Clara Grossman is a grandmother of eight and a survivor of the Holocaust. She is a summer person and the third subject of a new, weekly MVTimes series, Summer People, whose goal is to introduce readers to their summer neighbors, some of them prominent and extraordinarily accomplished, some whose lives are less exalted, all of them Islanders in their own ways. How do they describe their connections to the Vineyard and their seasonal Island neighbors? How do they describe their off-Island lives?
When Clara Grossman has bad thoughts, she tries to remember the sunsets on Martha’s Vineyard. “I’m trying to get that into my mind, the gorgeous sunset,” she said.
Ms. Grossman has spent many summers on the Island, hiking, going to Black Point, and seeing friends. This summer, she is staying with her daughter’s family, behind the house that her son-in-law’s great grandfather, General George Goethals, built. On Monday morning, she sat in a lawn chair overlooking a coveted view of Vineyard Haven Harbor. Ms. Grossman has light eyes and hair, a slight accent, and a warm smile. She said she is proud to be an optimist.
Ms. Grossman’s maiden name was Klari Hercz. She was born into a Jewish Hungarian family in the 1930s, the second of four children. Her father ran a successful chemical company.
“Basically, I had a very happy childhood. I went to school and played with my friends, as all young kids do. Life, as I remember it, was good, until the Nazis started their programs and going into Poland and other countries,” she said.
Although family connections on both her mother and father’s side gave the family the opportunity to escape to the United States, she said her parents never felt the urgency to leave.
“They felt, ‘oh, this will never happen. Not in Hungary. They won’t allow Hitler to come in.’ But they were very wrong,” she said.
Ms. Grossman was thirteen and a half the day the Nazis marched into her town. “And then one day they came. April of 1944. There was a bang on the door.”
After a few weeks in a ghetto, she remembers being marched to a railroad station, where people were loaded into boxcars, 80 to 100 people in each.
“The train started and we traveled about three days in these box cars. No water. No food. And people were dying and getting sick. It was the most dehumanizing, horrible experience. They said they were taking us to a better place. They said, ‘It will be really good.’ Good? We didn’t know where they were taking us,” she said.
When the train stopped, the doors opened to aggressive German shepherds and SS soldiers with sticks, hitting people to get out of the cars. It was dark, about five in the morning.
“You couldn’t see my face, how young I was. Someone drew my cousin Shary and I to one side, and my mom, and my sister, and my younger brother went to the other side. I didn’t know at that time that that day they were going to the crematorium gas chamber, and that was the last time I saw them.
“This was Auschwitz-Birkenau. This was the separation camp. This is where they killed almost six million Jews, but also Gypsies, homosexuals, anyone who didn’t meet their criteria, who wasn’t blonde and blue-eyed.
“Hitler was the sickest… you can’t even find words…animals don’t even do what he did. How could a country like Germany, who was way ahead, how would they allow a madman like Hitler rise? That’s why we have to be so vigilant and so cautious. We say ‘oh this could never happen. This could never have happened.’ But it happened.
“And why? It’s just a different religion. You couldn’t even comprehend how human beings could be that cruel.”
Mrs. Grossman said she remembers each morning the guards would line the prisoners up for hours to count them and select some for the gas chambers.
“A lot of people, like mothers whose children were taken away, they were happy to go. They didn’t want to live. A lot of people went and grabbed electric wires, because they said, ‘This is not living, this is hell.’”
She said in order to keep going, she had to disconnect. “It was like being a robot.”
Eventually, she and her cousins and friends from her hometown volunteered to be taken to another work camp. Though she weighed less than 90 pounds, she was assigned to dig ditches and build railroads. When winter of 1945 came, she worked at an ammunition factory, freezing and exposed to poisonous materials.
“So it went on, and I never heard from my family what happened. And deep down, you really didn’t want to accept that they are gone, you are always hoping that at least your father and brother would be alive,” she said.
That winter, the Nazis began their Death Marches. Ms. Grossman and her friends were told they were to walk back through the snow to Auschwitz.
“We talked to each other and decided: we are escaping, we are not going back there. If they shoot us, they shoot us. They were going to kill us anyway. So the plan was to fall to the back of the group.”
She and her friends escaped successfully. They discovered a recently abandoned house with warm food still on the stove. They stayed there until Russian soldiers moved in, posing a new kind of threat to young girls.
The group walked all the way to the Czechoslovakian border, where they took a train to Budapest, eventually making it back to their hometown.
“We walked in and there was no one. For me, it was the sad realization that I’m alone. I’m an orphan. I have to take care of myself. And that was really difficult.”
She moved into a large house with the rest of the girls, spending the money and selling the jewelry her parents had buried in her old basement.
“One day, it was in September, somebody called me and said ‘Your brother is here.’ My brother just walked in from nowhere.”
After a long wait for a U.S. visa, she and her older brother, Imra, finally immigrated to Pennsylvania to live with her uncle. There, she met her husband, Rippe. They have been married for 61 years and have three daughters and eight grandchildren.
Although it was difficult to speak about her experiences for a long time, Ms. Grossman eventually began sharing her story at high schools across the country, sometimes together with her brother.
“I tell them if anyone tells you that [there was no Holocaust], you tell them in their face, I met a person who was there. Yes, unfortunately, there was a Holocaust. That is why you speak out and want the young people to know. I am the youngest of the survivors. After we are gone, the story is gone.”
Both Imra and Shary are still alive. Imra often comes to the Island to visit the Grossmans.
When asked about her favorite memories of the Island, Ms. Grossman didn’t hesitate. “Just being with our family and children and friends,” she said. “It’s just the best that life can offer. I think I am very blessed, that my life started out somewhere in hell and I came back.
“A lot of people ask me, how can you be so positive and live the life you do? Well, I had a chance for another life, and I want to live that life.”