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Sharing Her Holocaust Story So That No One Forgets

93-year-old author sees the hateful side of history repeating itself in Russia and Ukraine

By Erin Flynn Jay

Elly Berkovits Gross was 15 years old in 1944 when Nazi troops forced her and her family into a cattle car crowded with other Jews and shipped them all to the Auschwitz concentration camp. She never saw her mother or her brother again.

Miraculously, however, Gross survived the camp and has dedicated her life to sharing her story and the stories of other Holocaust victims with future generations by writing "Elly: My True Story of the Holocaust" (Scholastic Press, 2009), a book for students in grades 4 to 7.

An older woman sitting in front of an easel while painting. Next Avenue, holocaust survivor story
Elly in her office/art studio, working on her painting of Auschwitz II-Birkenau  |  Credit: Tatiana Florival

Even at 93 years old, Gross works to share her story with as many children as possible. This year, Scholastic Book Clubs will send 25,600 free copies of "Elly" to classrooms around the country and offer free downloadable teaching guides and resources to help teachers use Elly's story to teach about the Holocaust. Last year, an anonymous donor enabled Scholastic Book Clubs to send 10,000 free books to classrooms.

"Unfortunately, as you can see in Russia and Ukraine, history repeats, because they never learn from the background, from the past time. History repeats, and with blind hate, they kill each other and there are no winners; everybody suffers."

Gross, who lives in New York City, wrote her book "in memory of those who did not survive." She has no plans to write another book about the Holocaust.

"I feel that maybe the other generation should do something," she said in a telephone interview. "Maybe the great-grandchildren eventually, but the new generation and my children, they want to forget what happened. They don't want to know about it.

"Unfortunately," she added, "as you can see in Russia and Ukraine, history repeats, because they never learn from the background, from the past time. History repeats, and with blind hate, they kill each other and there are no winners; everybody suffers."

In her book, Gross mentions the guilt she still carries with her. "I remember my mom was thirty-seven years old, my brother five and I was fifteen. My mom asked me in the next few seconds that maybe [I] should give my brother to another lady who had three or four children," said Gross. "I said to her, 'I'm fifteen. I could take care of him myself.' Who would think that they're going to kill them?"

She recalled that the Nazi soldiers said the elders and mothers would take care of the children and the rest would go to work. "Who would think they were going to kill them?" Gross asked again.

Gross said she prayed to God all the time—"in the morning after I washed myself. Even now I do it; at night before I go to sleep, I pray. If you grow with that (faith), it will remain all the time in your life — the memory and the habits."

Her advice for struggling older adults is to try to be the best they can. "You cannot stop the flow (of time)," said Gross. "The life is coming, and like a flow, you cannot stop. Whatever comes, you have to live.

"You can't do anything — not even the younger generation can do anything. The (current) problems in the world are because two leaders don't agree. The two leaders — they should fight together, not the people, but they don't fight themselves. They send the people to fight each other."


An Accomplished Oil Painter

Gross is also an accomplished painter with approximately 140 oil paintings and several works of needlepoint to her credit. The Museum of Jewish Heritage in New York City will display 30 to 40 of her paintings in an upcoming exhibit.

"We haven't selected which we plan to exhibit yet," she said. "The majority will likely be ones that were inspired by my memories of the Holocaust, but we'll also share a few that shine a light on the love and all of the positive things that have happened in my life since that devastating period."

A painting with buildings from a concentration camp. Next Avenue, holocaust survivor story
Elly's painting of Auschwitz II-Birkenau  |  Credit: Tatiana Florival

Gross shared with me a new painting called "The Black Lake" that vividly describes her experience in 1944 and explained all of its different elements:

"Three trains are coming. I lived in Romania, but in 1940, the Hungarians occupied the area. On the bottom right is the disinfection building — we undress, they shaved our head, took our clothes, checked for infection, and then we exit naked. Then we were given a rag and clogs. At least I got a rag that was long and all the way to the ground."

"On the left, trains head toward the gate with a sign at the top corner saying, 'Work makes you free.'"

"In the top right, I've painted remnants of twenty-four trailers where they kept us after the selection. About one thousand survived the selection and were placed in the two rows of trailers."

"In the bottom left corner is the black lake where people were thrown alive. Next to it there is a crematorium (there were five of them altogether in the camp). This is where the people were burned."

The Work of a Poet

Gross recently wrote a poem called "Silent World Leaders!":

Silent World Leaders!

In my childhood Gentiles called me "stinky dirty Jew, go to Palestine."
Washed my white skin often, but for Gentiles I remained dirty.
When I complained Mommy said, "You my child must learn not to complain, but take it as is."
When I was a slave I remembered, not to complain about daily miseries.
Seven miracles came on my way to survive European Jews' massacre.
Miracle Eight didn't come on my way.
One of my parents should have survived.
As a lonely child, I alone survived.
In memory of my parents, I plant flowers every year and remember Mommy's
small garden where flowers bloomed and filled the air with fragrances.
Most broken objects could be glued,
But my broken heart never healed.
With sorrow remember the bitter past
Which took away so many innocent lives.
And I ask, "Why did it happen?"
In our civilized world why men
In blind hatred turned to evil?
And why World Leaders were silent?

Photograph of Erin Flynn Jay
Erin Flynn Jay is a journalist based in Philadelphia. Recent national writing includes First for Women, Woman's World Magazine, and Bar & Restaurant. Read More
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