Survivor, now in Cobb, recalls Holocaust
By TAMMY CLABBY
For the Journal-Constitution
In the darkness of a sealed Bucharest apartment during
World War II, Andre Kessler most remembers the sounds
he heard as a tiny, Jewish toddler in hiding: his
mother constantly telling him to be quiet while the
squeals of other children playing outside seeped in
through the blackened windows and covered doorjambs,
or the marching of the Romanian Iron Guard, Nazi
sympathizers who wore hobnail boots and who could
easily threaten the lives of Kessler and his mother.
There were also the bombs.
the Parliament and King's Palace in Bucharest, near
our apartment, was bombed by day by the Americans, the
British by night, and ultimately the Russians who were
coming in from the east," says Kessler, now 68.
One night, a bomb blew out one of the blackened
windows in their building deemed vacant by the
Romanian government, which had warned residents to
flee the frequent shelling.
Kessler, then 3, and his mother, Olga, went into
hiding for 18 months, protected by the gentile
supervisor of their apartment building, who Kessler
says also saved two other Jewish families.
G[h]eorg[h]eiu Pop[e]scu is now known as a "righteous
gentile" or "someone who saved Jews during the
Holocaust without seeking anything for himself."
Popscu, Kessler said, provided the families with food,
but made sure none of those in hiding knew about the
others. He feared that if members of one family were
discovered, they would be forced to reveal the
whereabouts of the others.
Now a resident of east Cobb, Kessler is one of almost
three dozen Holocaust survivors who tell their stories
as emissaries from the William Breman Jewish Heritage
Museum in Atlanta. He spoke last week to about 500
members of the congregation of Cumming First United
Methodist Church, where he received a standing ovation
following his remarks.
"I am actually one of the youngest survivors now [in
Georgia] and I travel the state to witness, with the
hope that nothing like it will ever happen again,"
"The oldest survivors are now in their 70s and 80s. We
are losing them."
Kessler said there are at least 60 Web sites on the
Internet that deny the Holocaust ever happened.
"It is important to carry on," he said. "There were 6
million Jews killed, but another 5 million gypsies,
Jehovah's Witnesses, gays and others who were simply
marked for death. The Nazis kept records. We can get
the figures from their own records."
Hiding after father's arrest
Kessler and his mother went into hiding shortly after
the 1942 arrest of his father, Ladislas Grunfeld, a
well-known soccer player who had owned two men's shirt
Kessler's father was taken to a slave labor camp in a
region known as Transnistria. It is believed thousands
of Jews perished in camps in the region. For 18 months
he was held there and forced to dig ditches, shovel
snow and make equipment repairs.
"My father was large," Kessler said. But a diet of
thin soup and bread made primarily of sawdust had
wrecked the 6-foot-4, 246-pound man Kessler remembered.
"When he was freed and finally returned, he weighed
only 132 pounds. I hid behind Mother in fear when he
came into our apartment. I did not recognize him."
During their time in hiding in Bucharest, Kessler and
his mother lived in one tiny room of the family
apartment near the bathroom, which provided water,
when it was running. Food provided by Popscu
consisted, largely, of cornmeal thinned by water.
Kessler's mother spent her days teaching her young son
to read and write while, unbeknownst to them, other
relatives on both sides of the family were being
rounded up and shipped to Nazi death camps.
"My mother finally was able to count them up, when
years later we arrived in America. In all she lost 120
relatives, primarily at Auschwitz — 80 percent of her
When Romania fell to Communist rule in 1947, the
family fled. Ultimately, Kessler's parents divorced
and his father stayed in Paris. Kessler and his mother
were smuggled to Austria and later made their way to
the United States via an old troop ship.
While in Austria, Kessler says he was forced to carry
an identity card, which he held up and described for
the Methodist congregation.
"Imagine — I was only 10 years old and had to carry a
card that stated it was required for foreigners and
stateless persons," Kessler said, "and we had to pay for it."
Height leads to hoops
In the United States, Kessler and his mother lived in
a rough neighborhood in Queens. Kessler, like his
father before him, is tall — 6-foot-5. And as an
athletically talented kid who was able to fight,
Kessler admits to getting into serious trouble.
"Just before I graduated high school, I was taken
before a judge and given a choice: jail or the Navy,"
says Kessler. He chose the military and began a career
as a corpsman.
Ultimately, he says, a coach at New York University,
who had followed his sports prowess, worked for his
release from the military and secured a basketball
scholarship for Kessler at NYU.
After graduating from college, Kessler was drafted by
the NBA and played two years for the Philadelphia
Warriors (now the Golden State Warriors). There, he
played alongside basketball icon Wilt Chamberlain.
"The team's traveling secretary would often book us
into the same hotel room," says Kessler, "to put a
Jewish kid and a black kid together. They thought it
was an insult to both of us."
Ultimately, Kessler became a sales manager and in 1965
moved to Atlanta, married and raised two children.
Now, he averages two appearances a week for Holocaust
education, often for schoolchildren. He wants people
to know that during the Holocaust there were five
types of people: victims, perpetrators, bystanders,
rescuers and liberators.
"The overwhelming majority," Kessler said sadly, "were
bystanders. If you see something wrong, you must speak
up. Don't be a bystander. Sixty-three years after the
Holocaust, there is a genocide going on in Darfur.
Over 200,000 are dead and 2 million displaced, but the
world stands by deaf, dumb and blind."
Andre Kessler speaks regularly to prescheduled groups
at the William Breman Jewish Heritage Museum in
Atlanta. For more information, contact Judi Ayal at
Sadly, those who dare to speak up are shouted down, ridiculed, and hated even more than the perpetrators. When they are finally listened to, it is often too late. The clock is running out on so many things. When history repeats, does the majority ever notice?