The Museum’s Behind Every Name a Story project gives voice to the experiences of survivors during the Holocaust.
Miroslav (Fred) Grunwald was born on January 12, 1910 near Osijek in Croatia. He died on May 10, 1987, in Halifax, Nova Scotia. His wife Ruth (Petric) was born on July 11, 1909, in Hof, Bavaria (Germany). She died in March 2002 in Halifax. Their only child was Greta Grunwald, now Greta Murtagh from Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada.
Fred was a Holocaust survivor who spent several years in Dachau. He was prisoner # 60648 (listed as an Italian national under the name of Gruenwald). He rarely spoke of this, but when he was an old man, he wanted to make some kind of record of his life and experiences, so he wrote some memories in a notebook, from which these pages have been transcribed.
Fred's wife, Ruth, was Catholic, but she was also a concentration camp survivor. The family believes that Ruth was in the Stara Gradiška section of the Jasenovac Concentration Camp in Croatia. Ruth was sentenced to one year in the camp for helping Jewish families escape from the Nazis.
Fred died in 1987 as the result of a massive stroke he suffered while watching a PBS broadcast of the Holocaust documentary SHOAH. His wife, Ruth Grunwald, lived another 15 years and died in her early 90s, never having shared the story of her own time in the Jasenovac Camp.
Miroslav’s (Fred’s) Memories: Suddenly a Prisoner of the Germans
As the German army pushed southward, taking over from the Italians, all occupied Adriatic territory, I was suddenly again on the run and in hiding. But this time I was not so lucky. The Germans had the order to pick up all adult males and transport them for forced labor tasks.
I was hiding in a barn, behind chopped wood when a German patrol reached that place, and searched all premises. They came with dogs and in the barn, they started to bark where I was hiding. My pile of wood was immediately knocked down and there I was standing in front of a submachine gun. Arrested and escorted to the local school and, with a dozen others from there, taken to a command post some 50 miles north, right to the place of my sister-in-law's residence. During an interrogation in that ordinary jail, I denied again that I was a Jew.
I managed to smuggle out a message to my sister-in-law and as a confirmation that she received it, I received the next day, a basket filled with food, which I shared with ten others. Now at least I knew that my family realized that I was alive. We received one tin of soup and a small bread from the (Italian) staff but then, on the seventh day, the Germans transported us in police vans to their closest Gestapo command post in Abbazia (today Opatija). On the basis of my statement that I was a Christian, Italian citizen and a resident with my sister-in-law and that her local business was still in my wife's maiden name, I was released into her custody and thus I was again free, on my word that I would not escape (in which case my sister-in-law would be arrested).
Two days later, I was picked up by the German military police and brought back; this time to the maximum security prison in Coroneo where the Gestapo headquarters was situated. The only Italian was a sergeant at the reception desk, and with a polite apology, he explained to me that I had to deposit my wedding ring and gold watch, all of which I would get back when released from prison (which never happened; instead, twenty years later, I received compensation from the Federal Republic of Germany of 150 American dollars).
The accommodation that lasted thirty days in that “prison cell” deserves some description. Due to overcrowding of the institution, I was placed with 13 other prisoners in a standard toilet-washroom! All of us had to spend 23 hours standing and, in turn, about one hour sitting on the toilet seat! We were really leaning on each other all day and night; semi-conscious and drowsy and just wishing to get rid of the person who was pressing against your body with every movement. A slight improvement in our situation occurred about every hour when, one at a time, we were called for an interrogation. We hardly could walk, but the guards pushed us upstairs.
The first time it was my turn to be interrogated, I nearly fell asleep in the office of the Gestapo officer but I soon was wide awake, after being slapped twice on my face. That was my first realization what Gestapo behavior meant. A telegram was shown to me (in German, my mother's language) from the German headquarters in Zagreb, that I was not a Christian resident of the formerly Italian occupied territory, not an Italian citizen, but simply a Croatian Jew in hiding.
For repeatedly lying, the officer slapped me hard and sent me back to the “cell.” By now out of the 14 inmates who had come with me, only seven remained. I heard a rumor that one was released, one was shot and the others transferred to other prisons or jails.
The food in the cell consisted of one liter of clear soup and a bun (Panini), once daily. Great hunger was now permanent and we hoped that this would end soon; one way or the other. However, it would become much worse.
