My grandfather stared out the airplane window, smiling. My mother stared at my grandfather, crying. I stared at both of them, overcome by what we had just experienced together.
A day earlier we had marched with a group of Israeli officers through the gates of Auschwitz-Birkenau, the death camp where my grandfather had been a prisoner 68 years ago.
This was not my family’s first visit to Auschwitz. We had visited Poland in 2005 so my grandfather, Joseph Gringlas, could show his children and grandchildren where he had come from and what he had been through.
But after returning from our trip, he vowed never to return. It was too painful.
A few months ago, however, Maj. Gen. (Res.) Yitzhak Gershon, the national director of the Friends of the Israel Defense Forces (FIDF) called to invite my grandfather to accompany a delegation from the IDF to Auschwitz. The soldiers wanted and needed to hear his story.
He couldn’t say no. The men and women of the IDF were his heroes. They protected the Jewish people all over the world. He wanted them to understand what he had experienced and appreciate why, because of the IDF, the world was different today.
“It is difficult to be here in Auschwitz — a place where I witnessed such death and destruction,” my grandfather said while standing on the train tracks at the entrance to the camp, “but it is an honor to be here today, with you, the Israel Defense Forces.”
My grandfather was born in Ostrowiec, Poland. In 1938, when he was 12, he remembers the Zionist leader, Vladamir Jabotinksy, visiting Ostrowiec to warn the 15,000 Jews living there of the threatening Nazi storm. “The catastrophe is coming closer,” Jabotinsky cautioned in a speech in Warsaw that same year, and each person must “save his life while there is still time.”
There may have still been time, but my grandfather and his family did not have any place to go. As Chaim Weizmann wrote in 1936, “The world seemed to be divided into two parts — those places where the Jews could not live and those where they could not enter.”
Today, there are no remaining Jews in Ostrowiec. My grandfather lost his entire family — except for one brother — to the Nazi gas chambers.
“I will never forget the day I arrived here,” my grandfather continued, describing the day in 1944 that he was transported to Auschwitz-Birkenau after time in a labor camp. “When I got off the train, I could see that the sky was red. The permanent smell of burning bodies is something I will never forget. It is a miracle I survived.”
After the war, my grandfather almost migrated to Eretz Yisrael. As a bricha, a volunteer helping Jewish refugees get to the land of Israel, he was chosen to go to British-controlled Palestine. But his one surviving family member, his brother, was not awarded a visa and so instead, they both went to America.
Nevertheless, my grandfather’s love, support and gratitude for the state of Israel and the IDF have always remained strong.
“If there had been a Jewish nation state and an army to defend the Jewish people in the 1930s,” my grandfather proclaimed, “my family and millions of Jews could have left Europe and lived freely.”
I have heard and told my grandfather’s story numerous times. I have vowed to “Never Forget” his story. But watching my grandfather address a group of Israeli soldiers, his heroes, in a place where over a million Jews were annihilated, his story suddenly took on a new meaning.
My grandfather’s story is a reminder of what the IDF protects and defends. His story is a reminder that the existence of Israel and the IDF is what allows us to stand in a place like Auschwitz and say and mean, “Never Again.”
A female naval officer in the IDF who participated in the trip told me she wished more people could experience walking through the gates of Auschwitz with a survivor. “I am returning to Israel with a higher sense of purpose, a better understanding of what it means to be a defender of the Jewish people.”
“The state of Israel does not exist because of the Holocaust,” President Barack Obama said a few weeks ago during his trip to Israel, “but with the survival of a strong Jewish state of Israel, such a Holocaust will never happen again.”
The wheels touched down at Ben-Gurion Airport. A young platoon commander, who had marched into Auschwitz carrying the Israeli flag in one hand and holding my grandfather’s hand in the other, hoisted my grandfather on his shoulders. My grandfather waved his hands in the air. He was home, with a new chapter to add to his story.
Everyone started dancing around them. Gasping for breath, the IDF commander leaned over to whisper in my ear: “Your grandfather is my hero.”
Sara Greenberg, of Gladwyne, lives in Cambridge, Mass., and is pursuing a joint masters degree in public policy and business administration from the Harvard Kennedy School and the Harvard Business School. Her grandfather, Joseph Gringlas, lives with his wife in Philadelphia.