The Holocaust, a legacy and an unprecedented American dream: Dan Grunfeld

Book reviewed here by Nazi Hunter Dr. Efraim Zuroff

(First published in The Jerusalem Report)

By all accounts, Dan Grunfeld is a young man with a very bright future ahead of him. Born in 1984 to a highly successful couple, his father a basketball star who parlayed his athletic success into a job as a top NBA executive, his mother was the daughter of a founding partner of one of the largest law firms in Wisconsin, his future looked quite rosy. Add the facts that Dan is highly intelligent, an extremely talented writer, a hard worker and an individual with empathy and the right sensitivities regarding life and its various challenges, his journey into adulthood should have been a case of very smooth sailing from childhood all the way to the present. A book about his life, however, would most probably have been incredibly boring and not worth the read.

Surviving to Thriving. Says the author: “It’s a happy, hopeful story of basketball, perseverance, inspiration. Yes, I discovered tears, but I discovered a lot of love and laughs.”

Yet Dan’s life and career became much more challenging than he ever could have imagined, because of his family’s Jewish origin, the trials and tribulations and horrific losses of parents and siblings experienced by his Hungarian Holocaust survivor grandparents, and the unique basketball career in America of his father Ernie, who achieved incredible success on and off the court, following his immigration from Communist Romania to the United States at the age of nine. Rather than purposely ignoring or conveniently forgetting  these painful aspects of his family history, Dan embraced them all, and they became highly significant factors, which motivated him to try and emulate his father’s athletic achievements, even though his natural athletic abilities did not measure up to those of his Dad. It also made him determined to share his grandparents’ Holocaust and postwar travails in great detail to highlight their incredible resilience and fortitude. In fact, to the best of my knowledge, this is the first book about American college and pro basketball, whose real heroes are an elderly couple of Holocaust survivors.

Eye on the Ball. Ernie Grunfeld hugs his children, Rebecca, 12, and the author, Danny, 9, at a news conference in Harrison, New York, July 21, 1993. (AP Photo/Mark Lennihan

The story of the Grunfeld family begins in the village of Micula, in rural Transylvania, then part of Romania, on the border with Hungary. As Dan describes it:

 “there was natural beauty, but no running water, electricity or cars…Toilets were holes in the ground with makeshift wooden seats.”

Anyu, Dan’s grandmother was one of ten children, five boys and five girls. The family was modern Orthodox and relatively well-off, and appeared to be living an almost idyllic, if technologically primitive, life. The problems began in 1940 when Northern Transylvania was transferred from Romania to Hungary, in the framework of the Second Vienna Award. Within a year, the Hungarians began drafting Jewish males of military age to serve in the labor battalions, many of which were sent to accompany the Hungarian soldiers serving on the Eastern front. Their conditions were absolutely terrible, and Anyu’s oldest brother Ernie was purposely poisoned to death by a sadistic antisemitic commander in a labor camp in Ukraine.

Tragedy to Trophies. Ernie Grunfeld with his mother Anyu (Lily) Grunfeld in front of his trophy case. Ernie was named after his mother’s oldest brother who was purposely poisoned to death by a sadistic anti-Semitic commander in a labor camp in Ukraine. (Courtesy)

These problems paled, however, to the horrific situation following the Nazi invasion of Hungary on March 19, 1944. Within two months, the Nazis began rounding up all the Jews living outside Budapest, and deporting them to be murdered in Auschwitz. In Dan’s detailed description of Anyu’s survival in the Hungarian capital, his grandmother showed incredible resourcefulness, not only in saving herself and her sisters, but assisting other Jews by obtaining for them the Schutz-Passe documents issued by Swedish diplomat Raul Wallenberg, which spared their bearers from deportation.

Swedish Savior. When Dan and his grandmother Anyu visit the Holocaust Museum, the first place they go is the corner honoring Swedish diplomat Raoul Wallenberg, who saved Anyu’s life twice as she evaded the Nazis in the Budapest ghetto. “My grandmother still talks about him to this day.”

After the Russians liberated Budapest, Anyu headed home with one of her siblings, only to realize that most of her family had been murdered and almost every single one of their possessions had been robbed by their non-Jewish neighbors. She married a fellow survivor and tried to rebuild her life, but they realized that Communist Romania was not an ideal place to raise a Jewish family, and so after about a decade, they were able to emigrate to the United States and start all over again in Forest Hills, Queens. There the same values of hard work and resourcefulness served them well, and even the tragic loss of one of their two sons to leukemia did not break their spirits. It was in New York City, that their son Ernie achieved the American dream, starring in basketball at Forest Hills High, a success he replicated at University of Tennessee, which paved the way for his NBA career on and off the court, and set Dan on his path to try and match his father’s successes.

In a League of his Own. Ernie Grunfeld, star of the New York Knicks in October 22, 1982 is the only son of Holocaust survivors known to play in the National Basketball Association — or any other major American sports league.
(AP Photo/Joe Giza)

As someone who grew up in New York City fantasizing of achieving basketball history as the first Orthodox Jew to play in the NBA, despite totally lacking the skills required, I very much identified with Dan Grunfeld‘s quest to duplicate his father’s basketball career.

Aiming High. Ernie Grunfeld lifting Dan as a young boy who would emerge himself as a  pro basketball player in Israel, Europe and the United States, and the tournament MVP for the gold-medal-winning Team USA in the 2009 Maccabi Games. (Courtesy)

His quest was noble, albeit somewhat obsessive, but he did make it to the pros, at least in Europe. But as Dan himself will admit, and as the readers of his book will learn,  basketball is not the most important thing in life. The fact that he was able to beautifully convey his family history and remain loyal to his Jewish heritage, is the most valuable lesson from his journey.

Triumph Books: Chicago, Illinois, 2021, 2022, $20.00

By the Grace of the Game: The Holocaust, A Basketball Legacy, and an Unprecedented American Dream

About the writer:

Dr. Efraim Zuroff is the chief Nazi-hunter of the Simon Wiesenthal Center and the director of the Center’s Israel Office and Eastern European Affairs.

While the mission of Lay of the Land (LotL) is to provide a wide and diverse perspective of affairs in Israel, the Middle East and the Jewish world, the opinions, beliefs and viewpoints expressed by its various writers are not necessarily ones of the owners and management of LOTL but of the writers themselves.  LotL endeavours to the best of its ability to credit the use of all known photographs to the photographer and/or owner of such photographs (0&EO).

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