A 'miracle' saved Agnes from being killed at Auschwitz

AS a baby-in-arms, Agnes Grunwald-Spier's life was saved when an unknown official generously decided to exempt all mothers with children from deportation to Auschwitz.

This 65-year-old Sheffield Holocaust survivor, who has dedicated her life to communal activities for the Jewish and non-Jewish communities, is so grateful to her unknown saviour that she has written a book on "Why some people chose to save Jews in the Holocaust".

The Other Schindlers, which describes the deeds of 30 non-Jews who risked their lives to save Jews, as well as new information on Oskar Schindler, will be published by History Press next month.

Agnes was born in Budapest in July 1944, four months after the Nazis occupied the city. But even before the German arrival, the Hungarian Nazi Arrow Cross was preparing the antisemitic ground.

Agnes' father Philipp Grunwald was taken away to a forced labour camp in 1943.

Agnes says: "My mother always told me I was conceived when he came home on leave."

But even before Agnes' birth, tragedy struck her family. Her maternal grandfather Armin Klein was eagerly awaiting the birth of his first grandchild when - just the day before her birth - he was removed by the antisemitic Arrow Cross from a bus and sent to Auschwitz where he later died.

The bus driver told her mother's sister Ibi of the deportation.

Her aunt did not want to upset her sister Leona, then giving birth. So she lied and told her that her father was ill. It was only after the war that the family learned of Armin's fate.

A college in Neath, South Wales, where Agnes recently told her story, was so moved by it that last week pupils planted a tree in his memory and asked her to open their memorial garden.

Meanwhile back in Hungary, Leona was rearing her baby in the city's ghetto to which she had been herded, when she was summoned to what she thought would be a deportation.

Fearing for her child, she wanted to leave Agnes with her paternal grandmother - her own mother had died from ill-health in 1942. But as Leona was breastfeeding, her mother-in-law was not able to help her.

Fearing for the worst, Leona went with her baby to the assembly point where the official in charge miraculously sent home all mothers with children.

Agnes said: "Ironically, had my grandmother taken me, my mother would have been deported."

She continued: "I have no means of knowing who that official was and why he did what he did. But for his actions on arrival at Auschwitz, where the deportation was heading, I would have been tossed into the fire with the other babies, murdered before I was aware of life."

Miracles for Agnes and her mother did not stop there. Agnes later learned that if not for heroic Swedish diplomat Raoul Wallenberg, the Budapest ghetto - where she and her mother endured cold and starvation from which many perished - would have been liquidated. With liberation and Leona's return to her apartment came the Russians, who burned down their neighbours' flats and raped the women.

Agnes described the scene: "Several Russian soldiers forced their way into my mother's flat, to which she had returned, demanding food.

"My mother indicated that she had none. The soldiers left and returned with an unrecognisable animal, which was probably a dog.

"They demanded my mother cook it. A good cook, she served it up to them.

"One of the soldiers came over to where I was sleeping and said he had three children. The soldiers fell asleep on the floor and left peacefully next morning."

After Philipp returned from the labour camp where he had suffered so much that he was determined not to have any more children, Leona was determined to leave Hungary because of its still-present antisemitism.

The family bribed their way out of Hungary and spent a year in a displaced persons' camp in Vienna.

Agnes' first memory was of a train journey to London where they were heading to be near Leona's sister Clara, who lived in Southgate.

They soon moved to Sutton, Surrey, where Philipp had found a job as a manufacturing jeweller. He later set up his own business, which unfortunately went badly. Fearing imprisonment because of his mounting debts, he committed suicide when Agnes was 10.

But even before that tragic incident Agnes described her childhood as "strange".

She said: "My parents never spoke about the Holocaust. I don't think anyone was interested then. We had no money and no extended family. I had quite a lonely childhood.

"We lived in the cheapest house in Sutton. It was so cheap because a murder was supposed to have taken place in it.

"After my father's death, my mother was left with lots of debts. The creditors were threatening to take the house.

"She wrote to them all telling them that there was very little equity on the property and that if they demanded their share they would get nothing and she would be on the streets. They all caved in."

Agnes admitted: "My father's death had an enormous effect on me. I still feel an enormous void at not having had a father."

Meanwhile, Leona made ends meet by dressmaking, very keen that Agnes should get a good education. She passed her 11-plus to Sutton High School and then progressed to Oxford Brookes University where she gained a BSc in economics.

She entered the civil service, working for eight years in the Post Office and Department of Energy, rising to higher executive officer.

During the first 10 years of her marriage to her "ex", Agnes was childless. Then exactly 10 years and 10 days after their wedding day, eldest son Daniel was born.

She said: "I was then pregnant five times in six years, miscarrying twice. People thought my three sons - Daniel, Benjamin and Simon - were a perfectly planned family."

Now Agnes is a proud grandmother. Daniel presented her with her grandson Jamie on New Year's Day.

It was when the family moved to the Worcestershire village of Belbroughton that Agnes threw herself into voluntary communal work.

She said: "I must have a faulty gene which makes me a committee lady. Having a lifelong love of history, which I had studied at university, I was fascinated to discover that Belbroughton was a very historical village, mentioned in the Doomsday Book.

"Just before I arrived, the village's 300-year-old scythe-making industry had just ceased. So I set up a history society in the village, which has just celebrated its 30th anniversary."

Not satisfied with that achievement, Agnes chaired Belbroughton's parish council for eight years, setting up an action group to prevent a motorway extension slicing through the village.

She also stood as an independent candidate for the district elections and was appointed a magistrate in Belbroughton and later Sheffield where the family later moved.

It was in Sheffield that Agnes threw herself into Jewish communal activities.

She said: "They were desperate for people to do jobs. I began as a parents' representative on the Hebrew Education Board and ended up as the first female president of Sheffield Representative Council and represented the synagogue on the Board of Deputies."

Agnes first became interested in Holocaust studies when, during her term of office as Rep Council president, the Anne Frank Exhibition came to Sheffield in 1995. It was at the launch that the-then 50-year-old Agnes met people from Sheffield University who suggested she study for an MA in the subject.

Her Holocaust research did not stop there but led to next month's revealing book.

Although suffering from severe hearing loss, Agnes is still as busy as ever on her voluntary activities.

They have now progressed to a national level, including work for Harriet Harman's attempts at establishing diversity in public bodies.

Agnes now divides her time between Sheffield and her flat in Primrose Hill, London, which she chose to be near her boys.

© 2010 Jewish Telegraph