With a needle and thread, Jack Grinbaum sewed himself out of a concentration camp during War World II and into a new life in Wauwatosa.
The Poland-born Jew learned how to tailor at a young age and his skills were handy while living through the atrocities of the Holocaust.
Grinbaum was first arrested by German police in 1940 and was transferred from forced labor camps — where he completed grueling work like building tunnels — to concentration camps.
Grinbaum’s entire story — including his long and prosperous life after the war — is detailed in a new book written by his grandson, David Weiss, titled “The Everyday Remember; Holocaust Legacy.”
Weiss said his grandfather was fearless and once approached a German guard, pointing out that he looked cold. He offered to sew a liner inside the man’s jacket and boots. The guard said OK. Grinbaum spent as much as possible inside the camp’s tailor shop.
When Grinbaum heard the war would soon be ending, he sewed himself a Nazi uniform, stole a gun and escaped from camp, fearing the Nazis would try to kill as many people as possible before the war officially ended. He was later liberated by U.S. soldiers.
The book also details the life of Genia Grinbaum, Weiss’ grandmother, another Holocaust survivor. Genia would suffer from what her family suspected was bi-polar disorder after witnessing the killing of her parents and losing up to 40 family members during the Holocaust. Genia spent the entire war living in the sub-camps of Auschwitz before she was eventually liberated by Russians.
The couple met while living in a displaced persons camp in Germany. After they were wed, they lived and worked in Belgium from 1946 to 1961 before moving permanently to Wisconsin in 1961, thanks to a sponsorship from a Synagogue in Milwaukee.
Though they spoke little English, the couple convinced a landlord to let them open a tailoring shop on West North Avenue in Wauwatosa. Soon, Jack’s Expert Tailoring, at 7221 W. North Ave., was open for business.
“He loved the way the street looked, how you could see into the stores, the variety of the stores,” Weiss said of the Wauwatosa street.
And business was good.
Jack’s Expert Tailoring
His shop, which only employed European tailors, had no price tags — everything was negotiable and customers could only pay in cash. Sometimes, checks were accepted.
His customer base was wide — from policemen to the widely known businessman and politician Herb Kohl.
Kohl, a frequent shopper, visited the Wauwatosa store one day, looking to walk away with a haul of suits and ties. When it was time to pay for the goods, he knew Grinbaum was overcharging him.
“He said, ‘You’re charging me more because I’m rich,’” Weiss, a Brookfield resident, said with a smile on his face, recalling the moment. “My grandpa said, ‘I’m giving you a good deal!’”
All of a sudden, one of the European tailors in the back of the shop, overhearing the conversations, yelled out in Polish about Kohl, “Throw the asshole out of here!”
Kohl, the son of a Polish Jewish immigrant, understood the snide comment perfectly. Although the two remained good friends, Kohl took his business elsewhere that day.
Running the shop
Genia was a whiz at math and often dealt with the transactions, but her primary job was acting as a homemaker. When she was in high spirits, she would wake up at 4 a.m. to cook for her family and her employees. If a customer walked into the shop and asked about the delicious smell of food, she never hesitated to offer them a bite to eat, Weiss said.
Just like the name of his shop, Jack was an expert tailor and enjoyed making people feel good about the way they looked. He cut a hole in the back wall, and, when he was working in the back, he often peered through it when he heard the bell of the front door ring.
His Jewish identity
Jack Grinbaum withheld the fact that he was Jewish from his customers, Weiss said.
“He always felt that people who weren’t Jewish were anti-Semitic,” Weiss said. “He thought he would lose customers if they felt he was Jewish.”
It wasn’t until a couple years before Jack Grinbaum died in 2012, that Weiss sat down with his grandfather and filmed him talking about his experiences in the Holocaust and the years that followed. Weiss knew he would later write a book about his grandparents, but decided to wait until they passed away.
His grandfather — a natural performer who loved the spotlight — couldn’t bear to walk down the street and have people approach him, probing him for details of the Holocaust.
“He did not want to start to cry,” Weiss said. “He wanted to have control of the narrative. He wanted control. He didn’t want to be caught off guard.”
But the book is much more than just a story about the Holocaust, it’s about the life his grandparents built afterward.
“A lot of people just want to hear about the atrocities, and it’s in there,” Weiss said of his book. “But, to me, it’s about what did you do afterward.”
GET THE BOOK
Weiss’ book, “The Everyday Remember; Holocaust Legacy,” is available for Kindle and Nook devices.
The book may also be ordered online at bit.ly/1PixNxr.