Excerpt: 'Measure of a Man' by Martin Greenfield

Measure of a Man by Martin Greenfield

Excerpted from MEASURE OF A MAN: FROM AUSCHWITZ SURVIVOR TO PRESIDENTS' TAILOR by Martin Greenfield by arrangement with Regnery Publishing, Copyright © Martin Greenfield 2014.

Chapter One

Meeting Mengele

They say a man's shoes are the first thing a person notices.

I can still see his in my mind. Leather boots, dark like night, shining like mirrors. I'd never seen such shoes. In the tiny town of Pavlovo, Czechoslovakia, where I grew up, everyone had a farm, so boots were worn. But not shiny boots, not like these.

Shooting up and out the tops of his boots were billowy pants, no crease. His crisp shirt was tucked flat under his belt. A tightly tailored jacket covered in shiny buttons and pins drew my eyes up to his dark, smoothed-back hair. His elegant, calm face framed the gleaming monocle in his eye.

I did not yet know that this was the man called the "Angel of Death." I did not know that Dr. Josef Mengele was the Nazi physician who performed amputations without anesthesia, plucked out and collected blue eyeballs, tossed live babies into crackling fires, and gave twin girls candies before shooting them in the neck and using their corpses for medical experimentation.

I knew none of these things. How could I know? I was a fifteen-year-old boy. All I knew, standing in that line at Auschwitz, was that my father, Joseph Grünfeld; my mother, Tzyvia; my sisters, Simcha and Rivka; my five-year-old baby brother, Sruel Baer; and I, Maximilian, were in trouble and far from home.


I will tell you how we ended up at Auschwitz. In April 1944, on the second day of Passover, the Germans and Hungarians surrounded the Jewish homes in our village and gave us an hour to pack whatever we could carry. We came out into the street, were marched six miles, packed into cattle cars, and transported on a train to Mukacevo (then in Hungary, now in southwestern Ukraine). Just that fast.

The train chugged for twelve miles until we arrived at Mukacevo. The worst part was the imagining, the not knowing. Sometimes, when I let myself go back to Mukacevo in my mind, I wonder what thoughts and feelings must have been pulsing through my parents. Did they know the fate about to befall us? Had they hatched a plan in case our family got separated? Were they putting on a brave face for Simcha, Rivka, Sruel Baer, and me? Or did they think our time in the ghetto would be temporary, that we would go home after the war?

So many questions I still have. So many things I cannot know.

When we got to Mukacevo, the Germans herded us into a big building that housed a brick factory. The Germans had built wooden barracks all around the structure. Our family was actually lucky to be inside, because other Jewish families had to stay in tents when the barracks were full.

Even though we were in the ghetto only about a month, I was always thinking about our beautiful town of Pavlovo. You never saw a happier town than Pavlovo. We lived in the sweeping Carpathian Mountains, just a few miles from the Hungarian border. The Grünfeld family was well known and respected. My grandfather, Abraham, built our village's only synagogue. The fifty or so Jewish families that worshipped there were like one big family. On Shabbat (the Sabbath) we all gathered together. Everyone brought fresh vegetables grown from his garden, homemade breads, plum brandy, and the choicest wines. We were a tightknit little town. It was a beautiful life.

Dad's job as an industrial engineer meant he traveled almost every week. Sometimes during school breaks he would take me with him. We would sleep in tents on the job site, fish in the streams, and eat in the fields with the workers. I treasured those trips.

With Dad gone a lot, childrearing was mostly left up to my mother. She raised us well. We had our own farm, cows and chickens, and workers to take care of our land. Everything was grown fresh. Everything was our own. We used lamps and stoves for light and heat. We spoke Yiddish in our home and learned Czech in our school. When the adults didn't want us to hear something, they spoke Hungarian.

We were Orthodox but not fanatical. My parents were not nearly as religious as my mother's parents, Geitel and Fischel Berger, who lived with us. When I was three, my mother took me to heder (religious school). Because I was the oldest, she wanted me to set a good example for my siblings. I wanted so much to be a good example to them.

