Intel founder discusses survivor background in memoir

With Russian shells bursting overhead, the Hungarian villagers searched for a diversion as they took refuge in the grimy, poorly lit basement. One of the men soon hit on a bright idea; he lined up all of the children and asked each, in turn, to "practice his catechism."

More than half a century later, the memory still raises the hairs on Andrew Grove's neck. As a young Jew in hiding with forged papers and a phony identity, there was no way he could practice his catechism. He didn't know what it was.

"Everywhere else, I sort of had my mother to defend me. For the catechism, I was on my own," recalled Grove, now in his mid-60s and the chairman and co-founder of the Santa Clara-based Intel, one of the world's largest and most successful companies.

"They were coming to me in slow motion; the father was asking other kids first and coming closer and closer to me. There was time enough to get scared."

In a moment of clarity, the adolescent Grove excused himself to use the restroom, ran and hid. Grove chose to hide stories like this one from all but his close friends and family until now, with the publication of his memoirs, "Swimming Across."

A highly public figure, Grove is best known as the chairman and former chief executive officer of a billion-dollar, multinational company. To discuss his Holocaust survivor background in that context would have "been like some sort of crass promotion; it didn't feel right to me."

Grove — born Andras Grof– first publicly discussed his childhood and early adulthood in his 1997 Time magazine Man of the Year profile, but it was the birth of his grandchildren that really convinced him to open up.

"Looking at my grandkids," he said in his accented but precise English, "I realized that by the time they'll be old enough for me to tell my story, I'll probably be too old to do a proper job of it."

Grove's harrowing experience with the catechism wasn't his only brush with death during the war years. Shells exploded nearby, and both Russian and German soldiers harassed his family. And even as a young child, Grove understood that if the Germans or his fellow Hungarians learned he was Jewish, the result would almost certainly be death.

Grove vividly recalls a poster warning those who harbored Jews would be folkoncoljak — a word that translates as "slaughtered" or "torn to pieces."

"I understood that word; I remember that word," he said. "My Hungarian vocabulary is around 500 words at this point, and I certainly haven't heard or read that particular word in 50 or 60 years, but it is etched on my mind. I understood exquisitely well what was going on."

Grove and his mother made their way back to Budapest after the Nazis evacuated and, some time later, his father returned from Auschwitz. Yet, as Jews and former capitalists (the family had run a dairy business), their fate was far from rosy in communist Hungary.

Relatives were picked up off the streets and jailed for years without trial. One returned without any teeth, a mentally broken man. Though Grove was a brilliant student, his combined ethnic and social background necessitated his family's pulling every bureaucratic string imaginable to get him into a university.

Just as Grove was making a name for himself as a promising young chemistry student, social upheaval again irrevocably altered his life.

While the abortive Hungarian uprising of 1956 started out "almost giddily," it quickly "descended into war-like circumstances with people shooting and chasing each other."

Grove woke up the morning after the initial uprising with the machine gun of a Soviet armed personnel carrier trained on his window. Later, a Russian shell crashed through his apartment building's roof and started a fire.

The blaze, however, was quickly extinguished with "the sand we put up there in case the Americans had designs on our apartment building," said Grove with a chuckle. "The irony obviously wasn't lost on me."

During the uprising, Grove was 20, with vivid memories of the Second World War and its aftermath. When the war ended, the Soviets were given an unreachable quota of 10,000 prisoners of war and resorted to snatching 5,000 Hungarians off the streets of Budapest. "That memory scared the hell out of me," said Grove. Figuring the same could take place again, he decided to get out of Hungary while the getting was good.

"You couldn't trust anyone; you never knew who was going to rat on you, or get into trouble and extricate themselves by ratting on you," recalled Grove with a bitter edge in his voice. "Living in a place where people can pick you up off the street when you haven't done anything is about as uncertain as things can get."

With a little luck and lots of perseverance, Grove made it to Austria and, eventually, the United States. His life has been an embodiment of the American dream — he earned a college diploma and doctorate, married and had two children and started a business that has earned him hundreds of millions of dollars.

"The character of America has turned into a cliché, but it really is so true," he acknowledged. "You can only see the truth if you see the contrast. I was never accepted in my own country of birth. I came waiting for the other shoe to drop, but nobody has every reproached me for not being from this country."

In Hungary, Grove continued, "I never perceived myself to be different, but I was perceived as different. In America, I perceived myself as different and nobody gave a damn."

Joe Eskenazi

Joe Eskenazi is the managing editor at Mission Local. He is a former editor-at-large at San Francisco magazine, former columnist at SF Weekly and a former J. staff writer.