The Shoah struck our Jewish community in so many different ways. I had the privilege this past summer in being part of an interview of a beautiful woman named Eleanora Grad. Her survival story is not the typical one that you have heard but it is an important one both in its historical context and the power of individual fortitude and perseverance.
Rohatyn, where my paternal grandfather was born was a shtetl in Galizia. In the course of exploring my family roots I came across a Google group called the Rohatyn Shtetl Research Group. This group organized by Dr. Alex Feller, brings together genealogists from around the world researching their Rohatyn ancestors.
This past August the International Association of Jewish Genealogical Societies held its annual convention in Boston. There I met Alex and he invited me to attend an interview with a Survivor that was born in Rohatyn and lived in the Boston area. We set out to meet the Survivor Eleanora Grad with Chaya Rosen, who has experience interviewing Survivors for the Shoah Foundation.
We began the interview talking about life before the war. As descendants of people who lived in the shtetl we were all curious as to what life was like there. Eleanor has a most vivid memory and her descriptions of everyday life, the rituals of the people, and celebrations of the holidays were quite enjoyable for her to discuss and for us to hear. She was so proud to show us pictures of her family as she painted a colorful picture of life in the town.
Eleanor was 11 when World War II broke out and Rohatyn was occupied by the Soviets. Her father, Saul Grad, owned what today we would call a department store. A man complained to the authorities that Saul overcharged him for some merchandise and Saul was arrested and sentenced without representation to 10 years of hard labor in Kuybyshev. Shortly afterwards, this same man went to the Russians and petitioned them to give him the Grad house on the premise that the Grad family should not be able to enjoy the ill-gotten gains of Saul.
One night shortly after, the family was awoken by armed Soviet officials and told that they had to leave immediately. Without time to pack they were hustled to the train station and loaded onto a cattle car. With no idea of their destination they traveled in brutal conditions for 11 days. Eventually they arrived in Kazakhstan.
There, Eleanor lived with her family until 1947. Their home was a bare hut. They slept on the floor and had no heat to warm themselves through the harsh winters. There was no outhouse and they relieved themselves in any spot they could find outside. All members of the family including the children and elderly grandparents had to work digging ditches, cleaning stables and in the fields. They were given meager rations of food and endured 7 years of near-starvation. Eleanor suffered though bouts of typhus and malaria. She described the difference between how the Jews were treated by the Nazis and the Russians this way; “The Germans killed the Jews. They (the Russians) let us live and suffer.”
Eventually the family was released, and made its way to a Displaced Persons Camp in Germany. Eleanor and her two sisters received visas before their parents and arrived in New York in 1949. Her parents came the next year.
Eleanor is very proud of a poem she wrote that sums up her feelings toward the United States:
My Adopted Country
She welcomed me, her shores open wide, only a decade ago, when exhausted, weak and frightened I came to her peaceful shores.
She gave me shelter and helped me forget the painful past I left behind. She managed to restore new faith I thought forever lost from my young and aching heart.
The opportunities she offered me were wonderful and many. And soon, the country I was once dreaming of became reality for me.
I’ll never forget what I owe her and grateful I’ll always be to a wonderful country called America,
Who once took a chance on me!
Her generation of Jews lost their childhood and suffered greatly yet they fought on and accomplished so much. I was honored to hear her story and I feel the need to spread it. The Simon Wiesenthal Center has published her poem in the archives of works by Survivors. I am also working on getting it read into the Congressional Record. She does not understand what all the fuss is about, but is happy to hear about it.
Eleanor is truly a treasure. I know there are many other “treasures” out there in Israel and the Diaspora from whom we can learn so much. Eleanor said, “when people hear my story they comment how I don’t look like I went though such hardship. How am I supposed to look” she asked. My answer to that question is that she looks like a “remarkable” woman.