But none of that meant anything now. All that was over and done. We were in the Mukacevo ghetto waiting and worrying. My father was appointed a ghetto leader. He made sure families stayed together and mouths were fed. He was even free to walk in and out of the ghetto gates. He could have fled but didn't.

No one inside the ghetto spoke of corpses and crematoriums. If they thought such things, they did not speak of them, at least not to me or my brother and sisters.

Of course, already I knew the Nazis were bad. At Mukacevo I watched as three Gestapo officers wrestled my grandfather to the floor so a fourth could cut off his long, beautiful beard after he refused to shave it.

"No!" cried my grandfather. "That is my strength!"

Still, they cut it.

Such images from youth never leave the mind.

Time spent with Abraham was always an adventure. My grandfather was so big, so strong. He trained white Arabian horses. In the winter he'd hook the horses to a sleigh and pull me through the snow, the horse bells tinkling all the way. Other memories were not so idyllic. Like the time I hit my head on a stable beam while riding a horse. My grandfather bandaged my head, lifted me back on the horse, and folded my hands around the reins. It was his way of teaching me to overcome fear. Today when I see the scar in the mirror, it makes me smile.

My grandfather was brave. Once, a band of robbers had been preying on our village. When my grandfather was crossing a bridge, one of the robbers attacked him. Grandfather wrestled the man to the ground, clamped his teeth down on the robber's finger, and bit it off. He wanted them to know not to attack our family or village.

But in Mukacevo, Abraham's courage was useless against the Germans. Seeing him pinned to the ground, humiliated, the Gestapo crawling all over him and mocking his faith, I realized that my grandfather's might was no match for the force we were about to face. It was also my first of many lessons in religious hate. I could not understand the Nazi attitude. I still don't. Killing people because of their religion? It made no sense to me. When people don't think for themselves, horrible things happen. This I know.

Because my father was a ghetto leader, our family was put on the very last transport from Mukacevo to Auschwitz. We were not told where we were headed. I remember standing still and quiet inside the cattle car, my brother's small hand wrapped tight inside mine. We arrived in Auschwitz at night. The train creaked to a slow stop. We waited for the door to fling open, but it didn't. People inside our cattle car craned to look through the opening in the car. Hours passed. Left overnight, the occupants were forced to relieve themselves inside the cattle car. My family huddled together to stay warm and calm.

The next morning, rays from the sun pierced our car and warmed our bodies. Sunlight flooded our cattle car as the door unlatched and opened. I remember thinking at that moment that nothing bad could happen on a day as beautiful as this. My youthful optimism was unprepared for the reality we were about to step into.

We hopped down from the cattle cars, and gaunt, sullen prisoners hustled us away.

"Out! Out! Hurry! Hurry!" yelled the inmates.

We were told to leave behind our bags and any items of worth we brought and to join the herd ambling toward the gates. It was larceny on the grandest of scales. In an instant the Germans seized generations' worth of toil and striving. Although we didn't realize it then, Hitler's mass killing machine had been designed for ruthless efficiency, extracting every ounce of value from every possession confiscated. Prisoners with gold fillings had their teeth yanked and put in buckets of acid to burn away the dross of skin and bone; the hair shorn from our heads was used to make delayed-action bombs-nothing wasted, everything exploited.

Standing there, shuffling forward, robbery was now the least of our worries. I was too short to see over the adults. But as we got closer to the front of the line, I could make out Mengele. He did not look like the monster he was. He was handsome, even.

With just a few families now in front of us, I did not know what to do or expect. Finally, it was our family's turn. Mother clasped Rivka's hand and held my baby brother tight in her other arm. Mengele stood before us, quiet and calm. He looked us down and up before silently motioning for Mother to put my brother down. Mengele wanted to send Mother to the right and Sruel Baer to the left. But Mother would not let go of my brother; she clenched him closer. This time Mengele commanded she let go. Mother refused. So, with a flippant shrug of his shoulders, Mengele pointed for Mother, my baby brother, my younger sister Rivka, and my grandparents to all go to the left. To avoid panic or an uprising, the Germans calmly told us the separation would merely be temporary, that we would see one another and be reunited later inside.

