By Brad Woodard
Occasionally in life, if you're lucky enough, you encounter that rare individual who alters your very perception of the world. Spend any amount of time with 86-year-old Harry Gross of Saint Paul and you'll likely agree, he's one such human being.
In every sense of the word, Harry is a survivor. And while his memory isn't what it used to be, there are some things Harry couldn't forget even if he wanted to, which is readily apparent when we sit down to talk over lunch.
"The Germans didn't have enough food for their soldiers," says Harry. "We learned how to eat grass, and you can survive on it!"
As a young man, Harry spent six and a half years in Nazi death camps, among them, Auschwitz.
"You can forgive, but you can't forget," says Harry. "There's no way."
When we first met Harry, in 1992, his granddaughter Michelle was about to embark on a journey that would alter her life, retracing her grandfather's steps on a trip to Auschwitz.
While on that trip, a young Michelle pondered the determination it must have taken to survive.
"I dont' know how my grandfather was able to make it through," she observed. "He had to have had some strength to make it."
Looking back, Michelle — now the mother of a young boy — reflects on her grandfather's stories.
"When I went on this trip, all of a sudden new stories started coming out that he'd never shared before," says Michelle.
Stories like the following.
"When we got off the train, they (the Nazi's) said, 'All men to the right. All women and children to the left,'" recalls Harry. "I had a friend of mine. He was there with his wife, and they had a baby. He says to the SS officer,'My wife has the baby. I got to help a little bit.' The guard says, 'Oh, that's all that's bothering you? We can cure that.' So he went over and grabbed the baby like you grab a chicken by the legs. He went over to the railroad car and knocked its head against the car and he says, 'Now you don't have any more problems, do you?' That was your initiation to Auschwitz."
As time in the camp progressed, so did the horrors.
"You see people falling down on the ground. You step over them like they're a piece of cord wood. You see people lying outside the barracks. It don't bother you any more. You say, 'Well, maybe tomorrow I'm laying there too.'
There's an end to everything," says Harry.
But there's no end to the memories.
"I've thought about his first wife and what she must have been like," says Michelle.
"We were married two weeks, and I never saw her again. She went to a camp and got gassed," says Harry.
Both of Harry's parents died in Nazi death camps, as did his brother, who was killed right in front of him.
"My brother was too sick to walk any more," recalls Harry. "He went down on his knees. The guard came and shot him in the head and kicked him in the ditch. And I couldn't say peep. Otherwise I wouldn't be here today."
Harry has a permanent reminder of his ordeal. It comes in the form of a tattoo on his arm.
"It's funny how he's got these numbers on his arm, and to them, he was just a number," says Michelle.
Former prisoner 104936 will always be haunted by one particular task assigned to him by his German captors.
"The toughest job I had to do in my life," says Harry. "They gave me the job to stay out in front of the gas chamber and try to make people believe they were going to take a shower."
Harry weighed a mere 78 pounds when he was finally liberated. But now, more than half a century later, he's once again fighting for his life.
"He has prostate cancer," says Michelle. "And he's choosing to let it run its course."
"Basically, Harry had said he's been to hell and back in his life, and the thought of being locked up in a nursing home was...he said he just couldn't do it. He wanted to die in his own bed," says Cindy Persson, a hospice nurse.
Still, ask Harry if he has cancer and he'll tell you 'no'.
Either he really doesn't remember, or he's choosing to try to forget," says Michelle. "It's kind of the story of his life. He's got to be able to move on."
When asked if he ever thinks about dying, Harry responds, "No, never about dying."
Harry's a survivor.
"Yep," he says. "You do what you do. Yep."
Hospice providers give Harry anywhere from a few weeks to a few months, but after all is said and done, this survivor will have left behind a legacy spanning generations.
"If he hadn't survived the Holocaust," says Michelle, "There'd be a whole other generation not here. He brought a son into the world, three grandchildren into the world and five great grandchildren. And if it wasn't for him, none of us would have existed."
After a life full of pain, Harry Gross is finally existing on his own terms.
"I can understand that he just feels it's time to start letting go," says Michelle. "And as hard as it is to let go, I know maybe it's time for him to be with all of the family members he's lost."
Brad Woodard , KARE 11 News
(Copyright 2005 by KARE. All Rights Reserved.)