Thomas Gral was born in Nitra, Slovakia, in 1925. His mother, Helena, was a concert pianist who had studied in Vienna and Brno, while his father, Viliam, was a lawyer who attended Charles University. As Nitra was a large town situated close to Vienna and Budapest, Thomas grew up speaking Slovak, German and Hungarian, and he has early memories of visiting the two cosmopolitan cities. After elementary school, Thomas attended a classical gymnázium in Nitra.
Following the invasion of Czechoslovakia by Hitler and the split of the country into the Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia and the nominally-independent First Slovak State, Thomas’s life changed drastically. Although he and his parents were baptized Christians, they were ethnically Jewish and, therefore, were subject to the discrimination forced upon Jews. In September 1944, Thomas was deported to Auschwitz where he lost almost his entire family. He was liberated from Gleiwitz in February 1945 and he says that his relatively short stint in the camp was what saved him, as he had already lost an extreme amount of weight due to little food and hard labor.
Thomas made his way home to Nitra where he was reunited with his father, who had gone into hiding during the Slovak Uprising and had later been captured and sent to a POW camp. In the fall of 1945, Thomas started studying medicine at Comenius University in Bratislava. After a previerka, Thomas was asked to finish his studies at the Košice campus of Comenius University and so he moved with his wife and infant daughter. When he received his degree in 1951, he worked in internal medicine at the university.
In the aftermath of the Slánský trials, Thomas’s father was arrested due to his politics and friendships with Vladimir Clementis and Eugen Loebl, among others. Thomas himself lost his job at the university and spent two years in the army. Thomas and his family (which now included his son) moved to Bratislava in the early 1960s. In 1964, he was able to secure a one-year fellowship in a research institute at Loyola University Chicago. Although his family had stayed behind in Czechoslovakia, Thomas was able to extend his fellowship for several years and he settled in Los Angeles. His wife was visiting during the 1968 Soviet-led invasion and upon returning to Europe met their children in Vienna (who had visas thanks to the help of Thomas’s father). By that time Thomas had a green card and was able to bring them to the United States. His wife returned to Czechoslovakia to care for her father and the two eventually divorced.
Thomas was a member of the Los Angeles chapter of the Czechoslovak Society of Arts and Sciences (SVU), which he says was relatively active at the time. He received his American citizenship in 1974. Following the fall of communism, Thomas frequently returned to his homeland, teaching during summers. He also started a foundation in Hradec Králové dedicated to fighting intolerance. In his retirement, Thomas moved to the Miami area where he has given lectures at the American Czech-Slovak Cultural Club. Today he lives in Sunny Isles Beach, Florida.
“The biggest problem was that we had to move from our apartment, because we lived on the main street and Jews were not permitted to live on the main street. That was making the city ugly, if you had Jews living on the main street. So we had to find an apartment in a side street, which we did and it was actually pretty good. But then, of course, we couldn’t visit swimming pools, public places. We couldn’t visit parks, we couldn’t go to the movies, we couldn’t travel without a permit, and we had to wear the Star of David. So you had to be marked. And that was not a very pleasant thing, and not necessarily because of the fact that you had to deliver your sporting equipment. You had to give to the state. You had to donate it to the state. Of course all kinds of jewelry. Your bank accounts were frozen. And finally, my father was prohibited from being an attorney, so he had to find another job. It couldn’t be an attorney; it had to be some clerk, which we finally found. He was a clerk in a shoe factory and he did some clerical job there. But that gave him an exemption that we would not go into an concentration camp – at least not initially.”
“We all went to Auschwitz together and except for me, everybody perished. There was tremendous famine there. We had practically no food, so I lost – I was never a big guy – but I lost at least 40 pounds. So when I was liberated I weighed about 80 pounds. So if this would have taken a longer time I certainly wouldn’t have survived, because it was not only the lack food, but also hard labor. We had to work – which I didn’t mind, because I couldn’t stand that Auschwitz. I remember that smoke and the fire and the smell of burning bodies. So I reported myself that I am an expert electrician, which of course I was not. But I was taken as an electrician to a neighboring little camp where they had some electrical work; I never did anything electrical because it turned out that was a different camp – they mixed me up. But it doesn’t matter; it was still a labor camp, where the food wasn’t much better but at least we had to work and we were occupied and tired and came home and went to bed and slept. So I didn’t have too much time to think about things. So that’s why I was able to survive, and don’t forget that Auschwitz, and the neighboring camps, was liberated much earlier than the rest of the camps because the Russian front was so close. So actually, Auschwitz was liberated on January 27, 1945. I was liberated a little later because I was in a slightly more Western camp, but still it was the beginning of February.”
So which was the camp you were moved to?
“It was called Gleiwitz – Gliwice in Polish. That was an industrial city, as most of them there, in the same area of Auschwitz, maybe 35-40 miles from Auschwitz. Very close. And that was the sister camp because they didn’t have gas chambers in Gleiwitz, only in Auschwitz. So if somebody was too weak to work, then they sent him back to Auschwitz from Gleiwitz. There was no crematorium and no gas chamber, so there was a big difference.”
“I had a prověrka, previerka in Slovak, and I was given a condition that I can study, but I have to finish in the proper term. The fact that there was a previerka is horrible, but they way they acted toward me I would say is reasonable. They gave me a condition. They gave me another condition, which was given not on the university side but on the civilian side, that they suggested to me to be more in touch with the working people. That I was much of a high-nose, snobbish guy who is an intellectual who is studying medicine; that I should go to the folk, to the people, and I did. I immediately reported to become a factory physician for one month, to be close to the workers, and then I became a company physician later at the university, to become more united with the working class.”
“When I came back from the [concentration] camp, and it was not a communist state yet, I joined the Czechoslovak youth organization, which very many people joined. But that was good only until I was 27; after 27 it automatically became the Communist Party. So that’s how I became a member of the Party, but for three years I didn’t even pay my dues. But when I had my previerka, I was ordered to be more active as a member and after three years I paid my dues backwards and became more active, meaning I attended Party membership conferences and meetings and that’s it. But I was never a functionary or any office holder. So that was Party membership, which may have helped me a little bit in my difficult life as the son of a bourgeois who was in jail – maybe, I’m not sure.”
“It’s an insane system, that communism. That’s why it never worked any place, and it can be maintained only by terror, by secret police and by forbidding this and forbidding that and censoring the mail and censoring the newspaper. That’s why I felt it acutely that I had to go to the evening meeting of the Party, that I had to go on May 1 to manifest for Stalin, which I didn’t want to. So that’s why I was very anxious to get out, and when I did get out, suddenly I had all the possibility for doing research, doing what I wanted to do all my life. I had a laboratory, I had my mice and rats for experiments, I had a professor who took care of me – specifically had several fellows and I was one of them; excellent teacher – and I said ‘For goodness sake, now I’m going back to that Czechoslovakia.”
“Los Angeles is just a chapter, like Miami is a chapter, and we had a very good president who really arranged all kinds of lectures. And at that time we were lucky because, for instance, Milos Forman was there in Los Angeles and he gave a number of lectures. There was another guy who was chair of a filmmaking institute; I forgot his name, but he was a member of SVU. Then we had a painter, quite famous locally; he was a member. So it was interesting company: doctors, lawyers, engineers, professionals, filmmakers. And it was interesting to go to because it was a social club more or less, and it was not only lectures but also parties – beer and wine and some cookies and some good Czech cooking, because we went usually from one house to another – we didn’t have an official meeting place – or we met at the Beseda Sokol. They had one in Los Angeles.”