We wouldn't.

"See you later," my mother said looking back at us over her shoulder.

"See you later," I said waving.

I did not know it then, but with a flick of his baton, Mengele had sealed our family's fate. That moment, standing there in the Auschwitz selection line, was the last time I ever saw my mother; my baby brother, Sruel Baer; or Rivka.

Mengele ordered Father, Simcha, and me to go to the right. I was glad we had Simcha with us. That is, until the men and women on the right were separated and Simcha was taken away from Dad and me. For the longest time, I could never understand why Mengele did not send her to the left to be burned. Now, however, I think I know the answer, and it haunts me: Simcha was a tall, beautiful girl with silky blond, hair-one of Mengele's genetic obsessions. Inside the camp I heard stories about the things the Germans liked to do to young, pretty Jewish girls. But no brother can let such thoughts linger too long, so I hoped it was only a rumor.

With Simcha gone, it was just Dad and me. The men and boys were then taken to an area where we were told to strip naked. Our shoes and clothes were seized. They then shaved our heads and bodies before splashing a disinfectant on us that burned like hell.

I'm not certain, but I do not think my father wanted the Germans to know we were father and son. We did, however, stand together in the tattoo line. That is why the serial numbers put into our arms were in order. My father's was "A4405." Mine was "A4406." The "A" meant Auschwitz.

At least Dad and I are still together, I remember thinking. At least Brother and Sister are with Mother, Grandfather, and Grandmother.

But those thoughts ended as quickly as they began.

A few hours later, in a quiet moment, my father pulled me close and whispered.

"I'm going to talk to you very seriously," he said. "Together, we will never survive, because working together we will suffer one for the other. We will suffer double. We must separate."

"No!" I cried. "You cannot leave me!"

"You must listen!" he said sternly. "It is the only way."

I shook my head no as if to shake away his words. The thought of his leaving me made me dizzy. It was a level of panic only a child on the edge of abandonment can feel.

"On your own, you will survive," he said. "You are young and strong, and I know you will survive. If you survive by yourself, you must honor us by living, by not feeling sorry for us. That is what you must do."

Today I am grateful for those words. They echo in my heart even still. It is a cruel thing, feeling guilty for surviving. But my father erased any future guilt and replaced it with purpose. It was a gift only a father's wisdom could give. It gave me a reason to go forward, a reason to be. It does still.

But back then I was just a stubborn teenage boy, so I argued. A lot. Still, Dad would not give in. His mind was made up, his words rehearsed. Soon, very quickly, a flood of anger filled me, because boys do not know any other way to show sadness to their father. I knew he loved me, but I could not understand. That night, lying in the dark, his decision went through my heart like a spear. How could he do this? I thought. How could he leave me alone in the world? In this hell?

The next morning, the Germans gave us our work orders. It was our second day in the camp. The soldiers asked if we knew any trades, like masonry, carpentry, medicine-that kind of thing. I was not listening so well because I was still hurting about my father's decision to split us up. But the next thing I knew, Dad grabbed my wrist and thrust it into the air.

"A4406," he said. "He is a mechanic. Very skilled."

Dad was not lying. I was always good with my hands and had worked a few years in a mechanic's garage in Hungary. Here is how that happened. When I was about twelve years old, the Germans had begun occupying some of the towns surrounding ours. Closer and closer they came. Stories began to spread about Jewish boys being taken and forced to work in German labor camps. So my father decided to send me away to Hungary to live with his cousin in Budapest. I begged my father to let my older friend Yitzhak Mermelstein come with me. Yitzhak was poor, so my father agreed to cover the cost of his train ticket.

