By the Grace of the Game: The Holocaust, a Basketball Legacy, and an Unprecedented American Dream

“My birth was planned around Judaism and basketball,” writes Dan Grunfeld in the opening paragraph of his book. “It’s an appropriate testament to what I was inheriting. When I was born in 1984, my dad was an NBA player for the New York Knicks. My parents scheduled my C-section delivery to take place between two long road trips so he could be present for both my birth and my bris, the Jewish ritual of circumcision on the eighth day of life.

            17-year-old Lily Grunfeld survived the Holocaust by hiding in a crowded attic room in a burned-out building in Budapest. She was twice saved by Swedish diplomat Raoul Wallenberg. Once when he issued false citizenship documents to Hungarian Jews in Hungary and, then again at the end of the war, when he convinced Nazi guards not to gun down the remaining 80,000 Jews still alive in the Budapest Ghetto.

            After the war when Anyu returned to the home she had shared with her parents and siblings in a small Transylvanian village in Romania near the Hungarian border, it had been looted and almost everything was gone. Her parents and five siblings had died at Auschwitz. She had also lost aunts and cousins.

            All that was left, tucked away out of sight in a drawer, was a spoon.

            Grunfeld is turning 98 later this year. She doesn’t harbor bitterness and hatred—though who could blame her if she did? Even though after moving to the U.S. with her husband, she lost her oldest son who died of leukemia.

            “My grandmother certainly has an incredible attitude and approach to life,” says Dan Grunfeld, author of “By the Grace of the Game: The Holocaust, a Basketball Legacy, and an Unprecedented American Dream” (Triumph Books 2022; $28) about the woman he calls Anyu (Hungarian for mother). “She believes it’s not what happens to you in life, it’s how you respond. She believes it’s important to be true to your values and who you are and to stay positive.”

            Arriving in New York in 1964, the family including their surviving son Ernie and daughter Rebecca, didn’t know the language or customs of their new country. Eight-year-old Ernie also didn’t know anything about the game of basketball but he gravitated to the playgrounds of New York City where kids were shooting baskets. It was an opportunity, he thought, to learn English and to make friends.

            It turned out to be more than that. Ernie Grunfeld was really, really good at this American game. So good in fact that within ten years of moving to the U.S. he had won two gold medals—one for playing basketball with Team USA at the 1975 Pan American Games and the other in the 1976 in the Summer Olympics in Montreal. Drafted into the NBA to play for Milwaukee Bucks, he went on to play for the Kansas City Kings and then the New York Knicks. Once his playing days were done, he worked in administration rising through the ranks to become president and general manager of the Knicks and then the general manager of the Bucks. He followed that up with 16 years as president of basketball operations for the Washington Wizards.

            It was indeed a basketball family.

            “My birth was planned around Judaism and basketball,” writes Dan Grunfeld in the opening paragraph of his book. “It’s an appropriate testament to what I was inheriting. When I was born in 1984, my dad was an NBA player for the New York Knicks. My parents scheduled my C-section delivery to take place between two long road trips so he could be present for both my birth and my bris, the Jewish ritual of circumcision on the eighth day of life. I’m sure thousands of Jews in New York City during the 1980s planned their sons’ bris ceremonies around Knicks games. My dad was almost certainly the only Jew actually playing in the Knicks game.”

            Indeed, Ernie Grunfeld was the only child of Holocaust survivors to ever play in the NBA.

            It’s Dan Grunfeld’s ability to move between the dark and light of life, a reflection surely of his grandmother’s philosophy, that makes this book so immensely readable. Dan Grunfeld also played basketball, both at Stanford University and then for nine years overseas professionally in Germany, Israel, and Spain. He even became a Romanian citizen to play in his grandmother’s native country.

            “My first professional game was in Germany, I was probably the only player who called his grandmother and asked her if it was okay to play there,” says Grunfeld. Anyu, being Anyu, of course said yes, telling him that you can’t blame the sons for what the fathers did.

