As we fight the onslaught of the coronavirus pandemic and the restrictions that everyone must face, I can’t help but ruminate — especially for the commemoration of Yom Hashoah, Holocaust Remembrance Day — and compare this suffering to the experiences I went through in my younger days.
It’s now 81 years since the Nazis occupied Czechoslovakia. Once they arrived, we had to give up our large apartment and move into a much smaller one in the ghetto, where every Jewish person was allowed only a certain amount of square meters of space. Anything of any value — jewelry, art, musical instruments — had to be turned in under the threat of death. We had to wear a yellow star, and when I dared to go out, I was often chased by gangs of boys, who pelted me with stones. All our bank accounts were confiscated and our parents were not allowed to work. We were allowed to purchase only certain groceries, bought only on certain days and certain times. My father, a prominent attorney, was arrested by the Gestapo, tortured in the Prague prison, and sent to the Terezin concentration camp, where he was killed just two weeks later.
We were not allowed to attend school.
A year later, my mother, my sister, and I were transported to Terezin. Before World War II, Terezin, a former Czechoslovakian fortress, was occupied by some 5,000 people; when I was there, at its height, it held 60,000 people. And if you think that’s bad, the alternative was much worse. We were fortunate that we were able to stay there for the entire remaining 2.5 years. Others were shipped in one of the transports to the “East,” what turned out to be the Auschwitz extermination camp.
So today, under a COVID-19 stay-at-home advisory, I sit here all alone, homebound, and don’t mind at all. I am amused by the fact that so many people are complaining of being stuck in their houses or apartments and are bored. My two granddaughters, 14 and 11, were complaining that they would miss six months of schooling. I told them not to worry, that during World War II, I lost six years of formal education.
After we were liberated in 1945, what remained of my family returned to Prague and tried to resume a “normal” life without my father, our close relatives, and friends who all perished during the Holocaust. But after a couple of years, it became clear the Communists were going to take over the government, and my mother refused to live under another totalitarian regime, so she asked friends to send us visas to the United States. We left Prague legally in April 1948, two weeks after the Communists took over, but we couldn’t enter the United States because there was a quota system. We had to find somewhere else to wait it out. That somewhere else turned out to be Cuba, where we lived for two years.
My mother enrolled me in an American high school, which I attended without knowing English or Spanish. I didn’t know a soul in Havana, so I used to walk the streets of Vedado, the residential area of Havana, with a little notebook, trying to memorize various idioms translated from Czech into English and Spanish. To the principal’s amazement, I was able to complete all the high school requirements in two years, just as our quota number came up.
The principal wrote me an effusive recommendation and, as a result, I was accepted to MIT, which I started to attend soon after we arrived in America. It was not easy, since my English left much to be desired and I was competing against valedictorians from schools around the country. Yet I managed to fulfill all the requirements in three years by taking summer courses and additional courses during the school year, and I graduated at 23. Eight years after being liberated from Terezin, and now living on a different continent and having to learn new customs and new languages, I managed to reduce the loss of six years of schooling to just one.
After receiving a bachelor’s degree in civil engineering from MIT, I later attended Yale University and earned a master’s degree in city planning. I spent some 40 years working in these fields in both the public and private sectors in the Boston area. My wife, Thelma, was herself a PhD candidate in human development from the University of Chicago. She was also the author of a book documenting my and other children’s experiences in the Nazi camp, “Nesarim: Child Survivors of Terezin.” Our three sons attended Harvard, Stanford, and the University of Chicago, and the youngest invented a musical instrument called a Samchillian, which he’s demonstrated in some 30 countries.
My advice to all students and their parents who worry about losing six months of education and falling behind is to try not to waste any time now while you are forced to be at home. Let this global pandemic serve as a lesson to you, as my experiences surviving the Nazis served me: Your resilience, your persistence, and your personal resolve can overcome the worst life has to offer. Now roll up your sleeves and get to work.
Michael Gruenbaum is the author of “Somewhere There Is Still a Sun.” He is a child survivor of Terezin, a Nazi concentration camp.