Sidi Grunstein Gluck: More than half a dozen camps, then liberation
“Whose child?” Dr. Josef Mengele demanded, looking down at Sidi Grunstein’s younger sister, Vera, age 6, who stood before him flanked by Sidi, 21, and their mother, tightly gripping their hands. No one spoke, and Mengele quickly dispatched them to a line of women and children. It was early June 1944, and their transport from Velky Sevlus, Czechoslovakia, had just pulled up to the Auschwitz-Birkenau platform, where they had been abruptly separated from Sidi’s father and three of her brothers. As Sidi continued walking with her mother and sister in the direction Mengele indicated, a man — “I don’t know who he was,” Sidi said — suddenly grabbed her, throwing her into another line. “Everything was happening so fast, I didn’t have time to even think about it,” she said.
Sidi was born in Velky Sevlus, Czechoslovakia (now Vynohradiv, Ukraine), on July 28, 1922, to Pinchas and Shari Grunstein. She was the oldest of six children, two girls and four boys.
Well-to-do, the family lived in a large house, where Pinchas’ dental office and waiting room occupied the front rooms. While not strictly observant, the Grunstein family celebrated Shabbat and Jewish holidays.
After completing Jewish elementary school, at 12, Sidi was sent to the Hebrew Gymnasium in Munkacs. There, in addition to the literature and history classes she loved, she was selected to take after-school art classes with the principal, himself an artist. These were her first formal art classes, although, she recalled, “I always scribbled and drew pictures.”
In March 1939, the Hungarians occupied Velky Sevlus, renaming it Nagyszollos. Still, the family was able to live a relatively calm life. Sidi, in fact, graduated from the gymnasium in 1941, at 18, then returned home to work tutoring children.
One day in 1942, Sidi’s mother summoned her from the backyard to meet a visitor, a rabbi’s wife. “Show the lady your hand,” Shari said. Sidi refused, extending it only after Shari insisted. The woman traced two long, straight lines along Sidi’s palm, explaining that she rarely saw a hand like Sidi’s, and that she would live a long time and go to America. “That fact may have actually kept me alive,” Sidi said.
On March 19, 1944, the Germans occupied Hungary, and the following month, the Jews of Velky Sevlus were ordered into a ghetto. All eight Grunsteins lived in one room, sleeping on the floor.
In May, as evacuations from the ghetto began, Sidi’s next-younger brother, Jean, decided to go into hiding with some friends. He asked to bring Sidi and two brothers with him, but his father refused. “Either you survive or we’ll survive,” Pinchas said, determined to keep the family together.
Soon after, on June 3, Sidi’s family, except for Jean, was marched to the train station and loaded onto the last transport leaving Velky Sevlus, huddling together in a corner of the cramped cattle car. “I want you to remember one thing,” Pinchas told his children. “What you put in here,” he pointed to his head, “no one can take away.”
After Sidi was separated from her family at Auschwitz — “I never saw them again,” she said — she and the other young women selected to work were processed. They spent two nights sleeping outside near the latrines, and then were then transferred to an empty barracks, where they slept on the floor.
On the morning of June 9, guards awakened the prisoners by hosing them down and then loading them onto cattle cars. They traveled two days to Riga, Latvia, where they were marched to a concentration camp, which Sidi believes was Kaiserwald and where she worked in a factory disassembling batteries.
Soon after, Sidi and others were moved, again by cattle car, to Dundaga, a subcamp of Kaiserwald in northwest Latvia, and a few days later to Kurbe, another labor camp. There, they built their own tents and filled potato sacks with pine needles to serve as mattresses.
After three or four weeks, the prisoners were marched farther north to Poperwahlen, a labor camp where they worked cutting down trees. On Sidi’s birthday, a girl ran away. The guards found her, brought her back and beat her. The block leader, a Jewish girl from Germany, then pulled Sidi from the line, and, perhaps because Sidi had been working next to the escapee, beat Sidi, as well.
