Ernie Gross, 94, of Philadelphia, Holocaust survivor, inspirational lecturer, and business entrepreneur, died Wednesday, Oct. 11, of coronary artery disease at the Horsham Center for Jewish Life nursing home.
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Mr. Gross survived the Holocaust in Europe in the 1940s, immigrated to the United States in 1947, and spent the last 10 years of his life speaking at schools, clubs, churches, synagogues, community centers, and elsewhere about his horrific experiences. “Anybody who asks us, we are there,” he said in an online interview.
He lost his parents, two brothers, a sister, and other relatives during the Holocaust, and his stories are heartbreaking. But he often used humor, warmth, and props — usually a battered tin drinking cup, brown potato, and small loaf of bread — to engage his audiences and punctuate his message that, despite dire circumstances, love can triumph over hate.
He told Philadelphia writer Chris Gibbons in 2015 that he spoke out to “change the way people think. Every time you hate somebody, it’s not good. It’s better to help somebody than hate.”
In an online tribute, friends said Mr. Gross “always had a twinkle in his eye and a good joke. His stories were important to hear and remember.” Longtime friends Don and Shelley Greenbaum called him “a hero and a mensch.”
Mr. Gross was deported from his home in Romania to the Auschwitz concentration camp in Poland in 1944 when he was 15. He lied about his age, saying he was 17, to avoid being killed as too young to work and told The Inquirer in 2012: “They said, ‘The only thing you can take with you is food for a day. And if after an hour we see you walking around, we have orders. We will shoot you.’”
He was sent to Dachau concentration camp in southern Germany a few months later and finally liberated by American soldiers on April 29, 1945. He immigrated to New York in 1947 and went on to Philadelphia to be near three aunts who lived there.
He met Don Greenbaum, a Philadelphian and one of the liberating U.S. soldiers at Dachau, in 2012, and they spent a decade together speaking to groups about their time as prisoner and liberator. Their poignant stories can be accessed through the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, Holocaust Awareness Museum and Education Center in Elkins Park, Gratz College Holocaust Oral History Archives, and other organizations.
Officials at the Holocaust Awareness Museum and Education Center said in a statement: “Ernie was one of the kindest souls. …We will continue telling his story to make sure that he lives on forever through our words and memories.”
After arriving in Philadelphia, Mr. Gross learned English and worked as a dental assistant and in a café and deli. But he wanted to be his own boss, so he eventually established his own cafe, deli, food truck, and janitorial services company.
“Then I saw Germans throwing down their guns. I could not figure it out. I turned around, and the Americans were behind me.”
Erie Gross on being liberated from Dachau concentration camp in 1945
He also earned his General Educational Development certificate at Northeast High School and never failed to engage with those around him who needed support. “He realized how much he had and wanted to help others who were working for that, too,” said his son Steve.
Ernest Gross was born July 13, 1929, in Turt, Romania. He was one of the few Jewish boys in his school, he told The Inquirer, and endured a lonely childhood before being deported to Poland in 1944.
He met fellow Holocaust survivor Bella Berger through a mutual friend in the United States, and they married in 1957, and had sons Jerry, Steve, and David. They lived in Olney and East Oak Lane, and he moved later to Northeast Philadelphia. She died in 1976.
He married Roza Bershadskaya in 1981 and welcomed her daughter, Irene, and her family into his circle. His second wife died in 2009.
» READ MORE: Dachau survivor, liberator become friends 67 years later
Mr. Gross liked to watch Wild Kingdom and other animal shows on TV. He cooked dinner for his family often, and Thursdays usually featured steak sandwiches and his special sauce.
He followed the Phillies and went to synagogue often, inducing his sons to attend with him on Saturdays by taking them ice skating on Friday nights. He was reserved and quiet as a young man, and realized later, he said, that humor could bring people together.
“I make sure every day I make 10 people laugh,” he told the Jewish Exponent in 2018. A friend said: “He was an incredibly thoughtful, kind, and considerate person.”
In addition to his sons, Mr. Gross is survived by two grandchildren, a great-granddaughter, and other relatives. Two brothers and a sister died after the Holocaust, and a brother and sister died as infants before World War II.
Services were held Friday, Oct. 20.
Donations in his name may be made to the Holocaust Awareness Museum and Education Center, 8339 Old York Rd., Suite 203-205 Elkins Park, Pa. 19027.