In March 1925, when Abraham (“Ali”) Grossman was born in the rural town of Güstrow in northeastern Germany, his parents gave him the name Adolf. They had moved there from Poland a few years earlier in order to improve their economic situation, his father owning a leather goods store. “Until the Nazis came to power, he thought he was a German like everyone else,” family members say of Grossman, who died of the coronavirus earlier this month at age 95.
Things changed, however, when people in the street and at school started calling him a “dirty Jew.” Grossman didn’t take that lying down. “I had fistfights with members of the Hitler Youth,” he recounted. On the eve of World War II, he fled to London with his brother on a Kindertransport train. As the train left his homeland, he stuck his head out of the window and yelled: “Let Germany die!”
His sister Tzili and his mother also took a train a few years later, but their destination was Auschwitz. “They were murdered by the same Germans who were led by a monster whose name he shared during his German childhood,” his grandson Rotem told Haaretz.
Grossman spent the war years in England and joined the Jewish Brigade – which operated as part of the British Army – toward the end of the war.
His pride knew no bounds. “Two thousand years after Bar Kochba commanded a Jewish army, another army of Jewish soldiers arose, founded by the British and serving as an independent fighting force,” he would later write. “On their sleeves was the Jewish flag in blue and white, with a Magen David symbol sewn in golden thread in the middle. The uniforms carried Hebrew insignia indicating that they were part of a Jewish combat unit.”
He served with the Jewish Brigade in Italy, Belgium and the Netherlands. One of his way stations was Landsberg Prison, Bavaria, where Hitler was imprisoned and wrote “Mein Kampf” in the 1920s. It had become a camp for displaced Holocaust survivors by this time, and Grossman later emotionally described what transpired there in great detail.
“The Brigade column entered through the main gate and onto a wide plaza. Loudly, we sang ‘Hevenu Shalom Aleichem’ [the song sung to welcome Shabbat] to the thousands of people milling around – men, women and children. They were all remnants of their communities, with cropped hair and numbers tattooed on their arms.”
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He continued: “The crying and screaming resonated far and wide, like thunder. People climbed onto our vehicles, grabbing the soldiers’ weapons, clutching them to their chests, smothering them with kisses. They kissed the Magen David symbols painted on the vehicles. They hugged the soldiers and wet their uniforms with their tears. They were excited to see young, handsome and strong Jewish soldiers, armed with guns. In their wildest dreams, they couldn’t have imagined there were Jewish soldiers with insignia and a Jewish flag, fighting the accursed German enemy in order to avenge the atrocities perpetrated against them.
“We succeeded in restoring the dignity and sense of security that had been taken from them,” he wrote, adding: “How could anyone murder people like them, who had never wronged anyone, killing them in cold blood for no reason?”
Knife to the heart
His Jewish Brigade unit’s next stop was Belgium, where Grossman tried to find out the fate of his mother, sister and other relatives who had escaped there before the Holocaust began. Along with another Brigade soldier, he went to the address where he believed his family had lived. “With pounding heart, I stood in front of the entrance,” he recounted in his memoir. “I knocked on the door and a short, thin man came out. When he saw two men in uniform, he paled. In a trembling voice and with sweat on his brow, he asked what we wanted.” When asked if he knew the Grossman family, the man said no and started to sweat profusely. It later emerged that he was suspected of collaborating with the Germans.
Suddenly, an elderly Jewish man emerged from a neighboring apartment, saying in Yiddish that he knew the Grossman family and they had indeed lived there in 1942. The man recommended going to the local archive, which kept documents from the war.
“On the first page I encountered two photographs, of my mother and sister,” Grossman wrote. “On their faces were bashful and embarrassed smiles. Those smiles were like a knife to my heart. In the depths of my heart I felt pity and a deep pain, helplessness and despair.”
One of the pages in that file contained the letter “V,” written in red ink: this was the German abbreviation for “extermination.”
“I covered my eyes and cried,” Grossman wrote. “I was three years too late to save my mother and sister.”
He met his wife, Genya, while in Europe; she was from Berlin, the daughter of parents who had come from Poland. In 1947, they both sailed to Israel aboard the Transylvania, a ship carrying illegal immigrants. They joined the kibbutz at Yavneh (north of Ashdod), where he acquired hero status after shooting down an Egyptian plane that was bombing the kibbutz during the 1948 War of Independence.
He had been assigned to man the antiaircraft gun due to his wartime experience with machine guns. On the afternoon of May 24, 1948, an Egyptian Spitfire circled above the communal dining hall, dropping two bombs. “The two bombs missed their target but hit an adjacent building, killing three people,” Grossman related.
The diners fled and Grossman rushed to man his position. “I had a feeling he’d be back after loading up,” he said. Less than a hour later, he was proved right: “I squeezed the trigger and emptied the whole magazine,”Grossman recounted. “I saw the evil, smiling face of the pilot. The bullets hit the cockpit, the wings and the fuselage, causing the plane to crash in a nearby field.”
A while later, he and his wife were among the founders of Kibbutz Lavi in northern Israel. In 1956, they left the north and headed for the Negev, where they became one of the founding families of Kiryat Gat. Grossman worked there as a plumber. His family says he built the infrastructure for the city’s water and sewage systems. He acquired the nickname “Ali” when he started employing Arab workers from the nearby Gaza Strip.
Grossman also had other military experiences he was proud of: He served as the Israeli army officer catering to the needs of Ashkelon and Kiryat Gat’s draftees when away from their base. He also participated in several wars and battles.
Genya died prematurely in 1975 and her husband then spent 20 years living in the United States before eventually returning to Israel. A few weeks ago, he was hospitalized in a coronavirus unit and succumbed to the disease.
He is survived by two sons, five grandchildren and four great-grandchildren.