This oral history video interview is available at the USC Shoah Foundation website through the
generosity of the Eugene and Marcia Applebaum Family Foundation
Ostrowiec (Poland), Auschwitz, Nordhausen
Mr. Sol Gringlas was born in Ostrowiec, Poland in 1923. His family called him by his Jewish name of Shaul Meir. Before the war, the Gringlas family lived in Ostrowiec, Poland (a small town near Krakow, Poland).
Mr. Gringlas lived in an apartment with his parents, Lazar and Bluma, his four brothers Mendel, Sholomo, Yankel and Joe, and his sister Miriam. His parents worked at a store selling shoes near their home. The family was observant, ate Friday night dinners, lit Sabbath candles, went to Shul and prayed. They spoke Polish and Yiddish.
Ostrowiec was a mostly Jewish town, though anti-Semitism slowly took over the popular thinking of the time; not only in this town, but also throughout Europe.
The school Mr. Gringlas attended in Ostrowiec was strongly anti-Semitic and his siblings were often harassed physically for being Jewish. Mr. Gringlas went to school until the age of 14 when anti-Semitism forced him to stop attending. He remembers non-Jewish students often picking fights, throwing rocks and bullying the Jewish students. Mr. Gringlas’s older brother taught him the art of tailoring and he worked with his brother for one year before the war. This trade would later save his life during the war and provide him with a chance to start a new life in America.
Mr. Gringlas remembers his family feeling afraid of the war prior to the Nazi invasion of Poland. Shortly after the 1939 invasion of Poland, the Nazis marched into the little town of Ostrowiec and asked for people to work. They promised that if someone from the family worked, they would be untouched. After watching the Nazis march through town, the family realized they could do nothing; the family’s option to run away felt extinguished.
The Nazis forced the Jews to build the barracks where hundreds of people would be housed and work under the watch of Ukrainian guards. Mr. Gringlas worked in his hometown and lived in the barracks for one year without family contact before they were sent away. He ate water soup and a piece of bread daily. When the barracks were liquidated in 1943, he was packed into an open train car with 200 people in it. They were given little to nothing to eat and no knowledge of where they were headed. Mr. Gringlas took with him the clothes on his back, a blanket and a picture of his parents.
They were packed into an open train car in the cold winter for over one week. They were never let out and if they tried to get out they would be shot. The first stop was in Czechoslovakia where they passed under a bridge and people would drop food to them from above. Mr. Gringlas remembers sitting on the remains of his hometown friends, whose bodies were stacked in the train car. If he did not sit on them, he had to stand. He remembers thinking he would soon be one of the corpses that another would sit upon.
After eight days, Mr. Gringlas and the remaining passengers were transported to Lager Dora for one or two days where they fed them. From there the next stop was the Auschwitz concentration camp. After arriving in the evening, he remembers vividly the mountains of children’s shoes and clothes that belonged to people who had been murdered, and Mr. Gringlas remembers vividly “the sky was red.” He remembers someone turning to him and saying, “Shaul, this is the end.” He responded, “I don’t care about me.”
They put the prisoners in front like soldiers, lined up on the floor. They were forced to strip naked to be examined. When Mr. Gringlas was yelled at by a soldier to “put his hands up and open them,” the picture of his family was lost to the pile he had seen moments before. The picture was replaced with a striped uniform to wear.
After a few days of adjustment to Auschwitz, a soldier came saying they needed 2,000 people to work in Germany. Each person was given a tattoo on his left wrist and a striped uniform to wear. Mr. Gringlas wore the number 4907. His was one of the 2,000.
They left from Auschwitz to the Nordhausen concentration camp in an open train car. Mr. Gringlas worked in this camp digging in the Harz Mountains. He remained in Nordhausen about one and half to two years for the rest of the war. The Nazis were digging an underground factory, which would later assemble V-2 rockets so that, when the enemy bombs would come, the work would not be seen or eliminated.
One day, when coming home from working in the mountains, a boy came over to Mr. Gringlas and told him, “Your brother is here.” He was excited that he and his brother, Joe, were together again.
Once the block commander—hearing he was a tailor—asked Mr. Gringlas to sew for him. In return, the commander gave him extra water soup, which he then shared with his brother. Mr. Gringlas worked as a tailor for several men, which in turn gave him extra resources and saved his life. He sewed the guards’ uniforms and the numbers on the striped uniforms that the Jewish prisoners were forced to wear. The entire time Gringlas was there, he remembers that the sky was red.
At the camp, they would wake up at seven in the morning and go downstairs to the kitchen to receive a piece of bread and some black coffee before working eight hours each day quarrying the mountains. After this, they would walk back to the camp and receive a cup of water soup, some black coffee and a piece of bread for dinner. When the Americans began bombing the Germans, they would run down to the kitchen to take cover. Mr. Gringlas remembers telling his brother one night during the bombings, “You know what? Let’s lay on the floor and let the walls fall in and kill us so that we won’t have to suffer anymore.” Instead, they immediately ran out of the camp and found a basement to hide in for the night. In the morning, they found out that the SS Guards had shot everyone in the barracks who had not been killed in the bombings.
The bombings came more frequently. Mr. Gringlas and his brother often hid among the pipes in the kitchen and on one occasion, Mr. Gringlas was hit in the leg and wounded. The next day his brother came to him and said, “We are free! The Americans are here!” Two German men discovered the two brothers. Just then, a few American soldiers came and beat up the German soldiers, sparing Mr. Gringlas and his brother’s life. The Red Cross treated his wounded leg and he was taken to a field hospital to recover.
Mr. Gringlas was liberated from Nordhausen in April 1945. He wanted to go home to Poland to see if any of his family survived the war. The two brothers returned to their hometown, found no one and left the next day. A friend of Mr. Gringlas’s older brother told them to go to Warsaw to Kibbutz Dror and from there to Israel. Kibbutz Dror eventually was closed and Mr. Gringlas and his brother were sent to a kibbutz in Landsberg, Germany near Munich where other refugees and Holocaust survivors were located.
There Mr. Gringlas met his future wife. He remembers “getting one look of the cook” and “picking her from all others.” Her name was Paula and she was cook manager. Paula left to go back to her home in Europe for a few months, leaving Mr. Gringlas behind. When she returned, they were married there by an orthodox rabbi with “everyone holding candles for our ceremony.”
Wanting to go to Israel, but being unable to get there, Mr. Gringlas and his wife, Paula, moved to Germany where they had their first daughter, Anne. They stayed in Landsberg for two years.
After receiving many phone calls to come work in the United States, Mr. Gringlas and his family moved to Portland, Oregon. After eight to nine months working as a tailor in a factory, the family moved by train to Detroit, Michigan to be near a cousin who had also survived the war. In Detroit, Mr. Gringlas and his wife had two more children.
Mr. Gringlas worked for Van Horn’s Men’s Wear at Northland Shopping Center in Southfield, Michigan. Eleven additional stores were opened over his 32 years of employment with them.
Mr. Gringlas was married for sixty years and has three children, Ann, Helen and Leonard and five grandchildren.
Mr. Gringlas recalls from his memory so that all may remember a time when the sky was red. His worst life experience was in Auschwitz. Today Mr. Gringlas says, “We should be happy that we have Israel, the safest place to be.”
Date: September 9, 2014
Interviewer: Donna Sklar
Length: 1 hour and 20 minutes
To view this oral history video interview, please click here.