Frank Grunwald was just 12 years old when he and his family entered the concentration camps. Terezinstadt, Auschwitz, Melk, Mauthausen . . . he was in them all. Unfortunately, neither his brother nor his mother would leave Auschwitz alive.
Frank was born in Czechoslovakia in 1932. His father was a doctor, as well as being a very talented photographer. Both of his parents, Kurt and Vilma, were musicians and instilled a love of music into Frank and his brother, John, who was four years his senior.
The family lived a comfortable life in Prague. Growing up, Frank liked art – he focused on it, as he did playing the accordion. For him, the instrument’s melancholy sound was both personal and human.
The notion of being Jewish never really entered Frank’s head. He was just a Czech, like his fellow citizens – but not in the eyes of the Nazis who invaded in 1939. Less than two years later, the Grunwalds were wearing yellow stars and being forced to move from their large home to a small apartment. They endured intimidation, prejudice and social ostracisation. Then things really got tough.
First the family were sent to the ghetto of Terezinstadt, then they were transported to Auschwitz in cattle wagons holding up to one hundred people. Upon their arrival, Frank’s mother was placed in the female quarters.
He barely survived the selection process overseen by the ‘Angel of Death’, Josef Mengele, who decided whether people should live or die by placing them to the left or to the right of a table. Frank and his brother, John, were told to stand at the left. Neither knew this meant a death sentence.
Eight seconds changed everything…
…That’s how long it took for a brave prisoner to step forward and quickly shove Frank into the queue on the right. John was not so fortunate.
When their mother learned that her eldest son had been selected to die, she decided to join him – not wanting him to face death alone. She scribbled a hasty note just as the trucks arrived to take them to the gas chambers.
Frank’s story is unbearably sad and is told in the moving documentary, Misa’s Fugue.
I’m glad to say, though, that he is still with us – and still playing the accordion, as well as producing evocative works of sculptural art. His story is an inspiration to us all… that he could not only survive the horrors he experienced but that he could create art from the destruction that surrounded him, is remarkable.
Amazingly, Frank contacted me here on this blog after I referenced him in a previous post. He kindly agreed to answer some questions about his Holocaust experience. My questions may not be the ones you would have asked, but they were areas that intrigued me.
Here’s what Frank (below) has to say about life during and after the Holocaust…
Do you feel duty-bound to discuss what happened, no matter how much it might upset you to think about it?
Yes, I feel that I need to talk about it since so few people do. I must talk about it since I was there, I am one of the witnesses and perhaps I can neutralize some of the lies perpetrated by the antisemitic Holocaust deniers. The deniers are a huge insult to the six million of Jews (including about a million and a half children) that were killed.
When you see barbarity elsewhere, does it make you think how little people have learned from what was done in the Holocaust, or do you feel that there is an inherent evil which will always be with us, no matter how many talks or movies are shown?
Yes – it proves my assumption that barbarity and hatred are part of the human brain. Nothing will change – ever.
In Misa’s Fugue, you said that in one camp you could see local townspeople going about their daily lives. What’s your attitude to those people?
It made me sad to see the contrast between the free and us. I wished I was on the outside, part of a ‘normal’ life. I felt lonely and abandoned.
Is all your art informed by what happened in the camps?
No, some represent normal / happy life.
What do you hope people will learn from your film and your work?
To be alert and to question the veracity of all information before judging others. Still, we must be openly critical of other cultures and religions, particularly the one’s that promote hatred and killing of others – who don’t believe in their religious laws. There is no room for political correctness, it hides the real truth.
Do you believe in God?
Not in the common / traditional way. I believe in the power and beauty of Nature. However, Nature is not here to control or decide how people should live or behave. People themselves must find their own way.
You say in the documentary that your parents imbued you with a strong ethical attitude. What other traits, gleaned from your time in the camps, would you consider important in making one’s way through life?
I am a good listener and have a high degree of empathy for people. I am a good reader of people and their body language. I am (sometimes unfortunately) a conflict avoider. I am also a good negotiator. I have learned to deal with my cowardly conflict avoidance, now that I am aware of it. Most of these characteristics were the result of my war experiences – I think. I use humor to reduce stress and to make people more comfortable.
Were you ever tempted to take your own life in the years after you were liberated?
Never. I respect who I am and I want to live.
Do you feel guilt that you survived selection and that John didn’t?
Most likely, and also that I was one of the few children that survived.
Did you ever have to resort to violence in camp in order to keep food from being taken from you by other inmates?
Never. I got into a wrestling match with a prisoner, after we were liberated. We fought for some red beets that we found in a wooden shack. I might have hurt his ear when we fought but it was not that violent.
What’s your attitude to OAP ex-Nazis going on trial?
Most of the ex-Nazis are now in their 90s. In my opinion, they should not go to prison but perhaps be forced to do some community service, such as speak to young people in high schools and colleges about their crimes.
You said in the film that you constantly have flashbacks. What is your overriding emotion when you get them – anger or despair? How long does a flashback last?
Sadness. I feel terrible about people’s suffering and death. They typically last just a few minutes.
When you were released and starting a new life, did you seek out camp survivors in order to feel empathy, or did you tend to avoid them as they reminded you of those nightmare years?
I did not seek them, I tried to suppress some of the memories (but I could not). I did not mind meeting them, but we seldom spoke about our experiences. We were kind of in a ‘denial mode’.
Is it possible to forgive your tormentors?
It’s very hard not to be angry with them. Not because of personal reasons, more because of what they did to others. It’s not up to me to forgive them for what they did to others.
You said in Misa’s Fugue that you survived the camps by immersing yourself in your own fantasy world. Is your immersion in music and art a way of surviving today?
In a small way – yes. But to me, art is a communication medium and a challenge for me to communicate as much emotion as possible. I judge art by the amount of emotion it communicates and it has to be more than at an aesthetic level. It must be human.
You had success in your professional life as well as your artistic life. You have children and grandchildren, are you happy in yourself or is that not possible?
I am relatively happy – I would say. I am the happiest when I am with my family and grandchildren. I think that being with my grandchildren is all about them – not me. I do not do well being alone for a long time. I get easily lonely.
Describe a typical day in camp.
Getting up early, roll call, a little food (artificial coffee and a slice of bread), walking to the kitchen and peeling potatoes for soup, eating some raw potatoes while peeling, a light lunch, going back to the barrack. In the late afternoon, soup for dinner with one slice of bread and a small square of margarine. Spending some time with other prisoners outside in the yard, roll call, wash up, bed.
What is the most important thing to have in life?
Inner peace (self respect / self confidence), enjoying the company of others, enjoying the beauty of Nature. Most of all, being able to accept the fact that death is also a natural phenomenon (not just the result of murder) not being afraid of that. I am more afraid of being alone than being dead. For me it’s been important to communicate via art, I get a pleasure out of that. I also get pleasure out of teaching / lecturing at Purdue University, I do a class on strategic design and design research. I get a huge satisfaction out of sharing my professional experiences / knowledge with the students.
Frank Grunwald has somehow risen above his experiences to make a life for himself and to become a highly productive member of society. He is a lesson to us all. He witnessed the depths of depravity to which mankind can fall. But he is more than just a witness – he is also a beacon to the heights to which we can all rise, if we have the will.
Thank you, Frank, for your time and your wisdom.