Reconnecting with Family History on An Emotional Trip to Israel with USY

By Robin Gilman

My son Sam is on a journey of a lifetime on USY’s Eastern Europe/Israel Pilgrimage trip.

His trip takes him and his fellow pilgrims from Prague to Berlin, to Poland and then to Israel, visiting the very places that make the need for the State of Israel so important.

Two months prior to the trip I contacted USY Director of Teen Travel Michelle Rich to inquire if Sam’s bus could be driven past my father’s apartment in Berlin, the apartment that he and his family fled from in 1937 to escape the Nazis. She said she would try to make it happen.

My dad, Joachim Grun, was born in Berlin in 1930. My grandfather, Reinhold, owned the top floor of the building where they lived and across the street, there was a park that my father would often play in.

One day in 1937, as my father was being taken to play in the park, there appeared a sign on the park bench that read NO JEWS ALLOWED. Around that time my grandmother, Stephanie, said to her husband that they needed to leave Germany but he did not want to leave, as he was the president of the Leather Association, as well as president of his synagogue.

He and many other upper-class Germans had a very strong sense of German pride, and felt that even though they were Jews, they were foremost Germans and would not be harmed. My grandmother said that she was going to leave with their children (my father and his older sister Lily) with or without him and he eventually acquiesced.

My father and his sister were smuggled out of Germany and into Belgium in the middle of the night. My grandparents escaped, with diamonds sewn into their clothing and buried in their bodies, by walking through a field over the border to Belgium and met my father and my aunt there.

The family lived in Belgium for a year and then came to America.

Michelle delivered on her promise. Not only did Sam and his group visit my father’s apartment but Sam took photos sitting on the very park bench that his grandfather was not allowed to sit on in 1937. There is no other way I would have wanted Sam to experience such a powerful moment other than with his USY family.


During their journey, the USYers will undoubtedly visit sites and learn of the horrific stories of how Jews were killed and tortured. By visiting my dad’s apartment, USY gave my son and his fellow pilgrims the chance to connect with the Holocaust on a very personal level.

The story of my dad’s escape is now out there for everyone who was with Sam to tell. I am so proud of Sam and his fellow pilgrims for making this trip and beyond grateful that Michelle made this extra part happen not only for Sam, but for all the other teens as well.

If we as Jews do not remember and revisit the past, the memories and the stories will fade.

USY has now ensured that my dad’s memory and the story of his escape will live on for many
years to come.