The Grapevine Art & Soul Salon
We are what we think. All that we are arises with our thoughts. With our thoughts, we make the world.
The world is so empty if one thinks only of mountains, rivers and cities; but to know someone here and there who thinks and feels with us, and though distant, is close to us in spirit - this makes the earth for us an inhabited garden.
Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
It is my pleasure to host conversations that range from what it means to be human to what it means to be a geographically and culturally located person--or relocated person, as in my case and that of Dr. Shahid Rafique, a friend from Pakistan, against whose country I fought in two wars and whose father, ironically, during one of those wars was imprisoned in Meerut, my hometown. He and I are not the subject of this first column, though we will talk here later, I hope. However, it was he who led Jonathan and me to Mr. Abraham Grabia, whose story appears below.
INTERVIEW: ABRAHAM GRABIA
by Jonathan Knott
When a man finds that it is his destiny to suffer, he will have to accept his suffering as his task; his single and unique task. He will have to acknowledge the fact that even in suffering he is unique and alone in the universe. No one can relieve him of his suffering or suffer in his place. His unique opportunity lies in the way he bears his burden.
Viktor Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning
It was a bright, breezy spring morning, the kind that I normally would’ve paid close attention to--one of those days where nature seemed alive, even in the city. Instead, I was preoccupied with my thoughts as Ravi Kumar and I drove through the Northeast Atlanta suburbs on our way to an appointment. We were entertaining the idea of adding a cross-cultural column to our website, and a friend of his had arranged for us to interview an eighty-year-old Holocaust survivor, a man who had been interviewed by Spielberg’s crew prior to making Schindler’s List. Abraham Grabia had been held prisoner for a time at the camp in Krakow that was the setting for the movie.
While my interest in history has always been high, my knowledge of the Holocaust was limited, mainly confined to what I had read in books, seen in a movie or two, and noticed on the occasional museum trip. Neither Ravi nor I had talked to the man before, and we weren’t sure what to expect. Would he be easy to talk to? Was he angry or bitter? What sort of things would be appropriate to ask about and what wouldn’t? We would just have to see.
We arrived at the modest but attractive brick house and were greeted warmly by Mr. Grabia and his wife, who immediately put us at ease. We all sat down at the dining room table, and he asked how he could help me. He tapped his head and said there was a story in there enough for several books, but that he didn’t write. “It stays in the mind and you don’t forget. That’s how it works. Do you want to ask me any questions, or do you want me to talk?”
“I didn’t bring a list. I mainly wanted to hear your story. I have a couple of questions I can ask you….” I faltered more or less on purpose to see what he would prefer.
“My name is Abe Grabia,” he began. “I was born in Poland on December 22, 1925. We all lived moderately. We were never rich…nobody was rich, really. Most people were middle class, maybe less than middle class, but somehow we survived, the Jews before the war.”
And so it began, as all stories do that need telling enough to require no prompting. Mr. Grabia talked for over an hour of a time and place that seems almost unimaginable to those who, like me, were raised in post-WWII America. Though the event is well-documented, it’s strange to hear of it from a person who was there.
The buildup to the Holocaust went on for several years after the Nazis came to power in Germany and spread their political control to Eastern Europe. As early as 1940, Jews in Russia and Poland were being confined in ghettos. As more and more Germans were needed to fight, the Nazis began bringing men and women from the Soviet Union, Poland, and other occupied nations to labor camps where they were assigned work in German industries, replacing the men who had gone off to fight.
Many Jews fled persecution to other countries, often not traveling far enough to elude capture, or away from the continent to other parts of the world. Most who escaped came to America. Many refused to leave their homes. Others, like Mr. Grabia, were trying to leave when the hammer fell. One of his brothers had already made it to America and had sent word back to him that his passport was being created. Then it was too late. At the very last moment he became one of those forced into labor for the Germans and would remain so throughout the war.