When my father's cousin arrived at the train station in Budapest, I could instantly tell things were not going to work out. I spoke Hungarian poorly, and my father's cousin seemed annoyed with having two teenage boys intrude on his family's lovely apartment. When it came time for dinner, Yitzhak and I were put in the kitchen at the maid's table. I was too headstrong to handle such rudeness. That night, speaking in Yiddish, I told Yitzhak not to unpack.

"Tonight we run away," I said.

"Where will we go?" he asked.

"What does it matter?" I said. "We cannot stay here. We will leave tonight and find a place to stay. In the morning we will find jobs. We will be okay."

There was a nervousness in Yitzhak. His eyes always seemed on the verge of tears, and for that reason I think he found comfort in my unearned confidence.

That night we sneaked out. No note; we just left.

Yitzhak and I roamed through the night not knowing the city or the language. It was foolish and dangerous, but what did we know? We were kids. We wandered the streets for over an hour before spotting a small building bathed in a shimmering red light. We walked toward it. Standing at the door I could see Yitzhak's hands trembling, so I did the knocking. The door was whisked open, and a beautiful older girl answered. She could tell we were too young to understand what this place was, or what she and the other girls inside did for a living; we were kids, not customers. She welcomed us in and asked if we were lost or in trouble. She was kind and sweet, like an older sister. The clacking sound of high heels descending the stairs filled the room as another beautiful, kind girl in a flowing dress swished down and joined us. That night the pretty girls let us stay in an extra room. The next morning they introduced us to men who were oddly eager to please the girls by offering us jobs.

My job was working as a grease monkey repairing cars. Yitzhak did carpentry and small home repairs. Given our youthful innocence and naïveté , it took us a few days to understand that our new "sisters" were prostitutes and that our "apartment" was actually a whorehouse. But it mattered little. The girls were so nice and nurturing. They helped Yitzhak and me with our Hungarian, bought us sodas and ice cream, and took us to the beach on Sundays.

For the next three years, we lived with our surrogate sisters and made enough money to feed ourselves and earn our keep in the brothel. Life was good. Even though the Jews in Budapest were required to wear large yellow Stars of David, no one knew us, so we never wore them. Still, I wondered if the same could be said for my family back home. Each week I wrote letters to Mother and Father. I told them that Yitzhak and I had moved, but I didn't exactly tell them we were living with courtesans.

Then one day while fixing a car motor, my right hand got caught and mangled. One of our sisters rushed me to the hospital. There, I decided to write my parents a letter. Not to tell them what happened or where I was, just to keep up my correspondence. My injury meant I could not write. I showed one of my sisters a letter I had written and asked her to mimic my handwriting. She took down my message and mailed the letter from the hospital.

The instant my father saw the unfamiliar handwriting, he knew something was wrong. He hopped on a train and tracked me down at the hospital. The worst part was that he had already gone to the brothel using the return address from my letters. Someone there told him I had gotten my hand caught in a motor and was at the hospital.

Standing there, silent and stern, my father did not speak to me. He did not need to. His gaze cast more shame upon me than his words ever could. I wanted him to know the girls were like our sisters, loving and kind and helping us so much. But we never spoke of it. Instead, he took me home.

When we got back to Pavlovo, my five-year-old baby brother was hanging on me as if I were a hero. I'd been away for over half his life and hardly knew him. I had lost touch with home.

The next morning, my father explained that Jewish boys and men in nearby towns were being rounded up and taken. He and my godfather decided we should run and hide deep in the woods. I had just spent years in Budapest living a carefree life without restrictions, without fears. Now, just hours after coming home, my father was packing me up, arming me with a handgun, and taking me out in the field to practice shooting.

"I'm not going!" I said.

"Yes, you must!" Father yelled.

"I will never do that! Whatever happens to you, I want it to happen to me. You separated me from you in Budapest. I'm not going!"

"Hush! You don't understand the danger. You will obey me!"

"I will not! Not unless you go with me," I said.

I loved my father. I had missed him terribly while I was away. What was the point of being back in Pavlovo if I had to hide in the forest like some wounded animal?

