On Wednesday, April 26, Holocaust survivor and author of One Step Ahead of Hitler: A Jewish Child’s Journey through France, Fred Gross visited both sections of Shannon Kederis’ Holocaust class. Mr. Gross, a Louisville resident, and native of Belgium left his home in 1940 to flee the invading Nazi army. From there, he and his family traveled all over France to escape the advancing army. They eventually reached neutral Switzerland in 1942, but not without many trials and tribulations that would threaten their safety and their lives along the way.
During the summer of 1940, Fred and his family were imprisoned in Gurs, a concentration camp in southern France. Later that same year, the camp was deported by the French government to the Auschwitz and Sobibor death camps. Had the Gross family not escaped by some twist of fate, they would have been sent to their extermination.
Gross’s eldest brother, Sam, managed to escape the camp by walking through the front gate after noticing it was not being guarded at the moment. He hitchhiked to a nearby village and asked the mayor if there was anything he could do to get the rest of his family released from the camp, and the mayor said he couldn’t help him but that he knew someone that could. The mayor gave Sam the name of a French official in Poland, and Sam began his journey there. After reaching Poland and visiting the office of the French official, the man took pity on Sam and signed documents demanding the release of the rest of his family from Gurs. The commander of the camp obeyed the order and released the rest of the Gross family.
“There were good people who helped us out, who refused to stand by and see people suffer, and without them, I wouldn’t be alive today,” said Gross.
After the Gross family escaped from Gurs, they traveled to the Southeast corner of France, then occupied by Italy, where they stayed in a hotel. Although Mussolini was allied with Hitler, the Italian diplomats in charge of the area were sympathetic towards Jewish refugees and sheltered them from the Germans. Soon, the hotel was scheduled for a raid. However, a young boy warned the family of it beforehand and they were able to flee their room.
Finally, in 1942, the family made it past Swiss border patrol and into neutral territory. They were reunited in a displaced persons camp after being separated, and returned to their home in Belgium in 1946 once the war had ended. About two months after they returned to Belgium, Fred moved to the U.S. and attended New York University, where he earned a degree in journalism. He was a journalist and editor of a newspaper in Connecticut before moving to Louisville in 1991.
“I thought his story was so incredibly interesting and unique,” said Samantha Riddle (12, HSU), “he was so optimistic and kind despite what he’s been through. It’s a very humbling experience to meet a Holocaust survivor, especially since there are so few left.”
Gross now lives in Louisville and has four children and five grandchildren. He has spoken at 50 different schools this school year alone, and enjoys sharing his story with others.
“Everybody who survived has an amazing story to tell,” said Gross, “that’s why we honor not only the victims but the survivors as well.”
Students also found hearing a firsthand account was more beneficial than just learning about the Holocaust in school.
It’s one thing learning about the Holocaust in school, but listening to a man who survived the Holocaust firsthand is an honor,” said Jordan Gould (12, J&C). “With each year passing, the remaining survivors continue to dwindle, so I feel lucky that I was given the chance to hear Mr. Gross’s story. Especially being Jewish, hearing another Jew talk about the early years of his life running from Nazi power was extremely heartbreaking.”