By JEROD CLAPP
Crowded into the back of a cargo truck with his family and strangers, they all made their way out of Belgium and into France as Hitler’s troops invaded.
Years of running with his family led Fred Gross to relocation in the United States. At 76 years old and living in Louisville, Gross told students on Tuesday at Clarksville High School how he avoided and survived the Holocaust.
Gross said as the remaining Holocaust survivors die, he wants to make sure students learn something from his experience, whether it’s keeping history from repeating itself or using his anecdotes to inspire them.
“I want them to think that, ‘here’s this guy who has gone through so much in his life, but still has hope for the future,’” Gross said. “And I want them to feel that same way, I want them to do good deeds.”
Gross said after fleeing from Belgium when he was just three or four years old, making their way through France to avoid imprisonment and extermination in German concentration camps.
But he said the difficulties they faced also came from the French government. Police would send Jews to concentration camps within the country, where they would later be sent to camps like Auschwitz — one of the more infamous death camps in Germany.
But he said while his family was lucky enough to avoid the death camps, they still had a lot of hardship that brings up all kinds of emotions when he speaks to students.
“It gets a little harder because I sometimes wonder whether we’ve learned anything from the Holocaust because of all the horrible things that are going on in the world today, and I do so want to make a difference to make certain that things like that don’t happen again,” Gross said. “And that’s why I talk to young people. I truly rely on them to make a difference.”
Jane Bartsch, an English and advanced composition teacher at the school, said her students have been studying the Holocaust and literature about it for a couple of weeks. She said they’ve been enthralled with the topic, but hearing the story from a survivor really made it tangible for them.
“I think it makes it more real,” Bartsch said. “We can read and talk about how things are real, but if you can see and know, and hear it from someone who was there, it's not just a story, it's not something on a page. It gives it some meaning. I think they were fascinated most by the pictures and that he found pictures that he was in.”
Gross’ family had a lot of hardship while they were evading capture. They were sent to a concentration camp in the southwest portion of France, where they faced deportation to Auschwitz.
But his brother, Sammy, made an escape. He told his guard he wasn’t feeling well and was headed for the infirmary — near the gates of the camp. In broad daylight, he walked out of the gates unnoticed, hitchhiking to a nearby village.
After that, he got help from a village mayor to contact French officials and request his family’s release. After getting the documentation to free his family, he made the three-day trip back to the camp to rescue his parents and siblings.
The family eventually made it to the United States after a stay in Switzerland, separation in foster homes and other challenges.
Gross said while he wants the story of the Holocaust to live on, he also wants students to learn how to overcome adversity in their own lives.
But he said he wants them to be able to make a difference in other people’s lives. He said in the 60s and 70s, he was a newspaper reporter. He wrote about black activists who explained what rights they wanted. Years later, he met one of them again and was thanked.
“I want [the students] to stand up and be counted, to make a difference, to have the level of courage to do that,” Gross said. “And what a time to take stock of yourself, during such a holiday season.”