The Nazis made the decision for us. The next day, the Germans and Hungarians surrounded our home and took us away.


But even if all that had not happened, even if I had not learned mechanical skills in Budapest, sitting there inside Auschwitz, my father would have probably made something up and told the Germans I possessed a trade. It was all part of his plan. Above the gates at Auschwitz was a sign. It read Arbeit macht frei ("Work makes you free"). By volunteering my skills as a mechanic, my father protected me. It was his way of marking me for the Germans as a Jew whose skills they could exploit, as one not to be burned.

As soon as my father offered up my skills, two Germans walked toward us to take me away. I then did something I should not have done, something stupid.

I ran.

Why, I do not know. Fences and soldiers were everywhere. Where did I think I was going? I cannot say. But for whatever reason, I ran.

A few paces into my sprint, I heard a barking German shepherd barreling down on me. My arms pumped hard as I stretched my stride and ran faster than I'd ever run before. The barks got louder. I snapped my head back over my shoulder and saw the dog closing in. He leapt and latched his teeth onto my leg. I looked down. The dog hung from my calf. I shoved his head with both hands. He snarled and gnashed violently as I struggled to pry him loose. The dog's jaw unlocked taking a meaty chunk with him. Blood spurted on my prisoner uniform, the dog's mouth-everywhere. I tried not to cry. Not in front of my father, not in front of the other men and boys.

The two soldiers tromped over to retrieve the dog and make sure he was uninjured. They then snatched me up off the ground and hauled me away from the group. I thought maybe that night I would join my father again, but that did not happen.

That day, my second inside Auschwitz, was the last time I ever saw my father.


The Germans dragged me to the laundry. Whether they wanted me first to perform a simpler task than mechanical work, or whether this was a punishment for trying to flee, I do not know. But after my sprinting stunt I was eager to show the Germans I was a hard worker who could be of use.

My first job in the camps was washing Nazi uniforms. I knew nothing of the task. In Pavlovo we had a maid who washed all my clothes. Still, I grabbed a brush and an SS soldier's shirt and scrubbed hard and fast. After working my way about halfway through the pile, it happened. I scrubbed so hard the bristles ripped the collar. The face of the pacing soldier at my station flushed red. I do not remember his words, but I remember his baton. He beat me until I bled. He needed to make an example out of me for the other prisoners. When he was finished with my flogging, he balled up the torn shirt and threw it in my face before huffing off.

The shirt was trash to the soldier but not to me. I kept it. Working in the laundry was a nice man who knew how to sew. He gave me a needle and thread and taught me how to sew a simple stitch. I mended the shirt. To this day I still don't know why, but when I got up the courage, I slipped the soldier's shirt on and wore it under my striped prisoner uniform. It was a crazy thing to do, because none of the other prisoners had a shirt. But I did it anyhow. From that day on, the soldiers treated me a little bit better. They thought I was somebody-someone who mattered, someone not to be killed. The prisoners treated me a little bit better as well. You must remember that some of the kapos (supervisors) were Jewish prisoners, but they could be brutal. They wanted to please the Germans, so some of them would be hard on us so the Germans would not punish them. Sometimes the kapos were harsher than some of the Germans. When I had my soldier shirt on, however, that did not happen. When I wore the shirt, the kapos didn't mess with me.

The shirt means something, I thought. And so I wore the shirt. In fact, I ripped another one on purpose so I could have two.

The day I first wore that shirt was the day I learned clothes possess power. Clothes don't just "make the man," they can save the man. They did for me.

Of course, receiving your first tailoring lesson inside a Nazi concentration camp was hardly the ideal apprenticeship. I would have much preferred to hone my craft on Savile Row or in the mills of Milan. Looking back, though, that moment in the camps marked the beginning of the rest of my life. Strangely enough, two ripped Nazi shirts helped this Jew build America's most famous and successful custom suit company.

God has a wonderful sense of a humor.

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