On Holocaust Remembrance Day, I'll think of my great-uncle and his incredible story of survival

On Holocaust Remembrance Day – beginning at sundown Wednesday and ending at sundown Thursday – I will be thinking of a hero of the French Resistance who I visited just a few days ago in Israel, and how he led hundreds of Jewish families on a perilous journey from Nazi-occupied France to the safety of neutral Switzerland during World War II.

The hero is my 96-year-old great-uncle, Jacques Graubart. His Resistance exploits – beginning when he was only 18 – went on for nearly three years and ended abruptly when he was captured by the Nazis. Then he miraculously survived for nearly three years in four concentration camps, including Auschwitz and Buchenwald.

His captivity included a forced march from one concentration camp to another that began with about 1,400 prisoners and ended with only Uncle Jacques and three others still alive.

Those of us not yet born at the time often think of the Holocaust in big-picture terms – 6 million Jews murdered, along with millions more innocent victims killed at the hands of the Nazis – while the battles and bombings of World War II raged on. But as this nightmare was unfolding, millions of individual nightmares were going on as well, each a small piece of the overall hell on Earth that was taking place.

(Jacques Graubart and his mother in 1927.)

Like many, I have read books and seen films about the Holocaust. I have visited Holocaust museums in the U.S., Israel and elsewhere. But nothing brings this most terrible of times alive like talking to someone who lived through it – someone like my great-uncle.

Uncle Jacques is the subject of a 2006 biography, “Won’t Forgive, Can’t Forget.”  Here’s a brief video clip from 2012 of him and other survivors talking about concentration camps in France.

Today my great-uncle lives in a retirement community in Israel and describes himself as “an antiquity.” Asked the secret of his longevity, he replies, with the dark humor that has always been his trademark: “I do not want to give my enemies the satisfaction of my demise.”

And then he gives the real answer:  “I’m cheating. I should be down there,” he says, pointing to the ground. “But I love life.”

Uncle Jacques has the satisfaction of having outlived virtually all of those who sought to kill him and the rest of the world’s Jews. There is no explanation of why he was not murdered by Nazis.

He’s always been my hero, from the time I first saw him prior to the 1968 Olympics to this day.

I first met my great-uncle – my grandfather’s brother – in 1968, when I was 10. He was on his way to the Mexico City Olympics. As a child vaguely aware of his exploits in the World War II and his survival in concentration camps, I wasn’t sure if this strong and powerful man was going to the Games as a spectator or as a competitor.

Uncle Jacques, in many ways, had adventures that rivaled those of James Bond and other fictional heroes. He bribed the right people to smuggle Jews out of France. He snuck his cousin out of the country by bringing him an especially tailored pilot’s uniform – that way, the cousin could pretend to be part of a flight crew, since his passport had been confiscated.

(Jaqcques Graubart at Versailles in the 1980s.)

The first time I saw the number the Nazis had tattooed on Uncle Jacques’ wrist was in 1972. It was impossible for me at 14, or even now, to reconcile that handsome, charismatic, athletic man I knew with the idea that he had been through the Holocaust – confined in conditions unfit for animals, never knowing if he would live to see another day.

Uncle Jacques was born in Poland in 1921 and followed his older brother – my grandfather, Walter Graubart – to Belgium, where he worked as a diamond polisher for a very low wage. He once told me that at the end of the work week he had enough move money left over for either a meat meal or a movie, but never both. “I didn’t need the Nazis to teach me how to starve,” he said.

When World War II began in 1939, my great-uncle first traveled to Eyesden, Belgium, a small town on the Dutch border when my grandparents and my mother, then age 3, lived. He tried to save some of the stock from their clothing store after they fled to France, but no luck. So Uncle Jacques headed to the south of France to join the Resistance.

According to his biographer, David Bloomberg, my great-uncle had to demonstrate his bona fides to join the Resistance by executing a German prisoner. While saving lives in the Resistance, he was frequently arrested by the French police, but would always escape, sometimes by jumping off the back of a truck at a switchback and rolling to freedom. 

In 1981, when I was studying in Jerusalem, Uncle Jacques took me to Yad Vashem, Israel’s Holocaust memorial, and pointed to a huge map of Europe featuring the locations of all the concentration camps.

“First they brought me here,” he said, pointing. “Then they took me here, then there, and there….”

After he was liberated from Buchenwald, Uncle Jacques eventually returned to the diamond business. This time, nobody needed to teach him how to starve, because he became one of the world’s most successful dealers. He helped originate the diamond trade in Israel in the 1950s and became the official price-setter for all of Zaire’s diamond output.

Jacques Graubart, Michael Levin, and Levin's aunt Pearl Green in 1984.

Jacques Graubart, Michael Levin, and Levin's aunt Pearl Green in 1984.

Uncle Jacques never completed high school but he is an avid reader in half a dozen languages and a great lover of people. His circle of friends included diplomats, government leaders, best-selling authors, CEOs, and others at the highest levels of society around the world.

He was an extreme athlete before the term had ever been conceived, a crack skier, and a distance swimmer who would head out into the freezing water off the Belgian coast until he was a little more than a speck visible from shore. If the Nazis couldn’t kill him, what could?

In 1995, Uncle Jacques gave two dinners in Brussels, one of which I attended, to celebrate the 50th anniversary of his liberation from Buchenwald. U.S. Ambassador to the European Union Stuart Eizenstat spoke, as did diplomats, politicians, and friends from three continents.

Among the guests was Bill Mackenzie, a U.S. Army soldier who was among the American troops liberating Buchenwald. Mackenzie disclaimed any notion that he was a hero, saying that he had just done what he was supposed to do.

And the same thing could be said of Jacques. At 18, he didn’t have to risk his life to save the lives of hundreds. After Liberation, he didn’t have to become one of Europe’s leading political and charitable donors.

For Jews, those who went through the Holocaust are our “greatest generation.” I think often of how I never would have been born if my mother not escaped the gas chambers when she was a little girl. And it’s impossible to even imagine how different the world would be today if more had survived, along with their children, grandchildren and generations beyond.

Sadly, man’s inhumanity to man seems to know no limits and is not confined to the past. Seeing horrific video and photos of men, women and children killed by poison gas in Syria just days ago is a reminder of this brutal reality.

So while we set aside one day a year to remember the Holocaust, it is a period we must remember every day, to do all we can to stop history from repeating itself – not just for Jews, but for other persecuted groups as well.