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Michael Gruenbaum, Holocaust survivor who wrote about boyhood in a Nazi concentration camp, dies at 92

Michael Gruenbaum lived in Brookline.Suzanne Kreiter/Globe Staff

One by one the decades passed — 70 years in all from the day 14-year-old Michael Gruenbaum left the Terezin concentration camp in 1945 until he could share the story of Nazis shattering his childhood in Czechoslovakia and how he dodged death four times.

“A big responsibility comes with surviving the Holocaust — the responsibility to remember, to tell, and to never forget,” he said in “The Teddy Bear,” a short film his grandson Benjamin animated.

With “Somewhere There Is Still a Sun,” a memoir Mr. Gruenbaum wrote in his 80s, and through countless visits to classrooms in person and on Zoom, he kept alive his family’s memories of heartbreak, courage, and the fierce will to stay alive.


“I challenge you to find ways to use the lessons of the Holocaust to fix what’s broken in the world,” he said in the animated film, which was produced by the Lappin Foundation and is taught in classrooms across the country. “Making the world a better place starts with you.”

Mr. Gruenbaum taught two lessons on Zoom the day before he died of heart failure Wednesday. He was 92 and living independently in Brookline, his home for many years.

In Terezin during World War II, Mr. Gruenbaum and his older sister, Marietta, survived because their mother, Margaret Popper Gruenbaum, was talented and kept them off trains to Auschwitz, where Nazis killed about 1 million Jewish people.

Before the war, their family had led a prosperous life in Prague. The first three times the Gruenbaums were summoned to go on the train, “my mother went to the people that were preparing the list and reminded them of all of the things that my father had done for the Jewish community. That was the main reason why we were pulled out,” Mr. Gruenbaum said in an interview with The Defiant Requiem Foundation.


Margaret was among those at Terezin who were ordered to make teddy bears as Christmas presents for the children of a Nazi officer in fall 1944.

When Margaret learned that she and her children were again on the list for the train to Auschwitz, she told her boss that if she left, the teddy bears order “would not get filled,” Mr. Gruenbaum recalled in a 2020 Globe essay.

Her boss explained that to the German officer, who allowed the Gruenbaums to stay.

“The officer said: ‘Pull them out too, but no one else,’ ” Mr. Gruenbaum wrote. “And thus, due to my mother’s persistence and a lot of luck, I am here today to tell this incredible story.”

His mother kept one of the bears she made, which he inherited after she died in 1974. The bear, called Sasha, is dressed in a jacket Margaret sewed in Terezin.

“I’m here because of this teddy bear, Sasha,” he said in the animated film. “Sasha saved my life during the Holocaust.”

Born on Aug. 23, 1930, Misa Grünbaum grew up in Prague hoping to become a professional soccer player. (His name was changed years later, after arriving in America.)

Misa’s father, Karl, was a prominent attorney employed by one of the country’s wealthiest families.

“I remember cuddling in bed with my parents on Sunday mornings,” he told The Defiant Requiem Foundation. “I read the sports section while my parents read about the latest political developments.”


In 1939, Germany began its occupation of Czechoslovakia, a day Mr. Gruenbaum never forgot.

“I was sitting in a window and I watched this couple across the street on a roof holding hands, and they jumped off and committed suicide,” he told the foundation. “That was a bad sign of all the things that were coming.”

The family had to surrender all belongings and money to the Nazis, move into a small apartment in the Prague ghetto, and wear yellow Star of David patches, which made them targets for beatings.

In 1941, the Gestapo arrested, tortured, and murdered Mr. Gruenbaum’s father for having helped his clients transfer money out of Czechoslovakia before the Nazis took over.

The following year, not long after Michael turned 12, he and his mother and sister were sent to Terezin. Separated from Margaret and Marietta, he was assigned to a dormitory room with about 40 other boys — most were killed or died of illnesses.

While they lived there, 20-year-old Francis Maier “tried to educate us, surreptitiously,” Mr. Gruenbaum told the foundation.

“Once in a while he brought somebody in to give us a lecture about history, physics, or something like that,” he added. “Of course we had to have somebody be a lookout, to make sure no Germans would come and find that out.”

After the war, he returned to Prague, but his mother suspected the Soviet Union would soon make living there unsafe. She took him to Paris and then Cuba, where they waited for a visa to enter the United States.


Mr. Gruenbaum went to an American high school in Havana, graduated from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology with a bachelor’s degree in civil engineering, and received a master’s in urban planning from Yale University.

While working in Illinois after MIT, he met Thelma Yutan at a Chicago performance of Handel’s “Messiah.”

They married in 1956, settled in Brookine, and raised three sons. Mr. Gruenbaum worked for the Boston Redevelopment Authority, the state department of public works, and the Bruce Campbell & Associates consulting firm.

Thelma Gruenbaum, a writer, interviewed her husband and others he knew in the concentration camp and wrote “Nesarim: Child Survivors of Terezin.”

“In just one more generation, the world will have to rely on the written word or testimonial tapes to learn about the Holocaust,” she wrote.

Mrs. Gruenbaum finished and published the book in 2004, after being diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis. She died in 2006.

“They had a true love affair,” said their son David of Santa Rosa, Calif.

His father, he added, “was an incredible person. Because of his experience in the concentration camp, he was just optimistic for the rest of his life. He just knew things couldn’t get worse than that.”

Mr. Gruenbaum “taught us this persistence: ‘You should never give up on going after what you want,’ " said his son Peter of Seattle. “No one could do it to the level that he did. That was a powerful lesson we all took from him.”


Upon publishing “Somewhere There Is Still a Sun,” its title inspired by a line in a letter Mr. Gruenbaum’s mother wrote after they were liberated from Terezin, he worked to get his memoir translated into 19 languages.

At the end of his life, as violent incidents of antisemitism increased in the United States, “it was very important to him to get the book out as much as possible,” said his son Leon of New York City, who has seen YouTube videos of schoolchildren presenting book reports about his father’s memoir.

“He had an indomitable spirit,” Leon said.

A private service will be held for Mr. Gruenbaum, who in addition to his sons and grandson Benjamin leaves three other grandchildren.

Mr. Gruenbaum believed constant vigilance is needed to prevent the murderous hatred he saw as a boy from engulfing the world again.

“It starts with a simple drawing of a swastika on a wall, then the overturning of Jewish gravestones, the bullying of Jewish students, culminating in the killing of innocent worshippers in a Pittsburgh synagogue and diners in a deli in Jersey City,” he wrote for the Globe.

“It behooves all of us to be very much on the alert and make sure that the smallest of such incidents is immediately thwarted and stopped in its tracks.”

Bryan Marquard can be reached at bryan.marquard@globe.com.