The first time their paths crossed, Don Greenbaum saved Ernie Gross’ life.
It was April 29, 1945. Gross had survived the death march to Dachau, but was waiting his turn to be killed as the Nazis, alert to the advancing Allied forces, hastily attempted to wipe out evidence of the concentration camps.
They began leading away groups of Jews to be killed. Next in line, Gross’ group could only wonder at the hold up as the Nazis did not reappear. And they never did; they had finally fled the camp to avoid being captured. A half hour later, Greenbaum, a Philadelphian serving as a Forward Observer for the 283rd Field Artillery Battalion of the United States Army, arrived to tell the inmates that they were free.
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 and Greenbaum 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.
Most recently, the two gentlemen spoke at the JCC Klein in the Northeast on Jan. 19 in a show of support for a Holocaust education bill that’s being considered by the Pennsylvania General Assembly. Their talk, and the proposed legislation now in the state Senate, takes on added significance with the upcoming International Holocaust Remembrance Day on Jan. 27.
To highlight its importance, the event was attended by two Democratic supporters of the legislation, State Rep. Brendan Boyle and State Sen. Anthony Williams. Chuck Feldman, who heads the Holocaust Awareness Museum and Education Center, the group that sponsored and organized the event, was also present.
The two friends, Gross and Greenbaum, sprinkled the heavy subject matter with a light sense of humor. But between the easy jokes, a story of great sorrow and hardship unfolded.
Gross, born in Romania in 1929, had been deported along with his parents and seven siblings to Auschwitz in 1944. He narrowly avoided the gas chambers in the initial selection process by following a tip to lie about his age and say he was 17 instead of 15.
Over the next several months, he was sent to different work camps. Starvation was a daily threat. He gave an example of the cruel realities of the camps by recalling an incident when his cousin, who was housed in a nearby barrack, refused to share even the skin of a potato he found, saying he needed every calorie to survive another day.
Then, Gross was forced to march toward Dachau. Barely surviving the excruciating cold and physical demands of the march, Gross’ sole consolation was finding a boy with whom he could trade larger shoes. Gross had been walking barefoot to avoid being shot as a straggler since the shoes he had were much too small.
While those who survived the death march waited to be lined up and taken to their presumed demise, Greenbaum’s unit approached.
“We were hit with an odor that I can still remember, the sky turned black,” Greenbaum recalled.
They had been told that the camp was a supply depot for the German army.
“We never heard the expression ‘extermination camp’ until we got there,” he added. “It left a mark on me, on all of us.”
The audience’s dismay soon turned into smiles as Gross happily recounted his fateful reconnection with Greenbaum.
Greenbaum’s wife, Shelley, had sent the Jewish Exponent a short essay describing her husband’s experience in the Battle of the Bulge and the Purple Heart he had earned for serving in World War II.
A friend of Gross, a widower living in Northeast Philadelphia and the father of three with two grandchildren, told him about the Nov. 10, 2011 article.
“I always wanted to meet an American liberator of the camps and have a chance to thank them,” Gross said, so he immediately called Greenbaum to introduce himself.
That December, the two met over an emotional lunch on a rainy afternoon. Greenbaum, a father of four with nine grandchildren, lives in Bala Cynwyd.
Gross sees a particular touch of fate in their new friendship. Greenbaum’s Hebrew name is Dovid, which is the same name as one of Gross’ brothers who did not survive the Holocaust. In a way, Gross said, Greenbaum has become part of his family.
“We became so close, we became like brothers,” Gross said.
They now see each other about once every two weeks and regularly speak on the phone — not to mention the dozens of groups they visit every year to share their story.
Greenbaum said they felt compelled to do this now, before “there’s no one left to speak.”