On April 29, 1945, Ernest Gross, a 19-year-old Romanian Jew, found himself waiting in a line of prisoners at the Dachau concentration camp, outside Munich. After 11 months in captivity in various camps, Gross' body was reduced to mere skin and bones. As he made his way toward the front of the line, he got his first glimpse of the ovens, and realized that he was going to be exterminated. But in his weakened condition, he accepted his fate.
Then, a miracle occurred.
"All of the sudden, the German guards were throwing down their guns and running away," said Gross, now 77, who went on to explain that U.S. army soldiers had entered the camp, and that the Germans were doing their best to flee. Seeing his dire physical state, the Americans took Gross for medical treatment, and the teenager was given a second chance at life.
"If that unit had come two hours later," he said, "I wouldn't be here."
For U.S. Army Pfc. Harry Zaslow, April 29, 1945, started out in the city of Munich. The 20-year-old Jewish native of Philadelphia's Strawberry Mansion neighborhood, along with four other soldiers, were ordered to patrol the area beyond the city's limits. What they found in the vicinity of Dachau has been forever etched in Zaslow's memory.
The soldiers stumbled across five train cars, each filled to the top with emaciated dead bodies.
"I was in shock," stated Zaslow. "I didn't know there was a Holocaust. We didn't know anything."
Later in the day, he saw exactly what Dachau looked like from the inside.
The Importance of Bread
Sixty-one years later, survivor and liberator met at Zaslow's home in Ventnor, N.J. The men sat together on Nov. 2, along with Zaslow's wife, Naomi, and Gross' cousin, Howard Nisenfeld. The two men found each other after Gross attended a large Shabbat dinner in the Northeast, and overheard a couple talking about a Dachau liberator they knew. Gross immediately asked for a telephone number.
"I've been searching for someone who liberated the camp my whole life," said Gross. For Zaslow, it was the first time that he'd come face to face with a Dachau survivor.
The two men did not recognize one another, and are still unsure if their paths actually crossed back in April 1945.
Gross started the discussion of the war, telling Zaslow how he survived four different concentration camps, including Auschwitz. He told stories of waking up in the morning, looking to his left, then right, to see which prisoners had died overnight — so that he might be able to take their bread.
"Bread was so important, you didn't worry about who died," he recalled.
Gross discussed his exhaustion after a day of labor, and how he was beaten because he could no longer work. One night, he said, the guards turned off all the lights at the camp, because they believed an American plane might be flying overhead, bent on bombing the facility. That darkness gave Gross the opportunity to steal a couple of potatoes from the kitchen; however, on his way back to his bunk, three inmates attacked him and stole the food.
"Not only did I not have the potatoes, someone took [one of] my shoe[s]," said Gross who was forced to wrap his foot with a portion of a blanket.
Speaking of his experience, Zaslow described what he saw at Dachau in great detail. After his unit entered the camp through the iron gate that held the infamous phrase "Arbeit Macht Frie" ("Work Will Set You Free"), a Polish man in stripes hugged him, screaming, "Americansky! Americansky!"
Several hours before Zaslow's arrival at the camp, American troops had taken control of the facility, allowing the prisoners to seek some revenge on the Nazi guards. Zaslow watched as four newly liberated prisoners kept 18 Germans guards standing completely still. Anyone who flinched was hit with a bull-whip.
Post-war, Zaslow returned home to earn a business degree from Temple University. He married soon afterward, and then became a real-estate broker in Center City and South Philadelphia. He and his wife have four children, 13 grandchildren and six great-grandchildren.
Gross immigrated to America in 1947, and worked at various delicatessens until he bought one of his own, "Sam's Cafeteria," in West Philadelphia. He married his first wife, Bella; they had three sons. After her death, he married again, to Roza.
A grandfather of two, Gross seems to have a set smile on his face, and frequently joked during his conversation. He said that he was able to keep that demeanor — despite his dreadful past — because he learned to mentally remove himself from the horrors he faced back in Europe during the Holocaust.
"The only way you can cope with life is to disassociate yourself with the problem," he said matter of factly. "I never blamed God for my problems. I just went from day to day."