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Yehuda Greenbaum RIP (1910-2003)

January 27, 2018


Seventy-three years have passed since the Red Army liberated Auschwitz, the death camp and, today, the world commemorates International Holocaust Remembrance Day. I don't need a day of remembrance. The Holocaust is an inseparable part of my life, but for the sake of collective memory, I dedicate this post to my dear and beloved grandfather, Yehuda Greenbaum.

In 1939, when the Second World War broke out, my grandfather had another family. He had a wife and three girls. They were murdered in Treblinka in 1942. Were it not for the events of the Holocaust, he would have continued to be the husband of the late Rivka Greenbaum and the father of his three daughters, my aunts: Reizel, Mirela and Gitel, and who knows how many more children and grandchildren.


This post is based on memoirs reconstructed by his late wife, the late Barbara Greenbaum, and his daughters, Sarah Vansover and Adina Kruk, and on the basis of research conducted by his great grandson, Roy Vansover. Yehuda spoke little of his traumatic experiences. Beyond the emotional damage, he also suffered physical injuries, both during the war and in an unfortunate car accident that followed. We all remember, for example, a chilling moment during the trial of Demjanjuk (who was tried for being "Ivan the Terrible" from the Treblinka death camp, and acquitted by doubt) in which he burst into tears. It is almost the only time we all remember. He didn't discuss the events of the Holocaust with his grandchildren, both because of the emotional difficulties, and because of language difficulties. Although he spent most of his life in Israel, he didn't speak Hebrew fluently, and spoke mainly Yiddish (a unique language for European Jews that combines mainly German with a few words from other languages such as Hebrew and Latin).


Yehuda was born in Radom, Poland, on September 9th, 1910, the second son of Moshe Leib and Chaya Sarah Greenbaum. When he was a little boy, World War I broke out and he was left alone with his mother and three brothers after his father was drafted into war. When his father came home, life returned to normal. His father was a metalworker and taught Yehuda the job, at which he worked until he retired when he was over eighty.

In 1929, after his discharge from the Polish army, Yehuda married Rivka and within a few years they had three daughters. Yehuda began working in a factory in the city and the young Greenbaum family lived a modest and peaceful life.


This idyll was interrupted by World War II, which broke out in September, 1939. After the German army occupied Poland and the city of Radom, thousands of Jews were exiled from the surrounding area to the city, and in 1941, two ghettos were built in the city. The property of the Jews was confiscated, they were forbidden to work, and many of them died of starvation and disease. In 1942, Yehuda traveled to Russia to find his little family a refuge. When he returned home, he found an empty house. While he was looking for a livelihood and salvation for his wife and small daughters, they were taken from him and murdered in Treblinka. It was by far the worst trauma he had experienced during his life, which he carried in his scarred heart until the day he died.


But the difficult events of the ghetto and the loss of his family (his parents and four of his siblings were also murdered in Treblinka) were only the beginning of the horrors young Yehuda suffered. Because of his great strength and skills as a metalworker, he was not sent, like most of the Jews of Radom, to his death in Treblinka, but was sent to forced labor camps. He survived no less than six camps...


At first, he was sent to Pionki, a labor camp where he worked for up to sixteen hours a day under inhuman conditions. In 1944, he spent two days in Auschwitz, where he was coined by the number B906 (prisoners who received a number were Jews destined for work rather than death). He was later transferred to Gross Rosen. From Gross Rosen, he took his first death march to Buchenwald. According to his testimony, hundreds of prisoners started the march, but only tens of them got to the end, including my grandfather. From Buchenwald, he was transferred to another camp and from there he went on his second death march. He escaped, but the Nazis managed to catch him, and he was shot to death. The twelve bullets fired at him did not hit him, inflicting only a small scratch near the corner of his eye. This incident gave him an aura of immortality among the prisoners, who clung to him to enjoy his secret power, which made it difficult for him to escape again. In the end, he again managed to escape to the forests, where he lived in constant flight, near starvation, until the end of the war.


I think there must have been very few Jews who went through so much during these bloody war years. This huge and kind man endured six years of inhuman suffering, and after it was all over, he gathered himself up and continued his life. He wasn't engaged in hatred or revenge, but in rebuilding a home and a new family.


