Abraham and Grisha Grinblat, a story of courage

  • Wednesday, January 15, 2014

A.M. Sheehan/Journal Scene Herschel, Erin and Rochelle Greenblat.

Photos

Summerville High School Spanish teacher Erin Greenblat is here today because her great-grandfather chose not to be annihilated.

So begins Herschel Greenblat’s talk to students of Denny Ferrell’s Intolerance and Holocaust class at SHS.

Herschel is Erin’s grandfather.

Herschel is a child of the Holocaust.

The children of the Holocaust are all who are left today and they are elderly. Herschel, at 72, is the youngest speaker from the William Breman Jewish Heritage & Holocaust Museum in Atlanta.

Herschel’s story is an uncommon one. It is not a story of concentration camps or death camps although it touches on those.

It is the story of his father who saved his family, and their long journey of survival.

It begins in Poland in 1940.

“This is the story of my dad,” says Herschel.

In 1940, Hitler rounded up all the Jews and put them in the Majdanek Concentration Camp on the outskirts of the city of Lublin. “Everyone who went was murdered,” says Herschel, “including my father’s entire family.

“Dad crossed the border in 1940 into the Ukraine with his friends ... they formed a resistance group. They blew up some tracks, and some convoys.”

His dad, Abraham Grinblat, met his mother Manya in the Ukraine. They married and Manya joined the resistance effort. In April 1941 Herschel was born. He was named Grisha.

However, things became very dangerous for Jews in Russia. There were 1.8 million Jews in the Ukraine, says Herschel. Hitler’s solution was mobile killing units – Einsatzgruppen – which executed Jews in what was called the Einsatzgruppen Massacres slaughtering 1.5 million Jews.

Abraham and his group hid in a network of caves south of Kiev.

The cave – the Popowa Yama, or Priest’s Grotto – is 77 miles long, the world’s 10th longest cave, according to National Geographic. “A sinkhole led to Priest’s Grotto. It was a fireplace-size hole at the bottom of a shallow, muddy ravine where farmers threw dead livestock.

“Once inside the massive cave, some 38 people were able to evade the Nazis for 344 days, until their liberation by Soviet troops. The cave proved a superior refuge, with clean water sources, separate chambers for cooking and smoke ventilation, little or no flooding, a concealed and difficult entry, and a labyrinth of dark passages.

“The cave’s temperature today is constant at 50 degrees F (10 degrees C), and the atmosphere is one of near total darkness.” – National Georgraphic

“Dozens and dozens of families hid in the caves,” says Herschel, who was about six months old at the time.

He says local farmers helped the families with food.

The resistance group continued to operate and, once, his mother was severely wounded by shrapnel and his father had to make a choice: Take her to a hospital to save her life and leave the baby behind, or let her die. He took her, leaving baby Herschel with friends. Eight weeks later they returned. Her leg had been saved. Herschel, however, had diphtheria and dysentery but was still alive.

Then, in 1945, after VE Day, his dad and friends commandeered two cattle cars of a train to escape out of Russia. “The war was over but it was clear things wouldn’t get any better. We got out before the Iron Curtain dropped,” Herschel explains.

Their trip was 1,200 miles long and ended in the American Zone of Austria. Safety at last.

“The only thing I remember of that trip,” says Herschel, who was four or five at the time, “is the awful smell.”

Many, he says, were very ill. Dysentery was rampant. His baby sister, he says, “cried and cried and cried.”

It got so bad, that others in the boxcar threatened to throw the family off because the baby’s crying would get them caught. His mother managed to quiet the distraught baby.

In Austria, they were placed in a DP Camp – Displaced Persons Camp – that was housed in an old concentration camp. They lived there for six months before moving to a larger camp about 15 miles south of Salzburg.

“There were thousands of Jews there,” he said.

They created a village, describes Herschel. “There were butchers and bakers and barbers ... my dad had none of that experience so he became very sufficient in the black market. American soldiers had cigarettes and the Jews had jewelry and Herschel’s dad would trade and sell.

“We lived in a small 10-foot by 12-foot room.”

By then, there were three children – Grisha, Ann and Ethel – and they lived in that room for four or five years, says Herschel.

In 1948, the International Refugee Organization worked with Jewish organizations in the United States to aid in the resettlement of Jewish refugees.

“We were waiting to go to Israel,” recalls Herschel, “but the British had blockaded entry so my mother signed us up for the United States and in late 1949, we got our papers to go.”

In 1950, they left the DP camp, were transported to Bremerhaven, Germany and in November of 1950, they boarded the USS General C. C. Ballou for their journey to America.

“The day before Thanksgiving,” says Herschel, “my dad came and woke me up around 3 a.m. I was eight and half years old. He took me up on deck and pointed. We watched for two or three hours and I will never forget that sight…it is one of the few times I saw my dad cry.”

The sight they watched was the Statue of Liberty as it came closer and closer.

They were processed through Ellis Island. The Red Cross gave them coffee and donuts. His dad was handed $20 and they were put on a train to Atlanta.

“We were originally supposed to go to New Castle, Indiana,” remembers Herschel, “but its quota was filled so they scratched that off our papers and put Atlanta on.”

At Union Station, in D.C., they were dropped off to switch trains. None spoke English.

“A young soldier there spoke Yiddish,” says Herschel, “and he helped us find the right train. His name was Harold Freedman and we stayed friends with him. He gave us all a tangerine and a 50-cent piece. I still have my 50-cent piece.”

The family Anglicized their name from Grinblat to Greenblat and from Grisha to Herschel. His mother became Mary.

They were all given Green Cards. “I have been a U.S. Citizen since 1956,” says Herschel, “but I only got my Naturalization papers a year ago.” (He explains that since 9/11, everyone has to have those regardless.)

His dad went to work for a Jewish family who ran a metal scrap company in Atlanta.

“But my dad got hurt and the family loaned him $1,200 to buy a grocery store in Buttermilk Bottom, a black ghetto area outside of downtown Atlanta.”

Herschel recalls a story of a youngster who walked into the store one day in 1952 or ’53 – the boy was 12 or 13 years old – and tried to steal food. His father caught him and and asked him why he was stealing. The boy said “I am hungry.” Abraham told the boy “ask and I am glad to give …don’t steal.”

Two weeks later, another man walked into the store, a large man, and said to his father, “Thank you for what you did for that boy.”

The man was Martin Luther King, Jr. King and Abraham became friends.

Today Herschel and his wife Rochelle travel so Herschel can speak to young people.

“The world depends on young people to remember ... and not let it happen again.”

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