Remembrance Day: Gants Hill man remembers father's journey from Soviet camps to Normandy landings

Warren Grynberg, with a picture of his father Herschel, along with his father's service medals.

Warren Grynberg, with a picture of his father Herschel, along with his father's service medals. - Credit: Warren Grynberg

As the country reflects on the bravery and sacrifice of its servicemen this week, Warren Grynberg will be thinking of his father. 

After settling in east London after World War Two, Herschel ‘Harry’ Grynberg rarely spoke of his experiences, leaving it to his son to uncover many of the details of his incredible and tragic life. 

He was the only member of his family to survive the Holocaust.

In the space of less than a decade, Herschel was taken from a small Jewish community in eastern Poland to Stalin’s labour camps, was in Anders’ Army, and took part in D-Day on Normandy’s beaches with the British Army. 

Born in 1915 in Łosice in eastern Poland, Herschel worked in the shoe industry there. 

With the Nazis approaching in 1939, Herschel got up at the dinner table one day and announced he was leaving. 

It would be the last time he saw Łosice or his family. 

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He headed towards Bialystock, where his Uncle Avraham lived, but was picked up by the Soviet Secret Police on the way and taken to a prison in Brest Litovsk, where he was locked up with 35 others in a cell built for seven. 

From there he was sent to the Ukhta Corrective Labour Camp in Siberia, where he was forced to fell trees waste deep in water and live on a diet of salted fish. 

He remained in the camp until the summer of 1941, when Hitler invaded the USSR. This resulted in an agreement to release Polish people from the labour camps to form an army which would come to be known as Anders’ Army. 

The inmates-turned-soldiers trekked through central Asia and the middle east, and were subsequently given the job of ferrying Italian prisoners to South Africa. 

Herschel was eventually sent to Scotland, in preparation for D-Day. 

However, he joined more than 100 other Jewish Anders’ Army soldiers who deserted in response to antisemitism.  

The soldiers travelled to King's Cross Station, where they were helped into hiding by London’s Jewish community until Winston Churchill agreed to their transfer into the British Army en-masse. 

Herschel Grynberg during his service in the British Army.

Herschel Grynberg during his service in the British Army. - Credit: Warren Grynberg

Herschel was conscripted into the Royal Engineers, where he was involved in D-Day, building mulberry harbours on French beaches. 

After being demobilised in 1947, he anglicised his name to Harry, came to the UK and married Rebecca, who had been among volunteers to help the Jewish soldiers at King's Cross. 

Warren was born in 1948, with Harry working as a tailor until 1979.

He died 30 years later at the age of 94, shortly before he was able to receive a Siberian Survivors Medal issued by the Polish government shortly after. 

Gants Hill resident Warren noted his father had been reticent to talk about his life. 

“He told me very, very little,” said Warren. 

“My father probably had a guilt complex that he survived and his family didn’t.” 

But Warren said uncovering his past was something he felt he “had to do”; he started by listening to a tape recorded by Harry detailing his experiences with the Imperial War Museum. 

Herschel and Rebecca in their 80s

Herschel and Rebecca in their 80s - Credit: Warren Grynberg

In 2001, Warren and his wife went to Łosice, where they discovered his father's family had been taken to the Treblinka extermination camp with the rest of the town’s Jewish community. 

Warren, a Blue Badge tour guide, said he would like to write a book about his father, blending the facts of his life with an imagined description of the parts unknown. 

Next year he will make another trip to east Poland, this time with the historian Chris Webb. 

He said: “I would define it as a pilgrimage; to honour the six million and to pay homage to the family I never knew.” 

This Sunday he will lay a wreath in Ilford War Memorial Garden in Newbury Park for AJEX – which represents the more than 120,000 Jews who served in the British Armed Forces during the world wars. 

“People mustn't forget," he added.