Survivor STORY

Andre Kessler (born Andre Grunfield) was born in 1940, in Bucharest, Romania. In December 1942, Andre's father, Ladislaw, was sent to a labor camp and his mother, Olga, went into hiding with Andre in the library of their home. They were assisted by, the superintendent of their apartment building, who was later honored as a Righteous Gentile.

Andre and his mother were liberated at the end of 1944. Andre started to attend public school and life slowly returned to normal. Andre's father returned to the family in August 1945, after recuperating for several months in a sanitorium. Romania, after the war, became part of the Communist Eastern Bloc, and the family made plans to flee to the west. Ladislaw's factory was nationalized, and rather than give up his property, he set explosives on a timer, and blew it up.

Andre and his parents were arrested crossing the border into Austria, but were released and resettled as political refugees in Vienna in 1948. It was during this period that Andre learned that over 120 relatives had been murdered in the Holocaust.

In 195,1Andre's father joined his brothers in Paris, France, and Andre and his mother emigrated to New York. Andre continued his education and excelled at sports, but started getting into trouble. Just before graduating high school, Andre was arrested for stealing a car and was given the choice between reform school and joining the military. He joined the Navy, and was honored by induction into the Ceremonial Honor Guard in Washington, D.C. After the service, Andre graduated from New York University with a degree in business administration and then was drafted into the NBA and played two years of professional basketball. After retiring from the NBA, Andre embarked on a career in sales, which eventually brought him to Atlanta. He retired in 2001.

Andre and his wife, Marsha, married in 1973, and have two children, Gena and Laurence.
Life and Survival in Europe

So, when the air raid sirens went off, because the Americans wanted to bomb the Ploeshdy [phonetic] oil fields, so you had to go to the air raid shelter. So the only way we could, I got out of the apartment is when we went to the air raid shelters. So again, it was always, "Be quiet, don't talk to a lot of people, don't draw attention to yourself." Fortunately, my mother did not look like the stereotype of what most Jewish looked like. My mother was blond hair and blue eyed. So she passed for non-Jewish. So we spent time in the air raid shelters. But my recollection, basically, when the war over was jubilation, of freedom, that I could go out of that apartment, I could go play again in the front yard, I could make friends. Because I grew up really from almost three until four-and-a-half, five years old not interacting with other children. My world was my mother.

Coming to America

The ship had two sections. It had a woman's section and it had a man's section. At eleven, I was a pretty big kid, so they didn't think I belonged in with the women, so they put me in with the men. At first it was very traumatic, because I had never really been away from my mother. And then I learned aboard ship, that for the first time, food was plentiful, I could eat as much as I wanted to, and I had my first taste of freedom. My mother, unfortunately, spent the ten days that it took to cross in her bunk. She was seasick. The ship was, it was August and we were crossing the North Atlantic, there was, the ship was really a very small ship, so she was seasick. So I spent most of the crossing hanging over the railings. They were afraid I was going to fall overboard! But it was my first taste of freedom.

We landed in New York August the 17th, 1951. And it's funny, because in Europe, in Vienna, I wore, constantly as I young boy I wore short pants. I wore lederhosen, leather pants. When we got, just before we landed my mother somehow, somewhere from her suitcase, she reached and got me my first pair of long pants. So I had a shirt, long pants, and we got off the dock and my mother's brother was waiting for us with his, two of his sons. And he had a Buick, a big Buick convertible. And they took us, the ship landed, in New York the docks were over on the West Side, and we went from there. And he took us down Broadway, with all the lights. And it was, I remember the old Camel cigarette sign with the guy blowing smoke rings out of his mouth. And we were down Broadway and my uncle said, "You're free. You're in America. You can breathe easy now."

Learning English

In high school I had joined the drama club. I got involved with acting. And I still, I was 16, almost 17 years old, I still had an accent. So all the parts I got to play was always the ones that called for accents. I had a teacher, and I still remember her name, Mrs. Hupschmidt, and Mrs. Hupschmidt got polio late in life. She had two leg braces and she walked with crutches. And she had a very distinct way of speaking. And one day she got a hold of me and says, "Andre?" This is how she spoke. And she says, "With your accent, you're as much a cripple as I am." I know. This was a terrible thing to say to a 16-year-old boy. She says, "Work with me an hour a day," she says. "Instead of going to lunch, come to my class, we'll have your lunch there." And she literally was my Professor Higgins. It was "how now brown cow," and “the rain in Spain," and rocks in the mouth, marbles, and she got rid of my accent. The only accent I still have I think to this day, I have a New York accent.

Remembering and Legacy

Well, when my wife was pregnant with Gena and she called and told me that she was pregnant, I couldn't stop smiling for three days. The thoughts, what came to my mind, "It's OK. Continuation." By that time, I was involved, more or less, in the Holocaust, we formed Second Generation, Children of Holocaust Survivors. I was very active in that organization here in Atlanta. And, very honestly, what went through my mind was continuation. We lost a million-and-a-half kids. Now here I'm looking at my kids. So it's continuation. That as much as Hitler and the Nazis wanted to get rid of us, didn't succeed. We're here. I survived, and now I'm going to have children who survive, and hopefully, one of these days, I will have grandchildren. So continuation is what went through my mind.

Andre Kessler