The Difficult Journey to the Concentration Camp Dachau
On the seventh day, about several hundred of us were marched to the Trieste Railway Station and, up to a hundred people were herded into one of the box cars. Even though I dreaded standing, it was somehow easier than in prison. At least I managed quickly to stretch on the floor in a corner. It was sub-zero temperatures, but we did not feel cold, just hunger. The horror started when one of us felt the need for a toilet! We were unable to escape the stench created by our own accumulating wastes.
We were not told where they were taking us. For three days and nights, we all suffered without food or water, urinated while standing or laying on the floor; all taking place in great silence as we just listened to the rolling of the wheels.
At the time we embarked we saw on each rail car, a Nazi sign “Rails Must Roll for the Victory.” (Räder müssen rollen für den Sieg).
A trip that was supposed to last 10-12 hours took three days because the Slovenian partisans destroyed the rails on several junctions in Austria. The third day our car was opened and the command was shouted to us, “Raus” (“out”). Only then did we know where we were; the railway station at Dachau. There, we received a slice of bread and a little hot soup and then we were marched to the concentration camp, joining 60,000 others already there!
The Incredible Reception in Concentration Camp
The first impression at the entrance was misleading: there was a sign “Arbeit Macht Frei” (“Work Will Set You Free”) so I was determined to work very hard so as to get free as soon as possible. An hour later we learned that the reality of the camp was different. The sign meant that our possible freedom depended, first of all, on a German victory (occupying the entire Soviet Union, as well as the British Isles). We were also warned that this was not a hotel or home for convalescence; that we were really convicts.
After that speech, we were ordered to undress completely (it was thirty below zero!). In this fatal five minutes, many people just fell down and were taken to the crematoria. I managed to get away with just contracting pneumonia and a high fever. A Polish doctor (an older prisoner) saved my life in a miraculous way. We were first brought into a barricade for disinfection. This action deserves a description in detail. First came a prisoner (with a black triangle for anti-socials) to trim our hair. That was not so bad, but then he shaved all hairs from our body with an old-fashioned razor, without soap or cream, and fast, injuring almost everybody's face. Then came another prisoner with a pail of carbolic acid and with a hard barn brush, swept our bodies. An enormous burning sensation left us really suffering. Then we went into the showers: first boiling hot water, then ice cold showers!
The Sorting Out of New Arrivals into Categories
All of us that survived the bath with a suspiciously burnt skin went to another lineup for a medical examination. An SS man presided and two Polish doctors (prisoners) examined us and proclaimed us fit for instant labor or for a couple of days “rest”.
As soon as it was my turn, I was the first to establish a third line and this third group got an instant treatment. There was a pile of paper cement bags in which tar glued together several layers of paper. The layers were separated and our bodies were covered with sticky tar paper. This was supposed to reduce the skin inflammation and reduce the body temperature.
I was warned by one of the doctors that I still had to come every Saturday to remove the tar paper and take a bath, but he whispered to me that the healing process would occur only if I could manage not to remove the tar paper for several months.
This meant I had to hide every Saturday and not go to the bathhouse with the others. This would be a punishable offense if I were caught. I managed not to get caught all through the winter months of 1943-44; always being in mortal fear of being found behind the barracks.
However, God helped me two-fold during this time. First, by my hiding undiscovered and, secondly, by allowing me to return to my barrack at noon with some foodstuff in my pockets, as I usually hid where it was most dangerous; behind the barrack of Polish priests who managed to give me some dry food through the back window.
Once I was caught red-handed by a Capo (prison guard) who wanted to turn me over to the SS but then, we made a deal. He had a green triangle (criminal). The “deal” involved my service to this Capo until the end of my incarceration; consisting of smuggling out of the camp, some metallic materials (mostly nails), which were not available to German farmers or carpenters and pieces of genuine leather for shoe repairs, and selling these goods in German villages through which we marched to our worksites and splitting the proceeds with the Capo.
I was lucky never to be subjected to my pockets being searched at the camp entrance, going or coming back, and to be able to barter with a nearby farmer; my handful of nails or a piece of leather (hidden in my oversize shoes) for two boiled potatoes or a small package of margarine. My knowledge of German was of decisive importance in such transactions. The time of this exchange while marching: thirty seconds!
Transports to Other Camps (Miracles Of Selection)
In the spring of 1944, all kinds of irregularities were beginning to occur in the camp. Due to the debacle on the Eastern Front, particularly at Stalingrad, and enormous shortages of war materials and food (due to ceaseless Allied bombings), the evacuations of concentration camps in Eastern Europe resulted in thousands of new prisoners in Dachau.
