Thelma Gruenbaum; recounted survival ordeal

By Gloria Negri, Globe Staff | June 12, 2006

Thelma Gruenbaum was always an imaginative weaver of tales.

As a child, she would entrance her sister with stories about toys and other flights of fancy. In adulthood, she found one true story — the story of an immense human tragedy — so compelling she had to write a book about it.

“Mother felt she had to write the book for two reasons. It was my father’s personal story and that the telling of the story would prevent it from ever happening again,” said her son David, of Santa Rosa, Calif.

“Nesarim: Child Survivors of Terezin” is the story of 10 young Czechs of Jewish heritage who survived a Nazi concentration camp near Prague. In the last paragraph of the book, Mrs. Gruenbaum sets down her reason for writing it.

“In one generation,” she wrote, “there will be no Holocaust survivors still alive to bear witness. That is why the lessons of this tragedy must be repeated over and over again, assuring that people throughout the world understand that it must never happen again.”

Thelma (Yutan) Gruenbaum was putting the finishing touches on her book and beginning another, on being a grandparent, 3 1/2 years ago when she was diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or Lou Gehrig’s disease, according to her husband, Michael. She died of ALS on June 2 at the Hebrew Rehabilitation Center in Roslindale. She was 74 and lived in Brookline.

Mrs. Gruenbaum first learned of Terezin, her son said, after she married and found out that her husband had been among nine boys and a 20-year-old counselor who had survived the camp. During their almost three-year imprisonment, the boys, then ages 12 to 14, and the counselor forged a bond that would remain through a lifetime.

Mrs. Gruenbaum dedicated the book to her mother-in-law, Margaret Gruenbaum, “whose persistence and sacrifices helped my husband and his sister survive the Nazi concentration camp of Terezin.”

Michael Gruenbaum said his father, a prominent Czech lawyer, was arrested by the Gestapo in November 1941 and taken to a fortress called Kleine Festung next to the Terezin prison camp, where he died a month later. In November 1942, Michael Gruenbaum, his sister, and their mother were taken to Terezin and held in separate quarters for 2 1/2 years before they were liberated by the Russians, he said.

There were times, he recalled, when the prisoners were gathered in a hall and those who would be put on trains to Auschwitz — and almost certainly their deaths — were chosen. He and his sister were spared such a fate, he said, because of “the perseverance” of their mother, who implored everyone she could to keep them off the trains.

She was saved from being sent to Auschwitz because she was working with a Dutch artist, a Jew also imprisoned at the camp, who was making teddy bears for Christmas for the children of German soldiers, he said. The artist kept her there by telling the Germans how important she was to the teddy bear project.

At the camp, Michael Gruenbaum became part of a group that named itself “Nesarim,” Hebrew for “Eagles.” They depended on one another, along with their counselor, for moral support.

In a 2004 review of the book, The Jerusalem Post wrote: “Each man, in the book, describes his experiences and life, and how their lives were formed in Room 7. . . . These interviews are not mere boxes of memories, closed at liberation, but tell about how their experiences kept them connected and how their lives were influenced.” The camp was liberated by the Russian Army in May 1945.

“Nesarim” was published in 2004 by Vallentine Mitchell of Great Britain.

For a long time, Michael Gruenbaum said, he did not tell his wife the entire story of his incarceration. “One day we were in Switzerland in the Alps and I said `OK, why don’t you turn on the tape recorder.’ That’s how she found out the rest of it.”

The Gruenbaums traveled to Germany, Brazil, Australia, Canada, and Switzerland to interview the nine other men.

It was “a cathartic experience” for most, said Paul Weiner of New York , one of the survivors, in a telephone interview. “I think it was important for our children to know what happened. Thelma put everything into it and traveled all over the world to get our stories.”

Some of the 30 other prisoners who had been held in Room 7, he said, were sent to Auschwitz, where they probably died.

Mrs. Gruenbaum was born in Springfield, Ill., to Eli and Fannie (Wright) Yutan. After graduating from Springfield High School as valedictorian of her class, she enrolled at the University of Chicago, where she earned a bachelor’s degree in 1952 and a master’s degree in 1956. Her field was human development. In 2001, her alma mater honored her with its Alumnae Service Medal for her work in alumnae affairs in the Boston area.

She met her future husband, an MIT graduate and civil engineer, at a performance of Handel’s “Messiah” at the University of Chicago and they were married in 1956.

In a school essay he wrote before meeting her, Michael Gruenbaum wrote about his ideal woman, he said: “She would be bright, have a great sense of humor, and love music and children, and I found her in Thelma.”

The next year the couple moved east, where Michael Gruenbaum had a fellowship at Yale University to study highway traffic. They moved to the Boston area in 1960.

“Thelma really hit her stride in creative writing when they moved to Boston,” said her sister, Bernice Firestone of Glencoe, Ill. She wrote and self-published her first book, “Before 1776: The Massachusetts Bay Colony from Founding to Revolution” at the time of the country’s bicentennial. Her next was “To Music & Children With Love! Reflections for Parents & Teachers”

Her last, with her husband’s assistance in conducting interviews, would have been about being a grandparent and how different generations remember their grandparents.

“Thelma was working on the book up until the last four or five months,” said Natalie Rothstein of Brookline, a member of a writing club with Mrs. Gruenbaum. “She had a little machine that looked like a typewriter that she worked at. She was very valiant.”

In addition to her husband, son, and sister, Mrs. Gruenbaum leaves two other sons, Peter of Seattle and Leon of New York , and three grandchildren.

Services have been held.