            Growing up, Grunfeld was fascinated not only with his grandmother’s Eastern European cooking (“I eat so much sometimes that I get sick,” he says),  but also, when he was old enough, her tales of those early days. Stanford was just 25 minutes from where she lived and he would take notes when they talked or at least when he wasn’t eating.

            In that respect, he is unlike most of us who when young who don’t write things down and so lose the important stories of our elders. Indeed, I had a Romanian grandmother who loved to cook but I just ate and never recorded her times in her homeland and her journey to East Chicago and so all that is lost. Bravo to Grunfeld who felt that these stories were important enough to turn into a book. He did it for Anyu who doesn’t want people to forget the Holocaust and what happened to her family and so many families like hers. He did it to enshrine her story into written words. And he did it so that her courage could help all of us when things seem very dark.

            “My grandmother certainly has an incredible attitude and approach to life,” he says. “She’s such a remarkable person. I say if my grandmother can survive and be like this than there is hope for all of us.”

            When I ask Grunfeld if he misses basketball, he tells me that he misses what it was like playing the game when you’re playing at a high level and having success.  

            “I also understand that part of my life is over,” says Grunfeld who is married and is expecting the birth of his second son in a matter of weeks. “I’m at a point in my life where I realize I’m not coming back. But there are so many other ways you can integrate it into your life. You can watch it, read about it, and write about it.”

            Which, of course, is what he did.

            As for that spoon Anyu found. 75 years later she gave it to Dan who keeps it in the drawer next to his bed.  Sometime in the future, it most likely will be passed on to Dan’s son Solomon, named after his grandfather who died at Auschwitz.

For Dan Grunfeld’s events, click here.

The Survivors: A Story of War, Inheritance, and Healing

Adam Frankel tells in his recently released book, The Survivors: A Story of War, Inheritance, and Healing, about identity, family trauma and how in family those who came before us impact our own lives.

“This is the book I needed to write,” says Adam Frankel who worked as President Barack Obama’s Special Assistant and Senior Speechwriter.

But Frankel’s book isn’t about those heady days in the White House. Instead, the story he tells in his recently released book, The Survivors: A Story of War, Inheritance, and Healing, about identity, family trauma and how in family those who came before us impact our own lives. It begins with his maternal grandparents, both Holocaust survivors who ultimately were able to make it to the United States and settled in Connecticut. But their trauma during those years didn’t end with the freedom and safety they found in New Haven. It echoed through the generations first to their daughter, who suffered from depression and was prone to violent outbursts and then to Frankel himself. But there was more trauma to come for Frankel.

“Shortly before joining the Obama campaign in 2007 I learned that my father was not my dad, a secret my mother had kept from us,” says Frankel, now the vice president of External Affairs at Andela. “In order to wrap my head around it, I had to go back in the past to my grandparents and my mom who had mental health issues.”

When he was writing The Survivors, Frankel says many of his relatives lobbied him to abandon the project. Besides pushback from family, he also had to deal with his own feelings.

“This was a very difficult book to write,” says Frankel, noting that he often had to take hours and sometimes days to step away before he could go back to exploring his family’s story. “Only by writing about it could I process it.”

Frankel, a graduate of Princeton University and the London School of Economics and Political Science, where he was a Fulbright Scholar, describes putting his thoughts on paper as a form of expressive writing where one receives physical benefits when writing about thoughts and issues that are weighing them down.

 “My goals in writing were to be as honest as I could and also to tell the story honestly about how World War II reverberated within my family,” he says. “All families have trauma somewhere and there’s nothing disrespectful about being open and acknowledging that. That’s the way we heal.”

Ifyougo:

What: Adam Frankel talk and book signing

When: Tuesday, November 19, 7 to 9:30 p.m.

Where: Northbrook Public Library, 1201 Cedar Lane, Northbrook, IL

Cost: Free

FYI: 224-406-9257; jccchicago.org

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