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Kentucky author recounts family's flight from Nazis

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By PETER SMITH
The Courier-Journal
LOUISVILLE, Ky. (AP) - Fred Gross was 3 years old when Germany
invaded his native Belgium. He has a patchwork of memories of the
traumas that followed:
His mother desperately covering him in a ditch as German
warplanes strafed their refugee column.
Her Yiddish admonitions, "Hob nicht kein moirDe" - "Don't be
afraid" - which he echoed back when her own strength wavered.
The suffocating smell of the internment camp where the French
detained Jewish refugees as the Nazis closed in - the same camp his
family escaped through the shrewd daring of his teenage brother.
Gross, now of Louisville, tells of his family's World War II
ordeal in a new book, "One Step Ahead of Hitler: A Jewish Child's
Journey Through France," published by Mercer University press.
It describes daring treks from city to city, hiding everywhere
from a barn to an abandoned castle, and receiving help from heroic
strangers while outwitting hostile Nazi collaborators.
Because his memories were those seen through a child's eyes,
Gross constructed his new Holocaust memoir in large part from other
sources.
The retired journalist, who regularly takes part in
Louisville-area Holocaust-education efforts, said he began his
project by interviewing his mother and two older brothers more than
two decades ago.
"That's different from other Holocaust memoirs," he said. "It
includes their memories and also my dawning memories."
He also researched documents, some at the Fort Knox library,
others on the Internet and elsewhere, to put his family's desperate
flight to safety in the context of the larger military history of
the war in Europe.
Among his discoveries was a brief failure of nerve on Hitler's
part - halting his army's advance through a marshy area of Belgium
for a day - that might have given the Gross family just enough time
to escape.
"I kept in mind I was a reporter, and as a reporter I was
obligated to tell the truth," Gross said. "I couldn't believe
what we went through after I discovered from my mother and brother
what they told me, the narrow escapes."
For example, his family was interned in a French camp that at
the time was a cross between a refugee shelter and a prison.
His teenage brother, Sam, escaped and bravely persuaded the
local government prefect - who would later be a notorious
collaborator in the Holocaust - to sign a transit pass enabling him
to return to the camp and free his family.
Had the family stayed longer in the camp, they likely would have
been transported to Nazi death camps.
Later, the family fled Nice on a tip that authorities would be
rounding up Jews from their hotel the next day. They were sheltered
by a Catholic friend.
Sam eventually escaped to neutral Portugal, and the rest of the
family crossed into neutral Switzerland. They gained permission
because the boys' grandmother lived there, a bitter irony since she
had gone to Zurich after abandoning her daughter decades earlier.
Gross' mother told him she saw Swiss guards forcing many other
Jews to remain in France because they had no Swiss relatives - and
Gross said he corroborated his mother's memories with an official
Swiss report.
After the war, the family found their way to the United States,
where Gross studied journalism at New York University and had a
long career as a reporter for the Journal-Courier of New Haven,
Conn.
He moved to Louisville in the early 1990s with his wife, a
native of southern Indiana.
Gross said he carefully applied his journalistic skills in
particular because of the damaging revelations of some purported
Holocaust memoirs that were found to be frauds, such as one of an
alleged survivor being nurtured by wolves in the woods.
"That really upset me, because it was taking advantage of the
trauma of people who really experienced it," he said.
In a foreword, Gushee said the memoir demonstrates the best and
worst of those caught up in the Holocaust - from the French
collaborators who eagerly helped round up Jews to the French farmer
who hid the Gross family in his barn.
Fred Whittaker, a teacher at St. Francis of Assisi School in
Louisville and an advocate for greater Holocaust education,
endorsed the book, saying that it showed that Gross' "lifetime of
living would not be a lifetime of forgetting" those who didn't
survive the Holocaust.
Gross said he kept a photograph of himself as a young boy at his
computer during the writing process.
"I wanted that child to find peace," he said.

(Copyright 2009 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)


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