Survivor STORY

Alex (Yankele) Gross was born in the small village of Palonok in the Carpathian Mountains of Czechoslovakia. The Gross family included six sons and a daughter. The family was deported to the Munkacs ghetto in the spring of 1944. A few weeks later, Alex, then 15 years old, and his family were deported to Auschwitz-Birkenau, where his parents and many extended family members perished.

Alex worked as a slave laborer in the Buna camp of Auschwitz. As the Allied forces approached, Alex was forced on a death march to Gleiwitz, a sub camp of Auschwitz, then taken on an open coal car to Buchenwald concentration camp, where he was liberated by the American army.

Alex found his brothers, Sam and Bill, at Buchenwald and went back with them to Prague. Soon they found their brothers, Ben, Philip and Bernie. They knew that their brother Philip was alive but trapped in the city of Munkacs, which was part of the region engulfed by the Soviet Union after the war. They found their sister, Rosalyn Gross Haber, when she got off a truck from Bergen-Belsen. Miraculously, all seven Gross siblings survived the war.

Alex lived with his sister Rosalyn, in orphans’ homes in Scotland. He emigrated to the United States in 1949 and eventually settled in Youngstown, Ohio, where he worked as a contact lens manufacturer. During the Korean War, he joined the U.S. Army and served in an intelligence unit. Later, with his brother Bill, Alex founded a pre-cut homes business in Chicago. Alex and several of his brothers eventually moved to Atlanta and were involved in land development and related businesses.

Alex has spoken about his Holocaust experiences to countless school children, community groups and churches. He was presented with an honorary Doctor of Laws degree from Emory University for his work in Holocaust education. He has also served on the boards of several Jewish organizations, including the Jewish Federation of Greater Atlanta, Israel Bonds, ORT, Eternal Life-Hemshech, and the Georgia Holocaust Commission.

Alex's wife, Linda, was the victim of an unsolved rape-murder. He is currently married to Daisy Gross. Alex has three children, Etta, Robin and Stephanie. His son, Benji, was killed in a tractor accident at the age of fourteen.
Separation from Family

She was truly, if there ever was an angel on the face of the earth my mother was it. And on the way to the ghetto, in the ghetto, and on the way to be taken to Auschwitz in the cattle cars she kept on after me, "Yankele, promise me that you will live, promise me that you'll stay alive. Promise me no matter what you won't give up. Promise me that you will stay alive. I have hopes. You got to stay alive." And my father just kept on saying, "Yankele, dos geheart– you heard what Mother told you - don't let us down." And I guess that was something they told all my brothers and sister and that’s why maybe we put up with all that suffering and the tortures and hunger pain in order to stay alive and, you know, keep our promise to them.

Life and Survival in Europe

Well, I was liberated in Buchenwald. I was more dead than alive. I weighed like, maybe 60 pounds. As a matter of fact, we were liberated by the U.S. Army and it happened to have been, maybe a day or so after liberation, suddenly an American tank pulled up and the turret opened up and we saw black faces. And I imagined in my delirium that these were angels that God sent to liberate us and get us well. And they were black, the first time in my life I ever saw black people, because in our area we didn’t have them. And those guys were really nothing short but angels. They were so good. They picked me up and carried me to the hospital to, because I couldn’t even eat by then. And they were just absolutely marvelous. And then they had a Jewish doctor that they sent in, was a military captain, and he took a liking to me and he just stood over me and, to help me get well, help me recover.

Making a Living

I got a job right away, the first week, in a knitting mill making 18 bucks a week and when I was offered an opportunity to go to Chicago making 50 dollars a week I grabbed it and left that night. I talked to my boss and he says "Take it, please." So I went to work with my friend in the contact lens field, which I was trained for in England. Meanwhile, the Korean War broke out and I went into the draft board before I left Elwood City and they wouldn’t take me because I had a lot of problems -- I had flat feet, I had ulcers, and a few others things. So I went to Chicago again to the draft board and they wouldn’t take me. So I called up my uncle and I said, "Please help me, you got connections." My aunt’s nephew, became later on a Congressman and he was quite influential in the area, and a few calls from him, my aunt calls me up and she says, "Alex, when can you be back in Elwood City?" And I said, "I can be back tomorrow." And she said "Ok, you can come and see the draft board, you’ll be drafted. Got an ok, you’ll be taken." And it was two of the proudest years of my life.

Coping

Let me, let me be quite frank. I still have emotional problems. I still cannot accept the fact that Mother and Father were killed, that I lost so many of my very close first cousins and my close uncles there and aunt. I still have difficulties with that. And a lot of times I have sort of nightmares and I wake up and I’m not fortunate enough to get much sleep. Even now if I get three hours of sleep I’m very happy. The emotions unfortunately stay with you, because we suffered so much at fellow human’s hands that it just won’t leave me—no way.

Life Lessons and Perspectives

But other than that, I feel that the people themselves are learning more … to be more accepting of other people. Oh, you’re always going to have hateful people, you’re always going to have distrusting people. But for most part, I think we’ve become a more tolerant community, we have become a more educated community. And the facts of life, in other words just because I am Jewish doesn’t make me bad or good. Just because I'm, I would be a black person doesn’t make me bad or good. And quite frankly, I like what I see, what has happened with the tolerance. When I see especially a woman getting elected to president of one of the big corporations in America, when she gets elected to be a president of a bank, to me, this is very heartwarming because this is the beginning of a true camaraderie that doesn’t single you out just because you are one religion or another religion, or one race or another race. That is very good. That's the best thing that happened to America and I hope we continue on that path.

Well, obviously the tragedies that hit me was the most painful thing that I've every experienced—to lose my one and only son and lose my wonderful wife that we've been married for 25 years.

Yes, I am still am tormented a lot especially when I see some hateful remarks or things like that. But I am very, very fortunate that for most part; I feel that I have accomplished a little bit with my life. Maybe not as much as I'd liked to, but I have accomplished a little bit of it. And, fortunately, it's, it's making me feel good that I have contributed a little bit to the betterment of the world.

Alex Gross