The penalty should you get caught, you got shot; this thought never even crossed my mind that I would get caught. So I took food to everybody. These were the intelligentsia of Hungary, the anti-Nazi leadership, and I gave them food and everything else. They promised me the moon and the sky when we got out of Mauthausen. I never saw them again. But this food lasted us until liberation. So my friend and I were not exactly the ordinary prisoners in the sense that we were not walking skeletons. We had a little meat on ourselves from all this food that we got.”
For Emeric, “every minute in the camp was something to survive.” He witnessed senseless, barbaric executions in both Birkenau and Mauthausen. “Once in Mauthausen, they're bringing in prisoners right in front of me; one of them didn't move or couldn't move and they executed him right then and there. I'm watching this, but it didn't even occur to me that anything could happen. I'm watching one of these executions which is mind-boggling today but at that time I was so used to it; so I turned around. This SS who did the execution just kicked me in the butt and told me to get the hell out, which I did. That was one of my most horrible experiences, other than in Birkenau when we were sitting by the barracks and we see this humanity going into these buildings, day after day, women, children of all ages and never coming out and obviously we sort of guessed, but again didn't fathom intellectually, what we were seeing, these executions and murder factories in operation. Except when the ceiling outside was low overhead, and the stench of burnt hair and flesh was very much present in the air at all times, and we see these people walking in and there was nothing we could do about it.”
On May 6, 1945, two days before his 13th birthday, “I see the gate open and I come outside and I see that the American troops came and some prisoners were talking to the American troops. I did not speak any language to communicate at all, but I got something out of it. I got a name out of it; it was an American soldier, his name was Rosenthal, the name stuck with me.” As they were liberated, “I realize I’m free. I'm walking to one of the subcamps and I yell out, is there anybody here from Érmihályfalva? In one of the barracks, I yell and next to me stands up a man; he hugs me and kisses me and knows me. So I said to him, who are you? He tells me, I’m so-and-so Weiss. I said no, you're not. I know him. He was a wholesale grocer in town who used to give me candy as a kid. I don't believe him, but he insists, and he calls me nicknames and tells me my father's nickname. The reason I did not believe him was because when I knew him, he was a man of about 300 pounds; now he was down to about 80 pounds.”
Emeric and the two men from Érmihályfalva decided to go back. They started out in Linz, the main city right by the camp Mauthausen and went through the Russian zone of Austria, where he got his first lesson of the Russian communists. “About 40 or 50 prisoners were in the station and all of a sudden a platoon of Russians came in and grabbed everybody and anybody they can get a hold of. These are prisoners who are just barely alive, barely escaped the Nazis. I didn't understand why they needed us but the two grown-ups explained that before us, a trainload of German soldiers, prisoners, was going back to Russia and the prisoners broke out the floorboards and some of them escaped. These soldiers had to replace bodies to account for the people that they're taking back to Russia. They didn’t care who you were, they put you in; most of them never came back.”
They made it back to Budapest and then to Érmihályfalva. They had been deported in May 1944, but in August, their town was liberated by the Russians. “Three months later, it was a question of maybe three months for us to escape.” Of those deported from his family, Emeric counted about 28 relatives; only two of them came out alive--Emeric and a cousin, Les Nemeth, who was not deported because he was half Gentile. “I was the youngest who came back. Of course a lot of places I was one of the youngest.” His two brothers had already returned from the labor camps. “By that time I knew that my parents were gone. I wasn't sure about my mother but I knew my father was. Later, I found out that my mother was in Bergen-Belsen and she was liberated, but she died one day after liberation; so that was the end of that.”
“We’re back in this town. I'm sort of lost, nobody except the same two guys. Food is all of a sudden plentiful, which is the most important commodity for us. Everything seemed fine. I tried school; it just somehow didn’t set right.” By 1946, there was big talk that Jews could go to Palestine and all kinds of organizations came to recruit the young people. “They set up a camp and were teaching them how to fight with sticks, no weapons. I'm almost 14 years old, so I volunteered. But I had a bad habit; I was always reading newspapers and the newspapers were left-leaning communist papers; they were vehemently against Britain and gave awful descriptions of Cyprus; that the Jews are being deported to Cyprus and they compared it to the Nazis. It finally dawned on me that I just got out of one camp, I'm not going to go to another one to Cyprus. So I took off and ran away from the camp.”
He thought of going to Canada with a friend. “I didn't know Canada from Poland, it was a name and it sounded good to me. Also in Auschwitz, the people that emptied the railroad cars from their belongings had all that was left over and were called Canadians. So that kind of stuck in me. Somehow it implied riches in my mind as a kid.” Instead his brother Alex decided they would go out West. Alex had become a lawyer and worked for a Gentile man who was an attorney and also wanted to get out of there because the communists were taking over. They went to the countryside, found people who in the early ‘30s traveled from one country to the next, and bought their passports. Alex knew a yeshiva bocher who was a master forger who fixed up false passports “because regular passports you cannot get for love or money” and put a Belgian visa into each passport. In order to go west, they had to travel through Hungary and Czechoslovakia; the Hungarian border knew that no one issued a Romanian passport, so they snuck across—Alex, Emeric, the attorney and his wife.