According to him, everyone had it bad. Some had it worse than others, but there was no “better.” The word disappeared from everyone’s vocabulary. It was always “worse.” Mr. Grabia was moved from place to place. The various incarcerations involved daylong work in extreme cold. Though the cold and the forced labor from sunup to sundown were bad, he said they could have been borne much easier if it weren’t for short commons. The prisoners woke up in the morning and worked all day without food. When they returned to camp in the evening, starving, they were given two-inch squares of bread cut roughly from a loaf made out of sawdust. These “loaves” had been divided among eight people who drew lots to keep from fighting over which piece was bigger. The "bread," together with "soup" which was essentially water, "coffee" (a liquid made from burnt rye), and sometimes raw sauerkraut, were all they had to live on. Many did not live. He mentioned that big, strong, athletic men, “men who could break steel,” rarely survived more than three or four weeks in a camp because the diet simply wouldn’t support them.
When people got too tired, fell ill, or simply dropped behind on the march, they were often led away never to be seen again. Mr. Grabia said he concealed the truth about his age several times in the hope that it would keep him off these lists. He was fifteen at the beginning of his internment, and he would pretend to be older or younger, whichever seemed to offer the best chance of survival. He had to lie again at the end of the war, when he was nineteen, to keep the Russians from making him a soldier). It wasn’t always simple, either. Nobody knew who was going to die, or when or why. The Germans had a code they would write down next to names, and those people would just … disappear.
This phenomenon happened around him so many times that he called it a miracle it didn’t happen to him. He referred to several such incidents that couldn’t be explained: men right in front of him or right behind him in a march being led off and shot. While accepting soup from a kind Polish man, he was caught by a guard and beaten severely. The guard happened to have forgotten his gun, and as he went to look for it, Mr. Grabia said he was able to run “like I was in the Olympics,” though he didn’t leave behind the soup. You never did that. He had to hide for days in another part of the camp, for fear the guards would look for him. Another incident involved injuring himself while working, being sent to the doctor and given permission to take the rest of the day off, but feeling it was a good idea to get back to work and act as if he were all right; it turned out the others who left that day didn’t come back. I can imagine the creeping in of terror at this human lottery, and I try to think how one might adjust to it without going mad.
He said he was eventually issued a ridiculous looking pair of leather shoes when everyone else had wooden ones (he described them as looking like Charlie Chaplin’s in The Tramp; he didn’t have to worry about people trying to steal them). When marching through wet snow, the snow built up and caked on the heels of the wooden shoes, making it difficult and often impossible for people wearing them to keep going. Ironically, the softer leather kept that from happening to his shoes and eased his ability to march on.
During an assignment to clear the streets of snow and debris in the town around Buchenwald, he found three things that helped him keep going. The first day, he found a spoon. “Big deal, you think, a spoon. So what! But when I got back to camp and had soup, instead of having to drink it, I could use a spoon like before the war. It brought back a little sense of humanity.” The second day, he found a burnt cake. It was so hard it couldn’t be eaten, but his spoon allowed him to scrape the top into a powder that could. He gave some to a man who was starving in an attempt to revive him, but the man was taken off the next day to die. On the third and final day he found a watch that he hid in his jacket lining. There were Russian soldiers working adjacent to the camp, and it was known that “they would sell their parents for a watch.” He bargained with a soldier who for three more days, in exchange for the watch, brought Mr. Grabia and his friends soup and potatoes. The prisoners would’ve been beaten (or worse) if they had been caught bringing anything back to camp, so they had to stand at the fence and eat everything at once. After the third day the fence was closed off, and no more contact was possible. Those three meals helped him (and two of his friends) survive.
At this point I noticed that both Ravi and I were steadily and solemnly consuming the chips and soft drinks Mrs. Grabia had put out for us. To eat what was put before us seemed spiritually necessary and appropriate to this story of deprivation.
Miracles, Mr. Grabia called all these little events that helped him survive. He didn’t know why they happened in his favor and not that of others; it was as if someone or something were watching over him, he said.
“It was me,” Mrs. Grabia commented.
When we first got there, it seemed that they had the sort of comfortable and well-defined relationship with one another that can only happen with people who’ve been together for several decades. Once, he had been saying that it was funny how he couldn’t remember what he had for lunch yesterday, but he never forgot his story. She leaned over and said, “You had a corned beef sandwich.” But I noticed throughout the conversation that their attachment had another dimension. Although she must have heard his story countless times over the years, she watched him as silently and attentively as Ravi and I did while he was talking and seemed irritated to have to leave temporarily to answer the phone. I learned she had been with her family in their New York apartment after the war, watching television, when a program came on that included Abraham Grabia’s story; she said she knew at that moment that their destiny was to be together.
