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Holocaust survivor returns favor to MIT’s music library

‘Ghetto pension’ pays for memorial to parents

Michael Gruenbaum, who worked in MIT’s music library while attending the school, has created a fund to buy and preserve materials by Jewish musicians. Michael Gruenbaum, who worked in MIT’s music library while attending the school, has created a fund to buy and preserve materials by Jewish musicians. (Suzanne Kreiter/Globe Staff)
By Brock Parker
Globe Correspondent / August 4, 2011

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After surviving a Nazi concentration camp as a boy and fleeing communist rule in his native Czechoslovakia, Michael Gruenbaum remembers well the first job he got upon immigrating to the United States and becoming a student at MIT.

Gruenbaum was studying engineering at the Cambridge school in the early 1950s when he heard of an opening at MIT’s Lewis Music Library, where he rushed to get an interview and landed the job.

As an immigrant, Gruenbaum said, he was thankful for the wage of 90 cents per hour that provided him much-needed spending money while he took heavy class loads in order to make up time he lost during the Holocaust.

“It was quite an accomplishment,” said Gruenbaum, now 80 years old and living in Brookline. “I don’t understand at all how I did it.”

This summer, almost 60 years after graduating from MIT with a degree in civil engineering, Gruenbaum has found a way to return the favor to the library and his alma mater while also memorializing his parents.

Using money he is receiving from the German government as reparation for the time he spent in the Terezin concentration camp in Czechoslovakia during World War II, Gruenbaum has established a fund at MIT’s music library to purchase recordings, writings, sheet music, and other materials by Jewish musicians.

The Dr. Karl and Mrs. Margaret Grünbaum Fund for Jewish Music History is the first of its kind for the library, said MIT’s music librarian, Peter Munstedt.

Gruenbaum did not wish to disclose the amount of his donation using the reparation funding, which is commonly referred to as a “ghetto pension” in reference to the Nazi government’s treatment of Jews.

Munstedt said the fund has already been used to boost the library’s collection of Jewish musicians by adding works by composer Felix Mendelssohn, conductor Leonard Bernstein, and violinist Itzhak Perlman.

“It really fits in well with a lot of the music that is being taught here,” Munstedt, of Needham, said of the fund’s acquisitions. “We can buy things we couldn’t ordinarily buy.”

Gruenbaum said he decided to create a memorial to his parents at his alma mater after receiving word in November that he would be receiving a payment from Germany. He then contacted MIT about his intention, and the school helped him decide on the Jewish music fund for the library as a fitting tribute.

Gruenbaum’s father was a lawyer in Czechoslovakia who was arrested and killed by the Nazi Gestapo in 1941 after he helped a wealthy family save their fortune by moving it to England. Shortly thereafter, Gruenbaum along with his mother and sister, Marietta, were sent to the Terezin camp, where they narrowly escaped being sent to the extermination camp for Jews at Auschwitz.

Gruenbaum said the order had already been made to send the family to Auschwitz, but before they were boarded on a train a Nazi officer relented when he was told Gruenbaum’s mother was making stuffed bears for his children as Christmas presents.

After the Russians liberated Terezin in 1945, Gruenbaum said, he and his sister and mother went back to Prague before eventually moving to the United States.

He got the music library job after his first year at MIT, and Gruenbaum said he was amazed to learn recently that his old boss at the library, Duscha Weisskopf, is alive and living in Newton.

Weisskopf, who is 86 and was the first director of the library, said she remembers Gruenbaum as an exceptionally hard-working and serious young man.

But what she didn’t know at the time was that she and Gruenbaum shared similar tragedies at the hands of the Nazis.

Weisskopf is from Germany, and she said her father, Willi Schmid, who was a music critic in Munich, was also killed by the Nazis in 1934 in a case of mistaken identity. Her family soon fled the country to escape Nazi rule.

Weisskopf said when she worked with Gruenbaum in the early 1950s she never knew he had been at a concentration camp, or that the Nazis had killed his father.

She said in the years immediately after the war, many survivors did not wish to talk about it.

“There was a great reluctance to go back to these very hard and traumatic times,” she said. “I think that is true of a lot of people.”

The librarian and her former employee finally shared their stories with each other over tea this year, after they were reunited as Gruenbaum was setting up the Jewish music history fund.

Gruenbaum said he often asks himself why he survived the Holocaust and others more talented than he did not. He credits sheer luck. But he doesn’t want what was lost to be forgotten.

That’s why Gruenbaum said he had his sons Peter and Leon perform songs at a ceremony MIT held in June to dedicate the music fund.

Gruenbaum said he wanted his sons to perform because he’s interested in showing off the talents of the second generation of Holocaust survivors that also could have been lost forever.

“I personally feel that because of the Holocaust there has been a tremendous loss of talent,” he said.

“The people that were in the Holocaust that survived have to do something in memory for the people who were in the Holocaust and did not survive.”

Brock Parker can be reached at Brock.globe@gmail.com


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