Greenbrae teen, grandmother to return to site of obliteration

Allon Rafael, 16, wants to see for himself the site where his relatives were obliterated a generation ago.

So during the upcoming school year, when the Greenbrae teen gets a winter or spring break from his senior year at Redwood High School, he will accompany his grandmother Lea Grinberger to Auschwitz, where she was incarcerated as a young woman about the same age as Allon.

"My grandmother was always looking forward to visiting [Auschwitz]," said Allon, who recently returned from a National Young Leaders Conference in Washington, D.C.

But it's his idea to accompany her to the camp during the upcoming school year. He plans to stop in Cologne, Germany, and pick up his cousin Daniel Graam before making the trip to Poland with Grinberger.

"I'm really kind of excited to go," said Allon, the son of Mona and Carmel Rafael.

Half of Grinberger's family lasted only one night in Auschwitz. At daybreak on May 29,1944, father, brother, grandfather and grandmother vanished into thin air, and, without realizing, it, the brown-eyed girl from the Hungarian village of Uzgorod who'd turned 18 the previous month had watched it happen.

"I was staying with my mother," said Grinberger, now age 71 and living in San Francisco. The Nazis "separated the young people, the old, the women, the children."

Bedraggled from a three-day ordeal on a transport that took them from the ghetto to the Polish concentration camp, the family was not soothed by the sight that greeted them.

"We see the fires," said Grinberger. "We are very afraid. One is crying.

"In the morning we get up. We see the smoke — red smoke, gray — the colors, the smell — and we ask [the person in charge of their cell block], `What is this smoke?' And she told us, `Your parents are in the smoke. Your parents and your brothers and sisters.'"

Yacob and Harold Bergida — Grinberger's father and brother — had become part of the soot that blackened Nazi crematory chimneys. Her mother's father and her father's mother had vaporized into the clouds that hung dankly over the death camp.

Grinberger, who survived along with her mother and her mother's sister, was not able to say much about it for many years.

Even now, she is guarded when talking about her upcoming return to Auschwitz. "I feel I must go. I cannot tell you why," said the elegant woman, wearing a gray wool suit and coral blouse during an interview.

"I know Auschwitz is not the same as when I was there," she said, "but when I talk [about it] I remember…more than 50 years and I see everything like now."

She and her mother, Golda Bergida, nearly perished at the hands of Josef Mengele. Grinberger and her fellow inmates in the camp who watched it happen, week after week, knew that the fate of those who were selected by the infamous doctor was almost certainly the ovens.

"Once he took me," she said. But she was inexplicably released.

"Maybe the crematory stopped working," she said, "or there were too many people."

The survivor finally settled on the Hebrew word for "destiny," goral, as the reason both she and her mother were spared. It also separated them till after the war.

"We met each other at home. In the end, we were together."

Back in Uzgorod, Grinberger learned that Mengele had somehow also refrained from killing Golda Bergida, after forcing her to wait naked in a dark crowded room overnight.

Grinberger struggled to tell of the reunion.

"That was…my mother is crying…" She broke off and continued a moment later. "You cannot forget. Not a day goes by you don't remember."

Allon said, "Of course you hear and you learn and you study [the Holocaust] from books."

But inspecting the death camp for himself will give him firsthand insight into his grandmother's suffering, he added.

"I've seen `Schindler's List' with her," he said. "She said it wasn't ever like that. Of course it was harsh, but [the film] didn't even make it as harsh as it was. It was more brutal."

Grinberger endured six months at Auschwitz in the company of her mother's sister Zelma Klein. After that, the two women were sent to Nuremberg and finally to Sudetenland where they were liberated May 5, 1945.

Life became almost surreal after that. At home in Uzgorod, which had fallen under the Iron Curtain rule of the Soviets after World War II, survivors were going to parties and trying to find mates.

"In 1945 when we came home it was not normal," said Grinberger. "Mothers, they lost children, you know. Everybody's dancing and singing. Everyone was alone. The men were alone, the women were alone, the girls were alone and everyone was getting married and beginning a new life."

She wedded Chaim Grinberger, who had labored in work camps between 1939 and 1945 and had lost his parents and seven of 10 siblings.

"Even among those that had lost their children or husband or wife," added Grinberger's daughter Mona Rafael, "no one was grieving and no one was living in the past. They wanted to go on with their lives, and the past was only a month or two months ago…They all fell into some kind of denial.

"As children, we didn't hear much about Auschwitz," she continued. "They didn't want to talk about it…the parents didn't want the children to relive what they went through, and they didn't want themselves to relive that experience."

Perhaps they were waiting for their grandchildren.