After the war, he met my grandmother, Barbara (Singer) Greenbaum, in a DP camp in Bergen-Belsen. From there, they moved to a German town called Memmingen. She was a Holocaust survivor of Hungarian origin, and together they decided to establish a new family. In Germany, my aunt Sara was born. In 1949, they immigrated to Israel, and in 1951, their second daughter (his fifth daughter) was born - my mother, Adina.


 My grandfather had a nickname. We called him Saba Zayde. Saba is “grandfather” in Hebrew and Zayde is “grandfather” in Yiddish. And, indeed, he was a great grandfather, a man of great dimensions, with huge and strong hands, but with a soft and pure soul. Because he didn't know how to speak Hebrew well, we, his grandchildren, had a hard time communicating with him, but he treated us with love, dedication and gentleness. When we slept at his house, he would prepare us sumptuous breakfasts and take us to the garden and push us on the swings. Every achievement, even the smallest, would fill him with joy and pride.


But although he radiated joy and kindness, I could never forget what I didn't even know, because he didn't really tell. And I had some difficult moments with him. One of them was when I was a young girl and he accidentally threw my dental brace into the garbage. I cried because I was afraid of what my parents would say, and he went down to the garbage room to look for the brace. I ran after him, and begged him to stop. The sight of him standing there between the garbage bins, searching, doesn't leave me, and even today, I see a flashback of him looking for food for his wife and daughters in the ghetto.

Another hard memory I have of him was in 1991, during the first Gulf War, when Iraq launched missiles at Israel without provocation - and without retaliation. My grandparents moved in with us during the war. Because we were afraid that the missiles were carrying chemical warheads, we had to put on gas masks. My grandfather refused to put one on. It was hard for me to see him, this man who hadn't missed any war in the twentieth century, going through this war as well. The thought of wanting to kill him again with gas, the way his entire family was killed, was chilling.


The Holocaust is an integral part of our life and this day is for all the other people in the world, so that everyone will remember and never forget. For my late grandfather, the war never ended. He lived it every day, but at least he was privileged to see daughters and grandchildren and two great-grandchildren, and to be the Godfather at the circumcision of Roy, the son of Shai, Sara's son. Roy went on a youth journey to Poland last August and told the story of my grandfather's life on the gravestone of the Jews of Radom in Treblinka.



My grandfather got to meet only the first two grandchildren who were born to him, but, since then, the Greenbaums have been joined by ten more great-grandchildren, all of whom are charming and talented children. The ninth grandchild is named after him - Yehuda Fishman, the third son of my sister, Tami.



Yehuda died at the age of 93. Most of his life, he was a surprisingly strong and healthy man, but before his death there was a sharp deterioration in his condition, until he was eventually confined to his bed. As descendants of Holocaust survivors, we didn't really know what old age meant. My mother and aunt had no grandparents. We didn't have any older aunts. They were all taken from us. We met old age for the first time when my grandparents grew old. When my grandfather went into long-term care, Brenda Downs entered our lives, and this is a great opportunity to thank her for her help, the devoted care and love she lavished on the man who had given his life to others.



Many of us often wonder what would have happened if things had happened differently - if the butterfly effect could cause a chain of events to occur differently from the way they did. (The film Sliding Doors, starring Gwyneth Paltrow, illustrates this idea beautifully.) Quite a few people think about what would have happened had Adolf Hitler never been born… what would have happened had there not been a Holocaust? When I think these thoughts, the clear conclusion I come to is that, if there had not been a Holocaust, I would not exist. Even if the State of Israel were established and the Jews of the world gathered in it, I would never have arrived. The sequence of events would not have allowed this, because the bitter and painful truth is that I am here because of the Holocaust. Had it not been for the Holocaust, my grandfather would have had a completely different family today. This thought has troubled me since I was a child. What I wouldn’t give to spare my grandfather his great suffering - but that would take away the basis of my own existence. This is the meaning of being a descendant of a Holocaust survivor, and this is the heavy burden that we bear forever.



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