But after several weeks, with the Soviets approaching, the Poperwahlen prisoners were marched to the port city of Libau, then transported by ship to the Stutthof concentration camp, 22 miles east of Danzig. Sidi heard that Esther Solomon, her best friend from Velky Sevlus, was in another section of the camp, and the two met at a wire fence that divided their sections. At Esther’s invitation, Sidi decided to join Esther’s group, somehow sneaking into her camp.
But the person whose place Sidi was supposed to be taking had not left the camp. And at the next appel (roll call), the guards counted and recounted, finding one person too many. Finally, somebody pointed to Sidi, who was pulled from the line, beaten with a baton and returned to her camp. When Sidi later ventured to the fence to speak with Esther, she learned Esther’s whole group had been taken away.
Around October, Sidi was transferred with others to Sophienwalde, a Stutthof subcamp in eastern Poland. As the cold weather set in, Sidi was put to work building a railroad that, she believes, went nowhere. Then she was assigned to work for three female SS officers who lived in a barracks adjoining hers, cleaning and cooking for them.
In February 1945, as Sophienwalde was being evacuated, Sidi refused to go, remaining instead in the barracks with the SS women. “I don’t care what happens. I’m not going to march again,” she told them. Sidi heard shooting. When it stopped, she and other prisoners who had hidden emerged, rejoicing. But Soviet soldiers soon arrived and, continuing to hold them prisoner, trucked them to the Lauenburg concentration camp.
Then, on March 10, 1945, Lauenberg was officially liberated by the Soviets. But soon after the prisoners were freed, Sidi said, she and a group of 10 friends were all seized and raped by Soviet soldiers. Sidi doesn’t remember where her rapist dragged her, but she recalls crying and saying, “We were praying to be liberated by you. And this is what you do to us.” The soldier responded that she was free and would go on to live her life. “We’re still soldiers,” he said. “We could be killed tomorrow.”
A couple of weeks later, suffering from a high fever and infection caused by the rape, Sidi was hospitalized for four weeks or more.
Sidi then traveled to Velky Sevlus. She didn’t find any relatives, but she did learn that Jean had survived. As she made her way to see him in Bucharest, Romania, she changed trains in Satu Mare, where she ran into him as he was switching trains to visit her in Velky Sevlus.
Later, with Jean focused on reaching Palestine, Sidi sneaked across the border to Prague, where, keeping a promise to her father to finish her education, she studied art at Charles University.
Then, under the sponsorship of an aunt, Sidi immigrated to the United States, arriving in New York on April 8, 1948.
Later that year, Sidi moved to Schenectady, N.Y., where she taught preschool and Hebrew school until 1951. During this time, she worked hard to lose her accent so people wouldn’t question her about her background.
After a stay in Montreal, Sidi returned to New York, in June 1952. The following year, on July 4, she met Peter Gluck, a survivor from Czechoslovakia. They married on Dec. 23, 1956, and moved to Columbus, Ohio, where Peter worked as a chemical engineer at the Battelle Memorial Institute.
Sidi again taught preschool and Hebrew school. She then enrolled at Ohio State University, earning a bachelor’s degree in education in 1963, a master’s in painting in 1968, and a master’s of fine arts in 1971.
In 1972, Sidi and Peter moved to Los Angeles, where Sidi taught art at Charles Drew Middle School from 1975 to 1992.
Peter died on Jan. 28, 2015.
Sidi’s artwork, which consists primarily of abstract and often large oils, acrylics and prints, has been displayed in exhibitions as well as private and institutional collections. Only one painting, “The March,” directly depicts the Holocaust. “I did not try to tell my sad story in my artwork,” she said.
Until Aug. 14, more than 20 of Sidi’s oil paintings and prints, made from the late 1950s to the early 1970s, are on display at the Alice-Rice Gallery in Laguna Beach.
While Sidi, now 94, has always answered specific questions about her Holocaust experiences, she has agreed to be interviewed in depth only twice: by the USC Shoah Foundation in 1995 and by the Jewish Journal for this profile.
“I didn’t think too much about what happened to me, but at night I was always crying in my heart for losing everybody,” she said. “To this day, I’m still dreaming how I lost the family.”
The Alice-Rice Gallery is located at 484 N. Coast Highway in Laguna Beach. For more information, call (562) 480-6177.