Monthly Letter
A Polish Coincidence

July 2024

Just days before I was to lead 34 pilgrims to Auschwitz, I received my old school newsletter. This included an obituary of a biology teacher, Harry Grenville, who died recently aged 92. This paragraph was news to me: “Harry had a classically English name but spoke with a distinctive accent, not immediately identifiable; or not until a colleague, a modern languages teacher, asked him: ‘Which part of Germany are you from?’ Harry never talked about his background. Born in 1926 near Stuttgart, into a middle-class Jewish family, Harry's original name was Heinz Willi Greilsamer. After Kristallnacht, when it became clear that the family would be in danger if they remained in Germany, his parents arranged for Heinz (12) and his sister Hannah (10) to move to Britain on the Kindertransport. They were never to see them again.

Living in Cornwall a few years later Heinz changed his name to Henry William Grenville.” So, when I went to Auschwitz I looked for signs that his parents may have been among the 1.1 million people who were exterminated there. There’s not a lot left: as our Soviet allies advanced in January 1945 the retreating Nazis tried to destroy all evidence of the death camp; but the Russians did discover hundreds of pairs of spectacles and even more pairs of shoes. These remains are displayed today, along with a number of suitcases.

My eyes were drawn to one with a name on: Jacob Greilsamer. Could that be a relation of my biology teacher? I learned that Greilsamer is an uncommon German name, so returned to Krakow half hoping that I had seen Mr Grenville’s father’s case.

That evening one of my pilgrims looked up Greilsamer on the internet to discover that Jacob was indeed Mr Grenville’s father; a newspaper article he found on Google was from just 11 years ago, when Mr Grenville, in his early 80s, was contacted by a Polish researcher about the suitcase and learned what he had long presumed, that both his parents and one of his grandmothers had indeed died at Auschwitz in 1944.

The Very Rev Geoffrey Marshall

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