Franz Gruss

* 1931

  • But then, when the Russians left… I was curious, so I opened the door and in the next doorway there stood my German neighbour, I’d known him from before. An adult, quite a loner. People said about him: “He’s a social democrat, he’s a friend of the Czechs.” The Russians left, I opened the door and at the same moment my neighbour did, curious what was going to happen. And at that moment he was hit by a bullet from the opposite side of the street and fell to the ground not two metres from me. That was the first German I was to see being shot by Czechs. The first. And then something terrible happened. My parents were already there. And I saw people being chased down the street, beaten, saw Czechs with armbands. Today I know these were the Revolutionary Guards. And they were collecting our fellow citizens who were German from their flats, chasing them down the street and I know that down at the bottom was the church wall where they beat them to death. It was terrible to watch this going on. Suddenly my mother called from the window: “Look, there goes Pepp!” They were leading my uncle along. This was the first time my father had seen my uncle in four years. His face was already bruised and he had to push his own coffin on a cart, so they could kill him down there. A Czech woman ran out of a house, I still remember she was called Husáková, she spat on him, gave him a slap that knocked his glasses off. And he had to keep on with a spade over his shoulder, and later fell over he was so weak. They must have already given him a real beating. So they laid him down on the coffin he had been pushing and at the end of the street I’m told he was given a mercy shot.

  • Everybody just walked, walked, walked. Along the way people were left in the ditches, I don’t know what happened to them. I just know there were eventually less and less of us. And then in the cattle cars we thought: now they’ll take us somewhere. But no, the next morning we had to get out, it was just for the night, so we went on without knowing where and entered a clearing, we were in the woods. And on that large clearing we rested tiredly, everyone who had made it that far. Today I guess it could have been about six hundred of us. And then we had to get in groups of a hundred, in lines of five, five people times twenty. The first hundred had to get in line and they took them into the woods. When they left we heard explosions and suspected they were being executed and that now we would lose our lives. Then they got together another hundred, this time with sticks and beating, because everyone was scared. Off into the woods. And more explosions, which made us think we were going to be shot. But that wasn’t it. Those explosions – I’ll tell you what it was now – those were leftover mines. That had been a battlefield during the war and so there were still landmines in place. And because of these of course this or that person lost their life. That was the explosions. But first we stood in formation by the hundred. Then they did a physical search and took even the few last things each of us had on them. They took my parent’s wedding rings, documentation, everything. We had nothing, absolutely nothing. And then they told us: “Go in that direction and you’ll be back in Germany, where you belong!” The parting words I heard were: “Last one to leave gets a bullet to the head!”

  • These were horrific German songs and we used to have them on our lips and to a degree I can even recite them today. For instance we… because now I’m talking to Czechs I remember one Czech song. I can sing it to you if you want. “There was a little Jew, with sixpence in his pocket, sat down on the tram and said: vey, vey, vey. Up came the policeman, caught him by the hair. Hey you with side-locks, time to lock you up. The Jew goes in the jail, the old Jewesses cry out that they miss him so.” Today I’m ashamed to sing such a thing, but as a child, you… You see there was also Czech antisemitism, otherwise we’d never have learnt something like that. I learnt that on the street, I basically learnt Czech on the streets.

  • It’s really very important for me to say this here. I brought my kids up in the following way – I told them that the first thing you had to do was come to terms with the things done in your nation’s name. Concerning the Holocaust, that is our issue and that’s the first thing I’m handing over to you and that you should hand down to your own children to make sure nothing like that ever happens again. Because I know that all the bad things that happened to me and my parents were preceded by crimes committed in our nation’s name.

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    Praha, 20.04.2019

    duration: 01:57:35
    media recorded in project Inconvenient Mobility
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First and foremost you should deal with the evils done in your nation’s name

Franz, 1941
Franz, 1941
photo: witness archive

Franz Gruss was born on 1 January 1931 to a German family with partially Polish and Czech roots in the Moravian town of Ostrava. His mother spoke Czech, but the family talked exclusively in German. He only talked Czech with his grandmother and “on the streets”. His father was a printer, his mother ran a tailor’s shop in their spacious flat. After the German occupation of Czechoslovakia (Mr Gruss uses this term himself), the entire family were given German citizenship under the Reich. Franz entered the Deutsches Jungvolk (ages 10-14 in the Hitler Youth), his older brother was conscripted and died in 1943 in Crimea and because of his age their father was not forced to join the war. Franz has a dim recollection of his half-Jewish classmate and being told about the Ostrava synagogue fire. After the first bombing runs hit Ostrava, he left for the boarding house in Frýdek-Místek, where among other things he was subjected to military indoctrination and to this day remembers the antisemitic children’s songs. He spent the end of the war with his aunt in the town of Lom near Most. There in the Duchcov area he witnessed the lynching of a Canadian pilot, in May also the arrival of the Soviet Army, the murder of his German neighbour by Czechs as well as the procession of the local German population (including his uncle Josef) to the church, where they were murdered. On the train back home from Lom to Ostrava he and his parents were arrested in Přerov, his father imprisoned and tortured. After Franz and his mother were rejected by their Czech uncle and subject to aggressive treatment by the Revolutionary Guards (and being saved by a distant Jewish acquaintance), they were interned in the “Mexiko” camp and sent out to work the fields. He and his parents were soon declared unfit for work and marched to Opava and the next day to the borders. On the way he witnessed people falling exhausted into ditches. They were collected in a forest clearing and sent through a section of woods with landmines over the border, which was already Poland at the time. There he lived a year and a half, working for the local German farmers and interpreting for the Polish soldiers, until the final phase of the expulsion of Polish Germans, which the entire family joined. They were then deported to the GDR and Franz studied at a business school in Leipzig, until immigrating to West Germany in 1951 (at night, illegally in a cargo train). Today Franz lives near Heidelberg, after retirement he does travel guide work, especially in Poland, but also the Czech Republic. He is learning Polish and Czech. “First and foremost you should deal with the evils done in your nation’s name” he says. Among other places he also takes tourists to see Auschwitz.