Joe Gringlas, who survived Auschwitz and other concentration camps, added a unique chapter to his life on April 29 by debuting as an artist.
Gringlas displayed his watercolor and oil paintings at Haverford College’s Visual Culture, Arts and Media Center through the Stories that Live fellowship program of the Rohr Center for Jewish Life Chabad House.
Stories that Live connects college students with local Holocaust survivors to create meaningful relationships and enable survivors to share their stories through projects created by the students. These may take any form the students deem appropriate — video, visual art, written work, audio, maps or mixed media.
The event enabled Gringlas to showcase his repertoire of landscapes and scenery, and address the audience about his experiences while also offering the opportunity for the students to share their projects.
The mission of Stories that Live is to inspire, educate and inform students through the telling of these powerful stories. Gringlas shared his story with students Rachel Wolfson and Temma Levis, who created an interactive audio presentation overlaid on a map detailing his journey.
Gringlas started painting regularly when he retired but had taken an art class at some point in his youth and always liked it. These days, he loves to paint because when he does he “forgets about everything” — it is a total escape.
Gringlas’ experience began in his native Poland, where he was captured, separated from his family and sent to Blizyn concentration camp. His family was “put on a train to Treblinka. There was no work, just killing. I lost my father, my mother, three brothers and my sister.” Gringlas survived Blizyn and was given a number, which indicated he was fit to work.
“The number saved my life for a while. They told everyone we were going to Auschwitz, and everyone who goes to Auschwitz was going to be gassed,” he said.
His brother, Sol, ended up at Auschwitz at the same time. He describes meeting him there: “I was crying like a baby.”
While there, Gringlas witnessed unspeakable atrocities.
“At night, we saw flames. The sky was red from the flames coming out,” he said. “They would tell people to go in and take the bodies out. If I had been given that job, I wouldn’t be here.”
In several cases, the skills Gringlas learned early in life saved him and, more compellingly, he never lost his humanity.
“Would you believe in Auschwitz, while they are killing people, the Germans decided they wanted to plant flowers? When I was in Poland, I had learned about flowers. I still like flowers. So I got the job. I got double bread and double soup, so I wasn’t so hungry anymore. What happened [is that] a lot of people came and stepped on the flowers. Thousands of people came through, and they stepped on the flowers. They ruined the flowers. But what am I going to do? People are going to be gassed.
“The next morning the [guard] comes and says, ‘You see what happened? The only thing you have to do is take a stick and hit them over the head!’ But Joe wouldn’t do it! No! Because you’d never believe it, but a lot of people behaved like that. I wasn’t raised like that. I said, ‘No, sir.’ If he had been a bad [guard] he could have killed me. But what he did was took away my double bread and double soup. But I didn’t care.”
Later, the brothers were sent to Buna-Monowitz concentration camp, and Gringlas’ skillset again saved him.
“The [guard asked], ‘Anybody can fix socks?’ The socks were torn in the back. And I knew how to do it, from Poland. So, I fixed it, and he couldn’t believe it. I darned it. He said, ‘This is so wonderful, come.’ He took me in and it was nice, and warm, and I had food, too.”
His final camp was Nordhausen, a sub-camp of the Dora-Mittelbau concentration camp.
From there, Gringlas was eventually liberated after being attacked by Americans — the prisoners were housed in former Nazi barracks, and the U.S. thought it was bombing the enemy. Both Gringlas and his brother were injured by shrapnel, which he still carries in his lungs.
“I weighed 80 pounds. I was running,” he said. “I was excited — I never thought I would get out of there.”
Rabbi Eli Gurevitz, director of the Rohr Center and creator of Stories that Live, said the hope is that by continuing to grow the program — which launched at Haverford, Swarthmore, and Bryn Mawr colleges in 2015 and has expanded to include Temple and Rowan universities — it will match every local survivor with a student partner to receive and curate his or her story.
“All survivors have powerful stories to tell. Our students recognize that this is their opportunity to hear these stories now,” he said. “Their children will not have that chance. We are privileged and honored to accept and share these stories for survivors, and it is our responsibility as a community to ensure that they are heard. Our greatest challenge is finding people.”
Keri White is a freelance writer and a Jewish Exponent food columnist.