NEW MARKET — When the Nazis summoned most children age 12 and younger to be exterminated at Auschwitz in July 1944, Frank Grunwald was placed in a line with other preteens to be marched off to his death.
“I was on death row,” he said. “I was headed for the gas chamber.”
Grunwald, who appeared at Southmont High School over the weekend, had been deported to the camp along with his family in 1942, three years after their Czechoslovakian town was invaded by German troops.
At least 5,000 prisoners were being killed per day, including Grunwald’s mother, Vilma, and his older brother, John. As he waited for his own fate in the chamber, a German guard who had employed the 11-year-old as a messenger approached.
“When he saw me standing on death row, he came up to me and… moved me to a group of other kids who he knew was going to survive,” Grunwald, then known as Misa, said.
He was later sent to a camp in Austria, where prisoners had no access to food. By the time U.S. troops liberated the camp on May 4, 1945, one-third of the 12,000-13,000 prisoners were dead.
“Internally, I was celebrating,” Grunwald said of his reaction to leaving the camp. “I knew the war was over. For me, it was over.”
Grunwald, now 86, spoke about his years as a prisoner in an interview following a screening of the film “They Played for their Lives,” which tells the story of how Grunwald and other children relied on their musical talents to survive in the camps.
Sunday was International Holocaust Remembrance Day, marking the 74th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau.
About 200 people gathered in the auditorium for the screening, sponsored by the Montgomery County Community Foundation. After the credits finished rolling, Grunwald walked onto the stage and unpacked his accordion.
“I used to play the piano, and then I switched to the accordion when I was about 15 or 16 years old,” Grunwald said. “And I really never played anything other than American music on the accordion, even when I was living in Europe.”
His father, Kurt, was an expert classical pianist. Grunwald remembers his parents together at the piano playing selections from Frederic Chopin.
“Music was really the essence of what our life was about,” he said in the film.
Grunwald first picked up the accordion when he was five or six years old. With their instruments confiscated at Auschwitz, Grunwald and his brother sang and hummed to pass the time.
For the survivors, music provided an escape from the surroundings in the camp.
“You forget that you’re hungry, or that it’s crowded and dirty,” Greta Klinsgberg, a pianist, said in the film. “Music can take you away.”
Several of the musicians featured died before the film was released in 2017. Grunwald, who lives in Indianapolis, said it’s important for younger generations to receive firsthand accounts from the genocide. He’s scheduled to speak at the Greater Lafayette Holocaust Remembrance Conference in April.
“It’s truly a black eye to humanity,” he said of the Holocaust, “and the more I study the Holocaust, I realize how vicious it was and how unfair it was.”