About a year ago, Michael Gruenbaum of Brookline was rummaging through a box of old papers when he discovered six stories that he and his late wife, Thelma, had written 50 years earlier to educate and entertain their three sons, David, Peter, and Leon.
Among them was “Tell Me About Beethoven,” written as a tribute to the legendary composer during the commemoration of his 200th birthday in 1970. Hoping to reach a wider audience with the story about a boy whose grandfather helps him learn about Ludwig van Beethoven’s life and music for a school assignment, Gruenbaum said he mailed the manuscript to a half-dozen publishers “with the usual results: no response, or just simply a refusal.”
Having rediscovered the manuscript, the 91-year-old Holocaust survivor put into practice his philosophy of refusing to accept no for an answer. With the commemoration of Beethoven’s 250th birthday on Dec. 16, 2020, Gruenbaum sent query letters to 230 literary agents and publishers. This time, he found success with Austin Macauley Publishers, which published the book on March 31 of this year.
Although Gruenbaum continues to regard Beethoven as highly as ever, his objective in publishing the book has shifted. His focus now is on Thelma getting her due as a talented writer, after having shone the spotlight so brightly on others throughout her life.
“After all this time, I’m very happy that I’m able to do more to get her name out there,” said Gruenbaum, whom Thelma profiled in the book “Nesarim: Child Survivors of Terezin” just two years prior to her death in 2006.
That book is a companion to Michael Gruenbaum’s 2017 memoir, “Somewhere There Is Still a Sun,” written with Todd Hasak-Lowy and published by Simon & Schuster. In the memoir, which has been translated into 16 languages, Gruenbaum recounts his carefree childhood in Prague; the Nazi invasion that forced his affluent family into the Jewish ghetto; the arrest and murder of his father, Karl; his confinement from 1942 to 1945 at the Terezin concentration camp with his mother, Margaret, and older sister, Marietta; and their persistence and sheer luck in avoiding four separate assignments for transport to Auschwitz.
After initially immigrating to Cuba, Gruenbaum and his remaining family arrived in New York Harbor on July 4, 1950. Just eight years after the liberation of Terezin, Gruenbaum had learned English and earned a degree in civil engineering from MIT. He then met Thelma Yutan, his future bride, through a friend from Cuba while he was in a six-month training program with the Illinois Highway Department.
“I say I met my wife in Paris because it sounds so romantic,” joked Gruenbaum, not mentioning that he is actually referring to the town in Edgar County, Ill.
Gruenbaum and Thelma connected over their shared love of music and children, and their bond endured after he was drafted into the US Army during the Korean War. Following two years of stateside assignments, the couple married on May 6, 1956.
Thelma and Gruenbaum shared higher education as well as literary aspirations. Thelma, a native of Springfield, Ill., wrote the book “Before 1776: The Massachusetts Bay Colony from Founding to Revolution” in 1974 and attended the University of Chicago for her undergraduate degree and graduate work toward a doctorate in human development.
The couple moved to New Haven so Gruenbaum could earn his master’s degree in urban planning at Yale University. In 1961, Gruenbaum embarked on a career in the traffic and transportation planning field in the Boston area, during which time he wrote the book “Transportation Facts for the Boston Region.”
Gruenbaum then cofounded a consulting firm, at which Thelma also worked. Upon their joint retirement 14 years later, the couple traveled and doted on their four grandchildren.
“We liked each other very much,” said Gruenbaum, who still lives in the same house in Brookline where he and Thelma moved in 1968. “We had a lot of good times.”
Today, Gruenbaum still enjoys the classical music of Beethoven, for whom he said he has “big respect” that is grounded in his own past.
“He had to overcome so many obstacles in his life, and yet that didn’t deter him from doing what he wanted to do: Compose music the way he liked to compose it, and the way it had never been done before,” said Gruenbaum, who has been delighted by the book’s warm reception. In addition to describing the story as “charming and a heart-warming depiction,” the publisher’s acceptance letter stated, “The overarching theme of resilience and overcoming hardship throughout the life experiences of this renowned figure is sure to inspire all readers.”
Encouraged by this success, Gruenbaum is now searching for a publisher with “proper” distribution channels for Thelma’s book, “To Music and Children With Love: Reflections For Parents and Teachers,” which she wrote and self-published in 1979. David Tierney, head of the Cambridge Friends School, has spent the last two years updating the manuscript.
“We are finally ready to seek a publisher who understands its merits and the importance of bringing it to the attention of parents and teachers everywhere who are interested in educating young children in music,” Gruenbaum said. “I hope it catches on, too.”
For more information, visit michaelgruenbaum.com.
Cindy Cantrell can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.