One could hear a pin drop in an auditorium filled with a few hundred teenagers at Council Rock High School North in Newtown, Pa. That’s no easy feat, but such is the absorbing account of the story the students had gathered to hear this week: how Ernie Gross and Don Greenbaum’s paths first crossed in 1945 at the end of World War II — Gross as a survivor of the Dachau concentration camp and Greenbaum as a U.S. liberator.
Following Dachau’s liberation, it was another 66 years before the two men officially discovered each other’s identity, a reunion sparked by a 2011 essay printed in the Jewish Exponent.
Ever since that meeting, Gross, who grew up in Romania but moved to Philadelphia after the war, and Greenbaum, a lifetime Philadelphian, have become close friends and have gone on the road, publicly sharing their story with schools and other groups to raise awareness about the horrors of the Holocaust.
“If Don Greenbaum had come an hour later, I wouldn’t be here to talk to you, so I have to thank him again right now,” Gross told the students before actually turning to thank Greenbaum. “Every time I see him, I have to thank him.”
Their story will turn a new page when they return to Germany next month to join other survivors and former U.S. Army liberators in a May 3 ceremony commemorating the 70th anniversary of Dachau’s liberation.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel is set to speak at the event, which will make her the first chancellor to do so at a Dachau commemoration while in office.
The two friends will be guests of the German government, which is covering the expenses of the five-day trip. They expressed differing views on the impending visit.
For Gross — who recalled for the students how at one point during his imprisonment, he had been forced to do hard manual labor while barefoot in the snow after his shoes had been stolen — it will be his second time returning to the site of his past suffering.
His first visit back was in 1986, when his second wife asked Gross to show her exactly where he had been standing when he was liberated. He recalled how he told her it was close to the crematorium, where he was waiting to be killed before the U.S. Army and Greenbaum arrived.
This trip, he explained, will be very different.
“I’m anxious to go back because in 1944, they forced me out of my home, they forced me to go to Germany, they forced me to go to the camp.”
Now, he said, “they invited me there, and they paid all the expenses, so it’s different from generation to generation.”
For Greenbaum, this will be his first time returning to Dachau.
While speaking to the students, he recalled that as the U.S. troops advanced on the camp, which they had been told was a supply depot for the German army, “about a mile before we got to the camp, the sky turned black and I smelled a horrible odor that I carry with me until this day.”
Upon arrival, he saw 15 box cars filled with dead bodies that the Nazis had been rushing to the crematorium in an effort to wipe away evidence of their atrocities, and survivors with emaciated bodies weighing 80 to 90 pounds, wearing pinstriped prison uniforms.
Greenbaum said that he isn’t excited about the prospect of going back.
“It’s something I never wanted to do, I never wanted to stand there and see that barbed wire again, but I think I have to — it will bring closure for me,” Greenbaum said. “It sounds like an interesting trip.”
Beyond their many speaking and travel engagements, the two friends are slated to appear together in a documentary called The Liberators — Why We Fought being compiled for Germany TV’s History Channel. The director is Emanuel Rotstein, a 35-year-old German Jew whose previous work includes The Eleventh Day – The Survivors of Munich 1972, a documentary about the survivors of the attack on Israeli athletes during the 1972 Summer Olympics in Munich.
The airing of The Liberators is set to coincide with the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Dachau, the first and longest-running Nazi concentration camp.
“It was a wonderful encounter,” Rotstein wrote via email about his interview with Gross and Greenbaum two months ago at the Liberation Holocaust monument in Liberty State Park, which is located in Jersey City, N.J., and features a statue depicting a U.S. liberator carrying a Holocaust survivor.
“Their stories were extremely moving, heartbreaking and uplifting at the same time,” Rotstein continued. “Their love for life, their humor and energy is a great inspiration for me.”
The 52-minute production is scheduled to premiere on HISTORY Germany on May 31.
So what do Greenbaum, 90, and Gross, 86, think of their busy schedules and upcoming trip? Bring it on, they say.
“It’s a very exhausting, tiring trip but we’re all old so I guess we’ll all move at the same pace,” Greenbaum joked. “I’m looking forward” to traveling with Gross. “We’re good buddies, we have a good time together.”
Gross countered playfully, “I think I’m looking forward to it more than him — if not for him, I wouldn’t be here.”