After 3 or 4 weeks in Budapest, Alex went to the Czechs and was able to get them a visa to legitimately go through Czechoslovakia to Belgium. They lived in Prague for about three months, then Alex bought a Peruvian visa with some Napoleon coins that he had. Then he went to the French Consulate in Prague, where “the French military attaché picks up our passports. He looks at the first page and says this is phony; goes through; everything is phony in this passport . He asked a million questions. After about 45 minutes, he says, ‘I'm going to recommend that you get a visa from France to go to Marseille so that you can go to Peru. The reason I'm recommending it is that if these passports were real, not phony, you would be communist agents; those are the only ones who can get regular passports; so you're not communist agents and I'm willing to take a chance on it and will let you go to France.’”
They went to Paris, met up with the attorney and his wife again; it was the end of April ’48, the Berlin blockade, World War III is imminent any minute with the Russians. Alex was able to secure passage from Marseille to Rio de Janeiro, but he had one more thought, “to go to the American consul and ask for a transit visa through the United States so we can visit our only living relatives in America.” A week before they were due to sail for Rio, they received a six-week transit visa to America. Now they had to find a way to get to America on their way to Peru. Alex went to every organization he could think of and hit on a Catholic organization “that gave out passage to anybody who wanted to flee communism to South America, especially the Nazis. On that basis, they didn't ask if we were Jews or what we were; they took it for granted that we wanted to go. They gave each one of us a ticket on the SS America from Cherbourg to New York and we arrived April 29, 1948 at Ellis Island.”
Looking across the water from Ellis Island to New York City, Emeric thought, “I'm looking at New York, the most beautiful site I have ever seen. And I'm thinking to myself now, why the hell do I want to go to Peru?” After spending two days with an aunt in New York City and six weeks in Detroit with their mother's brothers, they were about to fly to Lima, Peru via Miami and the Panama Canal, “My uncle and aunt, Bert and Irene Ruby, my brother and I went to New York to LaGuardia Airport. It’s time to get on the plane to check in. I said to all of them, I am not going. So after a huddle back and forth, my brother gets on the plane and goes to Peru, and I came back to Detroit with my aunt and uncle. They have a dilemma; I’m illegal; how am I going to stay. I'm too old for them to adopt me; by this time I’m15 years old. So my uncle takes me down to immigration, where they filled out an order to deport me; but they have a problem. They don't know where, I'm stateless, I have no home.” Every 30 days for three years, Emeric continued to report to immigration.
By 1950, 1951, he decided he wanted to join the U.S. army. When he went to the military recruiting station and wrote down that he was illegal, they wouldn't take him. After a few attempts, he went to the draft board instead, and told them he was volunteering for the draft and was stateless, not illegal. A year or so later, he finally got called to report to Fort Wayne, in Detroit, and prepare to go to boot camp. He was shipped down to Fort Knox, Kentucky, for basic training. While there, he filled out an application to become a citizen. As he was being shipped to Europe, he thought, “I’m illegal, they’re taking me to Europe, are they going to bring me back?” Near the end of his tour of duty in Ulm and then in Aschenberg, near Frankfurt, he was ordered to report to the American consul in Frankfurt along with a character witness. He was asked a few questions and was given his citizenship papers.
He was discharged and came back to Detroit and worked in the meatpacking industry, where he started out when he was illegal, and eventually owned his own company. He married Roberta and they had a son Eric (married to Amy and father of Ryan, Samantha, and Bennett) and a daughter Kari (married to Eddie Alterman and mother of Noa and Adina).
Years later, he started tracking down the unit that liberated him from Mauthausen. “I had no problem through the Holocaust Memorial Center in Washington finding the unit, the 11th Armored Division, but I wanted to find the people. I wrote them a letter and said, I'm looking for Rosenthal, because he liberated me.” He also took an ad in their paper and that got their attention:
May 8, 2010
Dear Eleventh Armored Thunderbolt Division Members,
Congratulations on your well deserved retirement. Please accept my sincere appreciation and admiration for your incredible work serving out country. You were and are truly the Greatest of the Great Generation.
I will never forget the kindness you exhibited as you liberated me and my fellow inmates from Mauthausen. Your bravery has inspired me; your sense of duty humbles me. Words cannot express my deep appreciation.
I am grateful everyday for you, the Thunderbolts, and for the privilege of being an American citizen – Thank you America – the Home of the Free and the Land of the Brave.
I look forward to meeting you in Louisville this August.
With deepest appreciation,
Former Mauthausen Prisoner
Proud Veteran of the US 1st Infantry Division
They invited him to their last reunion in Louisville, Kentucky in 2010 and he met two of his, liberators George Sherman and Don Behm. He also went back to the 65th anniversary of the liberation of Mauthausen with his daughter, son, and grandson.
Emeric believes that “I’ve tumbled through life; in most cases through luck. It was instinct of survival and that's just what happened. And of course the fittest survived.” He urges young people today to be vigilant—“to guard their personal freedom and everyone else's; in the same time, things will work out.” He feels that “It is great to be an American; there is nothing like it. I cannot say often enough what a lucky decision for me that I decided to become an American, whether I did it consciously or unconsciously is secondary at this moment. G-d bless America.”
Date of Interview: April 17, 2013
Length of Interview: 1 hour 47 minutes
Interview & Synopsis by: Zieva Konvisser
Videographer: Fred Safran