George Grosman (born Jiří Grosman), 1953
George Grosman was born in Prague in 1953. During WWII, his father, Ladislav, was drafted into the Slovak army and then sent to a forced labor camp because he was Jewish. His mother, Edith, who was also Jewish, spent most of the War in Auschwitz. After the War, George’s parents moved to Prague where Edith worked as a biology researcher and Ladislav found work in the publishing industry as an editor and writer. George’s father became well-known after writing the screenplay for the Oscar-winning film The Shop on Main Street [Obchod na korze]. George has early memories of walking the streets of Prague with his nanny and spending his summers in the country. He attended three different schools in Prague where he enjoyed history, grammar, and the humanities. However, George’s main interests lay in music. At the age of nine, he began learning classical guitar, and one of his teachers introduced him to more popular music. George spent many weekends and summers at Dobříš Castle, which was owned by the Czechoslovak Writers Union of which his father was a member. In 1967, it was there that George joined his first band.
After the Warsaw Pact invasion in August 1968, George’s family made plans to leave the country. George himself forged a letter from his grandfather living in Israel requesting that the family come to visit him. They were able to secure exit visas, and left Czechoslovakia on September 3, 1968. After about a month in Vienna, George and his family arrived in Tel Aviv in October 1968. Although at first George had a difficult time adjusting to life in Israel, he says he eventually learned both Hebrew and English, made some good friends, and got involved with local musicians. George studied English literature and linguistics at Bar Ilan University in Tel Aviv and spent a short stint in the Israeli army.
In 1977, George moved to London to continue his education. He was there for three years and remembers it as “the best time of his life.” In 1980, George secured a position as a teaching assistant for Slavic languages at the University of Toronto. He got married and had two daughters, and eventually became involved in the Czech community there, specifically joining Nové Divadlo [New Theatre]. In 1989, he moved to Reykjavík, Iceland, for a few years, and recalls hearing about the Velvet Revolution there, listening to a short-wave radio. George first returned to Czechoslovakia in 1991, and says that he was able to enter the country at the same border crossing he had used to leave 23 years earlier. Today, George is a professional musician. He frequently performs for Czech audiences throughout North America. He splits his time between Toronto, Canada, and Orlando, Florida.
George discusses his father’s experiences during WWII
“My dad was born in 1921, which made him exactly army age in 1939 when the war broke out; he was 18 years old. So he got drafted into the Slovak army, but being Jewish, they were actually drafted into a special regiment and they were given different uniforms, and instead of given guns they were given brooms, as a means of humiliation. And then they were sent to forced labor in a cihelna, a brick factory, and he was there, I think until about 1941 – I’m not really sure on the dates, my mother would know – and then he and a few friends escaped from there. And for the rest of the war were hiding in the mountains, and towards the end of the war, he joined the partisans and he was fighting with them for maybe the last six months of the war.”
During the War, George’s mother spent several years in Auschwitz
“She was shipped out [to Auschwitz] with the first women’s transport, so there were men who had been shipped out earlier. She was shipped out in June of 1942, she and her sister. Her sister perished in the camp; she was killed, and my mom survived. She has a very strong spirit, and you can imagine it was absolutely terrible. She went through at least one, if not two, bouts of typhoid fever. Even with your fever up in the low 40s Celsius – it’s high – she had to go out and they would support each other and show up for the morning roll call. Because as long as you showed up for the roll call, then during the day there was a kind of way where they could hide you, so the rest would kind of walk out and you would creep back – she managed to do this for a few days.
As she gets older she talks about it more and more. It’s unimaginable torture. That’s really the only word. We say unimaginable this, unimaginable that. This is truly unimaginable, what that meant for three years. And she was there until what we now call the march of death, the death march, which was the evacuation of Auschwitz by the Germans. The sick and dying were left behind; many of them just died, some survived. And this was in January 1945 and with temperatures below 20, 25, 30 below, they would walk, trudge through snow towards Germany. Of course they never made it, many of them died. If you tried to escape you were shot on the spot. After three months of this, so now we’re maybe into late March, it was completely obvious the war was lost and the Germans just scattered and left the prisoners. And then my mom made her way from Auschwitz, which is really not far from the Slovak border to Humenné, and it took her like six weeks, because all the rail lines were disrupted. But she met very good people along the way who helped her and fed her, and so she made it back home.”
