Remembering Holocaust survivor Sol Gringlas

Tue, 09/29/2020 - 8:40am

USC Shoah Foundation is saddened to learn of the recent passing of Sol Gringlas, who survived both the Nordhausen and Auschwitz concentration camps.

Sol passed away in May of 2020. He was 100.

Born on August 22, 1919 in Ostrowiec, Poland, Sol lived in an apartment with his parents, four brothers and a sister. His parents worked together in a local shop selling shoes. He grew up in an observant household that had Friday night dinners, lit Sabbath candles, attended Shul and prayed together.

As a young boy, he experienced firsthand the cruelty of antisemitism. While his neighborhood was a majority Jewish population, the school he attended was not. Much like the changing political stance of Europe, antisemitism rose amongst his peers in school. Tensions often times resulted in physical altercations, “you had to be careful, or they’d throw rocks.” Eventually the hostility became too much and Sol ceased his schooling at the age of 14.

His elder brother worked in a tailor shop and decided to teach Sol how to sew. Without knowing, his brother had imparted a skill in Sol that would later save his life. They worked side by side with each other for a year before the 1939 invasion of Poland. When the Nazis marched into his small town of Ostrowiec, they immediately forced the Jewish people to work in factories. In exchange, the workers were promised that no harm would fall upon their families. Unfortunately, that promise was not kept.

The Nazis forced the Jews to build barracks where hundreds of people were made to work and live under the watchful eyes of Ukrainian guards. Sol worked in the factory for one year without family contact before the barracks were liquidated and he was deported to Auschwitz in 1943.

Crammed into an open train car with 200 other captives, he spent a week in the winter traveling with no food and no knowledge of where he was headed. With only the clothes on his back, Sol was able to smuggle a photo of his parents into his possession before his departure.

In his testimony, he recalled the horrible conditions of the train car. “There was nowhere to sit. I was sitting on dead bodies.” He remembered thinking he would be just another corpse that someone would eventually sit on. As they approached their first stop, people would throw food on the them as they passed under a bridge. Sol and the remaining passengers were transported to Auschwitz where they were fed their only meal.

Upon arrival, he was flabbergasted by the mountain of shoes and clothes that signified the number of murdered men, women, and children. With the horrifying images laid out in front of them, a friend turned to him and said “Sol, this is the end,” resigned to the reality of the situation, he responded “I’ve lost my family, I don’t care about me.”

Immediately after being escorted off the trains the prisoners were forced to strip and lay out on the cold ground for examination. When a guard forced him to open his hands, it would be the last time he saw his parents’ photo. They were given striped uniforms to wear and taken to receive their numbers. He was branded with the number B4907.

Days later, a guard came and rounded up 2,000 people to work. Sol and the other prisoners were then transported from Auschwitz to the Buna subcamp.

One day, another inmate informed him of his brother’s arrival. Joe was his younger brother whom he had not seen since being a factory worker in Ostrowiec. In his testimony, he recalled feeling immeasurable happiness in finally being reunited with his brother.

Sol also became a tailor for the block commander. After working a shift, he would return and work for the commander by altering guard uniforms and stitching numbers onto stripped uniforms that would later be worn by fellow prisoners. In return, the commander gave him a second portion of soup. He reserved that portion to share with his brother Joe, which he describes in this clip.

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The two brothers together survived the death march when the Nazis evacuated Auschwitz, as the Soviet army approached the camp. They were then transported, by train for one week without food, to the Dora Nordhausen slave labor camp built into the mountains in Germany. Sol worked grueling 8-hour shifts in the mountain range digging stones to build an underground factory.

In the coming days, the camp would face bombings from the Americans. When the bombings began, he and his brother would often take cover in the kitchen. One night during the bombings, exhausted and hopeless, Sol turned to Joe and said “you know what? Let’s lay on the floor and let the walls fall on us so we won’t have to suffer anymore.” Joe refused and instead they fled the camp and found a basement to sleep in for the night. When morning came the next day, the brothers learned of the SS Guards murdering any remaining survivors in the barracks who had not died in the bombings. From then on, the bombings became more frequent and the Gringlas brothers often hid among the pipes in the kitchen. The night before they were liberated, Sol was hit in the leg and had pieces of shrapnel preventing him from walking. It was not until the next day that they were found and saved by American soldiers.

Sol was finally liberated in April 1945.

He was sent to a field hospital to recover before being discharged. The brothers returned to their hometown in Poland in search of their family. They found no one and decided to leave for a kibbutz in Warsaw.

It was at this camp that he met his soon-to-be wife Paula. She worked as a kitchen manager and immediately caught his interest. “Out of all the girls… she was the best for me.” The young couple moved to a kibbutz in Landsberg, Germany and were married by an Orthodox rabbi months later. Shortly thereafter, Paula gave birth to their first daughter Anne.

The family of three called Germany home for two years before Sol received an opportunity to work as a tailor in a men’s clothing factory in Portland, Oregon. They remained in Oregon for eight months until they moved to Detroit, MI in order to be closer to his cousin who also survived the Holocaust.

Sol worked for Van Horn’s Men’s Wear in Michigan for the next 32 years of his life. In that time, his family grew to welcome two more children: Helene and Leonard.

He was married for sixty years and is survived by his three children, six grandchildren, and four great grandchildren. Sol will be greatly missed and forever in our memories.