As 2021 came to an end, I lost my dear brother-in-law, Fred Gross. Fred was 85 and a survivor of the Holocaust. We had been close for nearly 35 years, and he was more like a brother than a brother-in-law.
Fred was born in Antwerp, Belgium in 1936. In 1940, with his parents and two older brothers, the family fled Belgium to escape from the Nazi onslaught of Hitler’s Army. As they travelled through France, at times, they were forced off the roadway by German Dive Bombers attacking the refugees escaping the Germans. Fred remembered his mother throwing him in a ditch and laying on him to shield him from the plane’s bullets.
They eventually were gathered up with other refugees and placed in a refugee camp in Gurs, France. After a month or so Fred’s oldest brother, Sammy, took an opportunity and simply walked out the gate of the camp. He went into the adjoining city and rushed into the Prefect’s office unannounced. The Prefect had a role as Chief of Police. Sammy demanded that he have his family released as they were honest hard-working folks that had done nothing wrong.
The Prefect must have admired the courage of Sammy who, as a teenager, made a strong case for his family. The Prefect issued releases for the Gross family that Sammy took back to the camp. It worked. They loaded the family into a truck and drove some 20 or so miles away and were told not to stay around as they could be imprisoned again. All the refugees at Gurs were eventually sent to Auschwitz where they were killed in the gas chamber. The Gross family left and headed toward southern France. As they approached southern France, the oldest brother headed for Portugal on his own. The rest of the family continued to Marseille on the Mediterranean coast. There, Fred’s father, a jeweler and skilled diamond cutter, found lucrative employment.
After a year or so, the Germans arrived in southern France and began rounding up Jews. Playing poker with some locals including the police chief, Fred’s father, Max Gross was informed the Nazis would be visiting his apartment building in the next few days. He immediately cashed in his chips and went straight home.
An hour or so later, they left out the back of the apartment complex just as German soldiers in trucks arrived and cleared the building of all the Jews. Fred’s father then hired a smuggler to lead his family to Switzerland where Fred’s grandmother resided. It took a few weeks to arrive in Switzerland.
In 1946, after the war was over, the Gross family arrived in America. They settled in New York City and found relatives in Brooklyn to help them get settled in. Mr. Gross found employment in the diamond business as a talented diamond cutter. Fred attended public schools in Brooklyn and later enrolled at New York University. While at NYU he also took acting lessons from the infamous Stella Adler. Upon graduation from NYU, he worked as a reporter and wrote for various newspapers. In the 1970’s he moved to Connecticut and married his first wife, Barbara, and they had three boys. In 1980, they divorced and in 1981 he met and later married my sister-in-law, Carolyn Humphrey. They had a son, Jonathan, in 1985.
In 2010, Mercer University Press published Fred’s book: One Step Ahead of Hitler, A Jewish Child’s Journey Through France. This account of his family’s quest to escape the evil of Nazi Germany is an interesting read.
For many years Fred traveled throughout Kentucky presenting his story to thousands of middle and high school students. He presented at ACTC in 2005 where he received a standing ovation. He shared his story at the National Holocaust Museum in Washington, DC and recorded that story in their archives. He was instrumental in the development and passing of the Ann Klein & Fred Gross Holocaust Education Act, a law requiring the Holocaust and other acts of genocide be taught in all Kentucky public schools.
He has left a legacy with the thousands of students and adults he shared his story with through his talks and his book. As time goes on, there will be no survivors of the Holocaust to share their stories in person. It is so important to keep their stories alive and never forget!