In the early 1950s, George’s uncle was arrested
“My father believed in communism. He thought, after the War – it was the Soviet soldiers that liberated him, it was the Soviet soldiers that liberated Auschwitz, and so, my mother wasn’t involved at all, but my father was a member of the Party. And he believed that this is the right way to go. And now, bang, his brother gets arrested and he says, ‘No, this is not possible, this is wrong.’ So he traveled to Bratislava to see his brother and they wouldn’t let him see him, so he traveled back. Long story short, his brother was imprisoned, well, he wasn’t in prison, he was in custody, for two years without ever being charged with anything. Let go after two years, his health broken, and never being able to regain the same kind of position. So it took him another five to ten years to be able to get a decent job and get back into his career. And at that point, my father says this is just BS, you know, this whole communism thing is crap. And from that point on, he didn’t want anything to do with it. So on paper, yes, he was still a member of the Party, you couldn’t just quit. But, from very early on, I knew that this was not an ideology he believed in because he knew his brother was innocent.”
George’s family received money a few times a year from relatives living abroad
“The people from the United States sent us an occasional check for about 50 bucks. Now, for 50 bucks, you couldn’t do anything with the dollars, but you could take the dollars to the bank – and when I say bank, in all of Prague, with its million inhabitants, were maybe three banks. Right, the banks didn’t exist, you dealt with cash. You got your pay slip with the cash, no checks, no Visa card, nothing. So you would take the 50 dollars, you would go to the bank. For that you would get this special currency called bony. And with the bony, you could go to a Tuzex [store]. And so you went to a special store called Tuzex, and in the Tuzex, you could buy stuff that you couldn’t get anywhere else. So you could get Nestlé chocolate milk – phenomenal, I loved it, like a powdered chocolate. Of course, foreign cigarettes. My parents were both smokers, so Marlboro cigarettes or Dunhills, British cigarettes. What else? Coffee, instant coffee. Later on, Beatles records. So that made us a little bit better off because for the 50 bucks, I think one dollar was four bons, so that was 200 bons, and you could put together a pretty nice shopping basket for that. A packet of cigarettes was about five bons, so you know.”
The music scene in Prague was an important part of George’s life in 1968
“Did I want to leave? Of course I didn’t want to leave; I had my band. It was so exciting, I mean, the time was unbelievable. The amount of music that was happening, the bands that were happening. There was a new, even two new, music publications, there was a new record company that started putting out rock music, I started to write my own tunes. I mean, it was unbelievably exciting. Who wants to leave that?”
George identifies with several heritages, having lived all over the world
“I am a Czech-Jewish guy. That’s my origin. Is that my identity? Well, I travel with a Canadian passport. I cannot be just associated with the Czech community. Even if I terribly wanted to – and I don’t – but even if I did, I can’t, because I spent from 15 to 24 in Israel. And that’s a very, very crucial part of your life. So I have to be associated with that as well. I have very, very good friends in Iceland who I correspond with, who I visit, who visit me. Although I’m not Icelandic in any way, but I speak the language, I understand it, and there’s a part of me – through my daughters, through the fact that I got divorced there, I had relationships there with other people – that is also very strong. So that pulls me too.”
As a musician, George draws from his immigration experience
“The immigration informs it [my music] a lot, because it really formed me. It is this fundamental sadness that I have that has never left me, even though I love joking and I love life and I’m not a person that goes home and cries every day. But the sadness is there and when I write, it just comes out. And it comes out of this disruption of my life at the age of 15 which will never go away as long as I live. So I may not actually write about it, but it’s there. It’s even there when I even sing to crowds.”
Category: Oral History