Each term, at the culmination of her Holocaust-related course at Canon-McMillan High School, Meg Pankiewicz welcomes a Holocaust survivor into class. Pankiewicz, 42, feels so strongly about exposing students to firsthand survivor testimony that in years past she personally drove survivors from Squirrel Hill to Washington County and back. With COVID-19 forcing activities online, though, Pankiewicz faced new challenges. Not only did the literature teacher need to find a survivor who was willing to speak, but one who’d be comfortable doing so virtually.
Pankiewicz turned to Tsipy Gur, founder and executive director of Classrooms Without Borders, for help. The two educators have known each other for years — Pankiewicz traveled to Poland with Gur and CWB on a study seminar nearly a decade ago. Gur connected Pankiewicz with Frank Grunwald, an Indianapolis, Indiana, resident and nationally known survivor, artist and musician, whose story was recorded in the 2012 documentary “Misa’s Fugue.”
Born September 1932, Grunwald was 6 when Germany invaded Czechoslovakia. From that moment on, Grunwald’s childhood was filled with persecution and fear, he told Pankiewicz’s students via Google Meet on Jan. 13: “We were shocked by the anti-Semitism that quickly started showing its ugly head in Prague.”
Jews were restricted from entering libraries, restaurants or department stores.
“Everywhere were these signs, ‘Jews not allowed,’” said Grunwald.
At the start of second grade, Grunwald was removed from school for being Jewish, as was his older brother. Their family was later forced from their apartment and relocated to a smaller residence before being transported to a ghetto. In 1943, Grunwald and his family were taken on a two-day train trip — without food or water — to Auschwitz.
After arriving at the concentration and extermination camp, Grunwald and his brother worked outside its crematoria.
“People were being killed in gas chambers every day, almost every day,” Grunwald told the students. “Sometimes the gas chambers were running 24 hours a day and so were the crematoria. There were periods of time when my brother and I worked outside … the heavy smoke and the ashes from the chimneys were literally covering our bodies, our hair, our shoes. Everything was covered by human ash if the wind was coming directly from the crematoria into our direction.
“So, very often, not only did we smell the burning of the human flesh, we were literally covered by the ashes from the burning of the corpses.”
Grunwald recalled how he and his brother were gathered with almost 300 other children for selection. Dr. Josef Mengele, often referred to as the “Angel of Death,” directed children to the right or the left. Grunwald and his brother, who had a limp, were sent to the left. Several minutes after selection — with Mengele standing no more than 30 feet away — Willy Brachmann, a fellow prisoner, grabbed Grunwald and shoved him to the right.
Then Brachmann disappeared.
“I realized at this point that Willy just saved my life,” said Grunwald. “It all came together. I just realized that I was on the wrong side of the table, that my brother was on the wrong side of the table, that the other 200 or 300 kids were on the wrong side of the table, and that I was the lucky one because Willy just saved my life.”
Grunwald’s mother chose to accompany his brother. Five days later, both were killed. But that was not the end of the story, Grunwald told students.
About an hour before his mother was scheduled to be gassed, she discovered a piece of paper and a pencil. Fully aware of her own fate, Vilma Grunwald drafted a letter to her husband, Kurt Grunwald, a physician who was forced to work inside the camp. Vilma Grunwald recorded both the strict conditions she and others endured, and her wishes for the future.
“We are locked in [sic] in our block, waiting for the dark,” she wrote. “We at first thought of hiding, which we did, but then we dropped the idea on the assumption it would be hopeless. The infamous trucks have arrived and we are waiting for it to begin … You, my one and only, my dearest, do not blame yourself in the least; it was our fate. We did what we could do. Remain in good health and remember my words that time heals everything — if not completely, then at least in some measure. Take care of that little golden boy — and don’t spoil him with all your love. May you both remain in very good health, my two dear golden ones … Live well; we have to get on board. Into eternity, Your Vilma.”
Frank Grunwald told students his mother was an excellent judge of character and found an older German guard, “not an SS man, just a German military guard,” and asked him to deliver the letter to Auschwitz’s medical camp.
“Sure enough, the next day the guard gave this note to my father,” said Grunwald, “and my father basically kept this note with him through his Holocaust journey.”
Years later, Grunwald discovered the letter in his father’s bedroom in New York.
“He never showed it to me,” said Grunwald. “I almost didn't want to read it. And then, when I read it, of course it was very, very emotional and very, very touching. What's wonderful about the letter is that there is not a single hint of anger … there is not a single feeling, or expression of remorse, or anger, or sadness, or feeling of her being a victim in any way.”
This was a woman who knew death was imminent and merely wished to say goodbye, continued Grunwald. “There is not a single mention of any kind of threat against the Nazis, or against anyone, which I think is absolutely fantastic.”
The letter is now on permanent display at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.
Hearing Grunwald’s story was life-changing, said Canon-McMillan High School Principal Ken Crowley, a former social studies teacher.
“I have been learning about history my entire life, it's my passion, and I've never been able to have the experience that I had today,” said Crowley.
Crowley thanked the survivor for his empathy and passion.
“I guarantee that what you said today is going to have a profound and lasting impact,” said Crowley. “I believe that many of these kids are going to carry this moment with them the rest of their life.”
Pankiewicz, who in addition to teaching at Canon-McMillan is a doctoral student in Holocaust and genocide studies at Gratz College, agreed.
“Holocaust education is more than a history lesson,” she said. “I have seen firsthand how it completely changes the way [students] live.” PJC
Adam Reinherz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.