As I listened to this man tell his story, it occurred to me that all of the situations he was describing so matter-of-factly could’ve been turned into long and fascinating accounts of their own. Any one of the events could’ve broken a lesser man, yet he seemed to be very much in charge of his emotions and not in any way bitter. I tried to put myself in the places he was describing and feel what it must’ve been like. I imagined plodding through the snow in Charlie Chaplin shoes, three-quarters starved and probably hallucinating from hunger and malnutrition, while the only thing keeping me focused was watching those around me who gave up being killed. Working all day on an empty stomach and being savagely beaten if I tried to sneak enough soup back to camp to avoid dying of hunger or a couple of sticks of wood to keep from freezing. Knowing that most of my family and friends were gone, and not knowing who could be trusted and who couldn’t (Did the civilians feel sorry? Who knew? Maybe they did, maybe not. They couldn’t speak up. If they did, their own kids might give them away. Nobody knew who was for or against. There were Germans [imprisoned] in the camp who had spoken out.)
At one point, while they were on the move through a mountainous region, he managed to run away, only to be stopped by some people leaving the place he was running to. They told him to go back, that everyone back there had been gunned down, and that they were being bulldozed into a nearby valley. So he turned around and went back to camp "because there was nowhere else to go."
Then I tried to picture myself in the only situation that almost caused him to give up: being shoved into a railway car in December of ’44, starving and freezing, with no water for days at a time, close-packed against the sick and the dying. The time spent on the train in the final winter of the war was the closest he came to total despair. It didn’t overcome him, though. I decided I probably wouldn’t have made it three weeks under any of these circumstances. I looked at this mild-mannered man who reminded me of anyone’s favorite uncle, and realized he did it for four years.
The phone call Mrs. Grabia answered had come from their son, and the subject of family brought us to family photographs. He took out a picture of a barber shop owned by his two brothers before the war. He said it was the nicest one in the neighborhood. It was strange to look at the photograph of robust and well-dressed people with mighty and well-groomed mustaches posing in that fine barber shop, and try to put the scene together with what happened only a little while later to turn their world upside down and inside out. The same was true of a pre-war family photograph, with his parents and siblings, the whole crowd posing in rows behind one another--a large and proud and normal family that disappeared so quickly (only he and his two brothers out of all of them survived the war; his mother died shortly before it).
Which brings us to the question “how?” How does one survive such an ordeal at all, much less without a lingering bitterness? Ravi had asked how long it took to recover physically, and the answer was surprising. “Not long. A few weeks. We [the survivors] were young, and the human body is amazing.” He said that some time in England in post-war camps spent eating as much as they could did the trick (the Russians who initially rescued them didn’t have much more food than they did). But a whole generation of people over forty and under fifteen (and many in-between), gone forever! What gave some the strength to make it through? His answer was simple: “It was just the will to live.” The will to retain what humanity they could through kindness to others in their position and perseverance against the odds.
Here I am reminded of something else Viktor Frankl is famous for having said in Man’s Search for Meaning (1963, 104), his account of his own WWII imprisonment:
We who have lived in concentration camps can remember the men who walked through the huts comforting others, giving away their last piece of bread. They may have been few in number, but they offer sufficient proof that everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way….
Abraham Grabia embodies that truth. He has friends who give speeches or write books about the Holocaust; that is not his way, though his experience of the camps was long and arduous. Mr. Grabia didn't write books to make his experience public, and he didn't go the opposite way of withdrawing into himself. He chose instead to focus on living a normal life, situated between the public and the private. One-on-one he will tell you the story, though. To him, the story, not the person, is what’s important. “It stays in the mind and you don’t forget. That’s how it works.” This comment is true of all stories worth telling, and successful storytellers of all kinds strive for their audience to remember what they heard or saw or read.
As Ravi and I parted company with the Grabias and drove back through the sleepy suburb, I thought how simple and pleasant, yet important the experience had been. Mr. Grabia sat down and told us his story straight-forwardly, without embellishment or value judgments. Ravi remembers it. I remember it. That’s how the story of a deeply felt experience works.
Copyright ©2006 Barbara Knott. All Rights Reserved.
Contact the Webmaster.