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Jewish Heritage: The Oral Histories - Cuba Family Archives

MEMORIST:            PAULA GRIS

INTERVIEWER:      SARA GHITIS

LOCATION:             ATLANTA, GEORGIA 

DATE:                      OCTOBER 23, 2001

Transcript (PDF)

Biography

Paula Gris was born Perel Henye Neuman in Czernowitz, Romania on March 11, 1938. The Soviet army occupied Czernowitz in June 1940. Paula’s father, Simon, was arrested by the Soviets and likely deported to Siberia in 1941, just before the Germans and Romanians attacked the Soviet Union and took over the area. In August of 1941, Paula’s mother, Etka, gave birth to another daughter, Sylvia.

In October, Paula’s family was forced into a ghetto along with all of the Jewish people in Czernowitz. Paula, Sylvia, and Etka were then deported to Transnistria, a largely undeveloped area in western Ukraine. While Etka performed backbreaking labor in a rock quarry during the day, Paula—barely older than a toddler herself—became the caretaker of her baby sister. Paula, Sylvia, and Etka survived over two years of selections and horrible living conditions before the Soviets recaptured the area in March 1944. At the war’s end, they returned to Czernowitz and were reunited with Paula’s maternal grandparents. Paula’s father and other family members never returned.

As Romania fell more and more under the influence of the Communists and Soviets, the family fled west to the displaced persons camps in American-occupied Germany. In 1948, Paula’s grandparents immigrated to the United States. Paula, her sister, and her mother spent a year on Isle of Man before returning to the DP camps in Germany. In May 1951, Paula, Sylvia and Etka immigrated to the United States and settled in New York City. Paula completed her education in New York City and enrolled in college.

In 1958, Paula married Bill Gris. The newlyweds moved to San Antonio, Texas, where Bill was stationed in the U.S. Army. In late 1959, the Gris family moved to Atlanta, Georgia. Paula and Bill raised five children and became active members of Atlanta’s Orthodox Jewish community. Paula returned to university and became a teacher at the Hebrew Academy. Today, she is an educator and speaker at the Breman Museum.

Scope of Interview:

Paula introduces her hometown in Romania. She recollects the circumstances around her sister’s birth. Paula remembers how she, her sister, and her mother survived a Transnistria labor camp. She considers her mother’s determination and what she knows about her father. Paula describes the living conditions. She explains how her family returned to Romania and was reunited with her maternal grandparents. Paula expresses her confusion at the different reactions to survival she encountered in DP camps. She reflects on her first real interactions with other children, going to school, and getting to explore nature. Paula considers the decision to immigrate to the United States, the journey and her arrival in New York City. She reflects on how she and her mother adjusted to their new lives. Paula reminisces about her social activities as a teenager and meeting her husband. She describes planning her wedding, her life as a newlywed, establishing her first home, learning to cook kosher, and the arrival of her first child. Paula discusses moving to Atlanta and settling into the Jewish community as an observant Orthodox couple. She talks about becoming a teacher at the Hebrew Academy and joining Beth Jacob. Paula shares who each of her five children is named after. She reflects on the role of faith in her life. She details how she prepares for and celebrates the Sabbath. Paula mentions contemporary examples of antisemitism she has witnessed and her connection to Israel. The interview closes with Paula’s wishes for her children and grandchildren.

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