Fred Gross had already done enough research to publish a book on his family’s daring two-year escape from the Nazis in World War II.
But while searching the Internet this year for photos to help illustrate talks he gives to students on Holocaust awareness, the Louisville, Ky., author made his most stunning discovery — a news photo showing his whole family aboard a truck crowded with refugees, arriving in a small French town.
The discovery came after Gross typed in a search for Belgian refugees fleeing into France in May 1940 and retrieved a thumbnail image of the photo.
Gross clicked to enlarge the photo and saw, seated on the tailgate of the truck, his own parents.
Wedged in a corner of the truck stood the 3-year-old Fred, close to his teenaged brother Sam. Their middle brother, Leo, stood nearby.
“I was overwhelmed with joy,” Fred Gross, now 75, said of finding the photo, which was taken by the Keystone news agency. Its collection is now part of the Getty Images archive.
“What is fascinating is that all five of us are on that truck, and all five of us lived,” he said. “There were very few families that were able to escape intact.”
Fred Gross and his brother Sam said in interviews that they have no doubt of the identities of all five family members in the photo. They match family photos taken of them from around that time.
Documenting his family’s multiple narrow escapes to freedom — and making sure younger generations learn the lessons of the Holocaust — has become a passion for Fred, a now-retired reporter for the Journal-Courier of New Haven, Conn.
He speaks regularly at Holocaust memorial services and to classrooms of students. He wrote a 2009 book entitled “One Step Ahead of Hitler: A Jewish Child’s Journey through France,” published by Mercer University Press.
Fred Whittaker, who teaches at St. Francis of Assisi School in Louisville, regularly hosts talks by Gross for eighth-graders studying the Holocaust, and Gross joined them in successful lobbying efforts in Frankfort to make Holocaust education materials more widely available in Kentucky.
Despite the age difference, Gross connects well with the students, Whittaker said.
“The kids fall in love with Fred Gross and they fall in love with his story,” Whittaker said. “They realize they, too, have a story.”
Gross’ memoir “is so much about memory and how we can claim our own memories and … value the memories and wisdom of others,” Whittaker said.
The book describes the Gross family’s journey of nearly 2,000 miles from their native Antwerp, Belgium, across the perimeter of France to eventual safety abroad. It tells of how the Grosses relied on their wits and the heroics of non-Jewish neighbors as they repeatedly escaped the Nazis and their French collaborators.
Their ordeal began in May 1940 when the Germans launched a crushing invasion of Belgium, subduing the nation in less than three weeks in preparation for a sweep into France.
His parents, Max and Nacha Gross, knowing the persecution that awaited Jews under Nazi rule, fled with their family, joining the masses of refugees who flocked into northern France.
The family traveled by cab, on foot and then in a car that they and another family purchased together. When that broke down, the family climbed aboard a truck traveling along the northern French coast. German warplanes regularly strafed the columns of refugees as the Nazis entered France, Gross recalled.
When the truck arrived in a French town, a Keystone news photographer captured the scene.
The Getty archive’s caption says: “Belgian refugees arrive in France after the German invasion of their country, circa May 1940.” It doesn’t identify the photographer, town or specific date.
But the photo offers plenty of details. The double-rear-wheeled truck appears to be trailing mud and dust as it comes to a halt in the town’s square.
And there’s a clear look of relief on the faces of the refugees, some of whom are smiling and waving as they look off-camera.
“People were ecstatic,” Fred Gross said. “They were still alive.”
Max, in a cap and jacket — his hand likely clutching one of his trademark cigars, Fred said — looks in the same direction but without emotion. Next to him on the tailgate sits Nacha, in an overcoat and headscarf, looking toward the photographer.
The arm of one of the waving passengers partly obscures the face of Leo, who nevertheless is recognizable.
Sam, wearing a cap like his father’s, looks off from the corner of the truck as Fred stares with an apparent mixture of anxiety and curiosity.
When Fred Gross found the photo, he called Sam, now 88 and living in New York City. Without telling him of the photo, Fred asked whether the truck in which they rode was open or closed.
Sam — by now used to Fred’s queries — told him it was open. Fred then told him of the photo and emailed it to him.
“I was surprised,” Sam said in a phone interview. Asked if the photo revived memories of the episode, Sam Gross said no — the memories had never left. “I always think about these things,” he said.
Fred Gross — who kept a boyhood photo of himself at his keyboard when he wrote his memoir — now finds himself in dialogue with the newly discovered photo.
“I talk to that little kid,” Gross said. “Wow, what a lucky guy you are. You don’t know what awaited you, and how lucky you are.”
The Grosses needed plenty more luck after that day in the town square.
From Normandy, the family took a crowded train to Paris, then fled to the southern Atlantic city of Bordeaux as France fell to the Germans.
A Portuguese diplomat provided them and other Jews with documents to travel through Spain, but fearful of Germans at the border, the Grosses stayed in France, hiding in the barn of a friendly farmer.
But in June 1940, they were sent to an internment camp near the southern French village of Gurs.
Being a young boy, Fred had originally been thrilled with the family’s road trip. “It was kind of an adventure for me,” he said.
But imprisoned in a camp with rampant disease, hunger and vermin, under the guns of French guards, “I began to realize that we were in danger,” he said.
Sam Gross, however, hatched a stunningly bold escape plan. He walked out the front gate at an unguarded moment and persuaded the mayor of a nearby town to provide papers enabling him to get the whole family discharged from the camp about two weeks after their arrival.
“That was a miracle, really,” Sam Gross said in a phone interview. “When you’re young, you do things without thinking. You just go.”
Later detainees of Gurs were sent to the Auschwitz death camp.
The Grosses made their way to Nice, on the Riviera, and stayed about two years at a hotel, keeping a low profile. They felt more protected by the occupying Italians than the collaborating French. But when the Germans began rounding up young men for slave labor camps in spring 1942, Sam made a harrowing escape to Portugal.
Later in 1942, when the Germans ordered a large roundup of Jews in Nice, a French policeman tipped off a Gross relative who alerted Max. So Max, Nacha and the two younger boys went north — sheltered and aided along the way by nuns and other French– into neutral Switzerland.
Even that effort was risky. The Swiss only allowed in refugees with relatives in Switzerland, turning back other desperate Jews at the border, including a pregnant woman next to the Grosses who collapsed in hysterics, knowing it was a death sentence.
The Grosses qualified for entrance only because the boys’ grandmother lived there, a bitter irony since she had gone to Zurich after abandoning her daughter decades earlier. Several of the family’s relatives perished in the Nazi death camps.
After the war, the family returned to Belgium and found their way to the United States in 1946. Fred Gross studied journalism at New York University and then went on to the Journal-Courier.
Fred, a father of four sons, moved to Louisville in the early 1990s with his wife, Carolyn. Sam followed his father into the jewelry business. Leo died in 2003 of cancer. Max died in 1973, Nacha in 1989.
Fred still looks back in awe at all of his family’s daring escapes.
“Everything fit into place,” Gross said in a recent interview in the sunroom of his Louisville home — where the tranquility of his garden with shady trees and trilling cardinals contrasts with the tension and bleakness of his family’s ordeal.
Throughout his home are images of sunflowers. They recall one he planted in Switzerland that soared to 10 feet — and symbolized his new chance at life.
“It was like a puzzle,” Gross said. “If one piece was missing, that would have been it for all of us. It was a miracle. Lucky to be alive. Lucky to tell you this story.”