The capacity of Dachau grew from 5,000 in 1933 to 50,000 in 1943. Suddenly, I had to share my bunk with someone else. First we hated each other but soon we realized that by sleeping pressed together, it warmed our emaciated bodies a little. The food was late and a loaf of bread was cut into 13 slices (instead of 9 or 10), the soup was more and more clear and only on Sundays, would we find pieces of potatoes or even macaroni in it.
The overcrowding was also unbearable for other reasons. The allotted time of five minutes in the mornings for the use of toilets was suddenly shortened, and after 3-4 minutes, an orderly would come with a 3 inch hose; sprinkling everybody sitting on the toilets (which did not have seats) and chased us out as the line to use the toilets was growing.
All these events forced the camp administration to make space for thousands of new arrivals. First they created subsidiary camps; I was transferred to a nearby new camp at Rothschweige.
While in Dachau, if just one louse was found on a prisoner (or other uncleanliness of the body), that prisoner was punished severely. But in the small camp at Rothschweige, there was no sanitation at all and the barracks were practically sitting in mud! Only one tap with cold water was available for drinking and washing and, in less than one minute, we were chased from the tap; whether our bowls were full or not. Fortunately, from that temporary accommodation, we were moved to a larger camp, Allach (near the railway station, Karlsfeld-Allach).
Camps Needed for Very Urgent Work
There was a regimen here similar to Dachau, except the food was a little better, but the work output was also enormous. It consisted mostly of emergency work (repair of railways after bombings and building new lines).
A salt fish (herring) was added to our soup and on Sundays, we got a thick soup. Day and night, there were bombing raids all around the camp. Towards the end of the war, we were chased out of the barracks and into trenches, sometimes full of muddy water after rainy days.
In just such a situation, we spent the days and part of the nights in cold mud on the 28th, 29th and 30th of April 1945, listening to the explosions of incoming American artillery pieces and the defense of the last German anti-aircraft guns, which were used against the approaching American armies.
Liberation in Sight
The explosions were very close to our trenches and the noise shattering. We went three days and three nights without food or water and many weak prisoners fell down into the mud and just died. I had a fainting spell when I realized that everything was quiet; no shootings. I realized that I was about to die and when I became conscious, I found myself being carried by an American sergeant, a black man, who took me to a temporary American first aid tent. I received two injections, probably vitamins and then some milk. By the next day I was already able to walk.
As I discovered more details about the surroundings, I saw an incredible chaos. Thousands of prisoners walking in groups, listening to announcements of the American Command and the national and international committees, speaking in all languages, mingling with American soldiers and discussing what to do next. The rusted barbed wire around the camp was repaired and replaced with new wire and leaving the camp was forbidden without a special pass. These passes were issued only to people who volunteered or were appointed for the necessary services for the welfare of prisoners.
I volunteered with a small Red Cross special group of four. With a military jeep, we confiscated in surrounding villages: sheets, cushions, blankets, beds and everything that was needed to create a decent hospital.
To obtain special privileges, I volunteered for a few days to pull out from the stinky barracks, dead bodies of prisoners which were stacked at the entrance and picked up by another crew for burial (48 in a mass grave, each layer covered with limestone dust). Most of the dead were listed by their number and the lists delivered to the National Liberation Committees.
A horrible lesson was learned by all of us: what to eat and what not to eat. On the morning of May 1, 1945, a mobile kitchen came into the camp with cooked dry beans and bacon; food meant for Italians, Yugoslavs and Hungarians. The American army was asked to provide this kind of thick, rich soup. Some prisoners attacked the first unit and helped themselves. The wretched individuals picked out the cooked bacon and swallowed a lot. A few minutes later, we saw some falling to the floor in great pain and terrible cramps, struggling for life. The American Red Cross took them to the emergency hut. Some were saved; some died.
After a week, things seemed to have normalized. The camp was cleaned up, prisoners were well-fed and delegations from liberated countries soon arrived to pick up their nationals for repatriation.
The first transports were to West-European countries and, then, to the East two weeks later. My turn came with a group of twenty Yugoslav survivors, none of them from my original group of 500. We traveled in trucks and, after identifications on the border, by train, home. I was rewarded by finding and seeing my wife and daughter again, but not eighteen of my relatives who simply disappeared within the Holocaust, never to be heard from again.