In May 1945, Margaret Gruenbaum, just liberated with her two children from the Terezin concentration camp, 40 miles from Prague, wrote: “We have the feeling here that we will never be able to find a bridge to those who have lived on the outside and who fortunately will never be able to grasp what horror, fear, and deep sorrow we have experienced.”
Seventy years later, one of those two children, Michael Gruenbaum, has constructed the bridge his mother envisioned, a bridge of understanding between those who have endured the unthinkable and the rest of us, with his remarkable new book, “Somewhere There is Still a Sun,” co-written with Todd Hasak-Lowy and released by Aladdin, an imprint of Simon and Schuster, on August 25.
The “horror, fear, and deep sorrow” the Gruenbaum family experienced defies belief, and yet is a common story among 20th century European Jews. A prominent and successful lawyer, with his own chair in Prague’s renowned synagogue, the Altneuschule, Karl Gruenbaum, Margaret’s husband and Michael’s father, was targeted early on by the Nazi invaders. He was murdered, strongly rumored to have been torn apart by SS trained German shepherds, in December of 1941. Margaret, Michael and older sister Marietta spent the next year, 1942, in the Prague ghetto, subject to daily degradations so difficult that young Michael actually looked forward to their next stop, Terezin, under the mistaken belief that, “things couldn’t get worse.”
Terezin, where the three would spend two-and-a-half years, while a “model” camp at which inmates famously were allowed to put on musicals and plays, was still a place where 90% of the people who entered died, either at Terezin itself because of disease and malnutrition, or because they were transported “east,” to Auschwitz.
The three Gruenbaums survived with a combination of luck, Margaret’s insistence that they stay at Terezin and avoid going “east,” and Michael’s placement in Room 7 of School Building L14, which housed boys ages 12-15. Room 7 was led by a “madrich,” Franta. Franta, only 20 years old himself, instilled in the boys a comradery, discipline and sense of their own worth, naming them the “Nesharim,” eagles in Hebrew.
Of the 80 boys who passed through Room 7 at one point or another, only 12, including Franta, survived the war. The Nesharim, although scattered around the globe, have remained close over the decades, holding reunions, with Franta “checking in” on them throughout their lives, until his own passing a year ago.
“Somewhere There is Still a Sun” covers the difficult years between 1939 and 1945, beginning when Michael, born in 1930, was nine. The point of view is strictly that of a young boy, and the book is tailored to middle-school age readers. The pairing down of the story necessary to make it accessible to middle-school students, though, brings a clarity to the narrative that works very well for adults also.
Margaret Gruenbaum, whose album of saved papers from the Terezin years formed the impetus for the book, concluded that letter to relatives with these lines: “somewhere in the world there is still a sun, mountains, the ocean, books, small clean apartments, and perhaps again the rebuilding of a new life.”
This spirit, in the wake of such disaster, proved vital. Michael, his mother, his sister Marietta and the surviving Nesharim went on to live full lives. Margaret moved the family back to Prague after the war, but when it looked as if the Communists would take control, she asked her husband’s old employers to send her visas to the United States, which they did. She sent Marietta to London, and she managed to receive a scholarship to the University of Wisconsin. When the Communists took over Prague, Michael and his mother fled to Paris, and then to Cuba, where they spent two years waiting for permission to go to the U.S., for in 1948, the U.S. had a quota for immigrants. In Havana, Michael attended an American high school for businessmen’s children, which he finished in two years while learning English and Spanish. His acceptance to MIT to study civil engineering coincided with their names coming up on the wait list to enter the U.S.
Margaret settled in New York. Marietta married a professor, and settled in Ohio, where she and her husband had two children. After a two-year stint in the Army, Michael took his civil engineering degree to Chicago, where he met his wife, Thelma. The list of Michael’s successes would be impressive in anyone’s resume; they include a masters in planning degree from Yale, a successful public service career in transportation, at times working for the city of Boston and Massachusetts in various executive capacities, including publishing the first book that gathered all the Boston transportation facts together, from one-way streets to available parking in the city, entitled
“Transportation Facts for the Boston Region.” Public service was followed by a second successful private sector career, in which Gruenbaum had his own company with partners, which they sold in 2001. Along the way, the couple had three children, and Thelma wrote “Nesharim, Child Survivors of Terezin,” after many hours of interviewing the surviving Nesharim. The couple, married 50 years, had three children; Thelma, after a three-year battle with ALS, passed away in 2006.
Gruenbaum is a member of Temple Israel in Boston, and attends on the High Holy Days. He is “not much of a believer,” adding, “I don’t know too many Holocaust survivors who are.”
But Gruenbaum, a man who speaks with few flourishes, now in his mid-80s, relishes what he has accomplished, and the strong bonds that connect him to his work, his family and the remaining Nesharim. He told this story: after the overthrow of the Communist government and Gruenbaum could return to his birthplace, he reached out to his “best buddy” in Terezin, a man he hadn’t been able to contact for forty years for fear of endangering him by sending him letters from the United States, to tell him he was thinking of coming to Prague. In the return letter, the man invited Michael’s family to stay in his apartment. “It’s amazing how these deep friendships last,” said Gruenbaum. “After all these years, he gave me his bed.”
On Sat., Sept. 19, at 2 p.m., Gruenbaum, co-author Todd Hasak-Lowy and Aladdin editor Liesa Abrams Mignogna will speak at Brookline Public Library, 360 Washington St., Brookline.