Gross Named Volunteer of the Year

[by Shiela Steinman Wallace]

Most people who do a lot of volunteering do it because the work is rewarding, and they enjoy what they are doing. And some people do so much volunteer work that it is like a career. It defines their lives and is always a priority.

With the Ronald and Marie Abrams Volunteer of the Year Award, the Jewish Community of Louisville seeks out those special volunteers to recognize their achievements and publicly thank them. The 2010 Abrams Volunteer of the Year Award will go to Fred Gross, and will be presented at the JCL Annual Meeting on Sunday, September 19, at 6:30 p.m. at the Jewish Community Center.

A Holocaust survivor who came to Louisville in 1991, Gross said, “I started speaking about my story in Kentucky in 1992 at a rural school district.” Since then, he’s spoken to thousands of students “from Louisville to Appalachia.”

His presentations now include readings from his memoir, One Step Ahead of Hitler: A Jewish Child’s Journey through France, published last year by Mercer University Press. His book has garnered numerous favorable reviews, and was recently recognized for its historical accuracy and outstanding personal story by the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C. Gross had a two-day book signing at the museum in May and his memoir is for sale in its gift shop, honors few books receive. A paperback edition is due September 1.

With the success of his memoir, demand for him to speak at various venues has increased. Over the past year he has been a featured speaker at numerous Jewish Community Centers and synagogues including those in Macon, GA; Ft. Myers, FL; and Hartford, CT, as well as our own JCC.  In November he’ll be speaking at the JCC in Denver, CO, and at a B’nai B’rith event in New York City. Wherever he speaks, Gross is mindful of the fact that he is an ambassador for the Jewish Community of Louisville.

In addition to speaking, Gross worked closely with Fred Whittaker and his students at St. Francis of Assisi to push for the Ernie Marx Holocaust and Genocide Education Bill. He traveled with the students to Frankfort and testified on behalf of the bill several times. In 2008, the Kentucky legislature passed the measure as a resolution that encourages schools across the Commonwealth to offer Holocaust education, using a Holocaust curriculum guide developed by the Kentucky Department of Education.

Today, Gross is a member of the JCL’s Community Relations Council and serves as CRC’s representative on the Board of Interfaith Paths to Peace. He has been for many years a committee member of the JCL’s community-wide Yom HaShoah commemoration program.  For six years Gross co-taught a Holocaust course with Rabbi Joe Rooks Rapport to sixth graders at The Temple, where he and his wife are members.

Born in Antwerp, Belgium, in 1936, Gross and his family fled to France in 1940, hoping to escape the Nazis. But France was not a safe place for Jews either, so the family was constantly on the move.

Since he left Belgium when only three years old and came to America when he was nine, his own memories of the war were sketchy. Shortly after his 1985 marriage to a native of this area, Carolyn Humphrey, at her urging, he began talking to his mother and two older brothers to fill in the details.  During the next 20 years he used his family’s and own personal memories, together with in-depth research, to write his book.

They survived the war and immigrated to the United States in April 1946, settling in New York City. In 1965, Gross moved to New Haven, Connecticut, and went to work for a daily newspaper, the Journal-Courier. “I became the city hall reporter not long after that,” he said. During that time, he found himself covering the civil rights movement, including the protests and riots in New Haven following the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

“Those were exciting times for a reporter,” he recalled, “and that’s where I learned my love of language.”

Now Louisville is home. “The Jewish community here has been good to me,” Gross said. “They’ve been supportive and encouraging. They made me feel very welcome … and gave me the opportunity to be involved,” and he’s grateful.

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