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 Women of Chateau Lafayette

               “It’s amazing how women get lost in history,” says Stephanie Dray, the New York Times bestselling author of The Women of Chateau Lafayette.     “I want to tell their stories.”

At first, the story she was going to tell was that of  Beatrice Chanler, a success London actress with a troubled marriage  who received the Legion of Honor for her philanthropic service during World War.  But then Dray discovered a packet of love letters that were not between Chanler and her husband and she knew she would have to start all over.

               Ultimately, Dray would write the stories of two more women whose connection through the centuries was the French country chateau of the Marquis de La Fayette, one of the heroes of the American Revolution.  And each time, she would set that book aside as more details emerged.

               “Chateau is set in three time periods–during the French Revolution, World War One, and World War Two,” says Dray whose previous books include “My Dear Hamilton,”

               In each period, there was an extraordinary woman who rose to the occasion. The first was Adrienne Lafayette, the wife of the Marquis de Lafayette. More than a spouse, she was her husband’s political partner and, like him, faced the danger of the guillotine during the  French Revolution. The third woman is Marthe Simone, a teacher and writer, who at first wanted to avoid any activities that could put her at risk from the Nazis during World War II but then becomes an active participant in helping hide Jewish children at the chateau.

            “She, like the other two women, deserved to have her own book,” says Dray. “But then I saw the importance of telling all their stories in one novel. I was a government major in college and then I went to law school, but I was really only a lawyer for ten minutes.  But I’ve always been interested in government as people, this story is about the rise of the republic and the continued survival of the public.”

            Writing about the Chateau Lafayette became so much a part of Dray’s every day living that when she saw the castle for the first time she was so nervous she had to have her husband hold the camera.

            “All the video I took is very shaky,” she says.

            Indeed, she becomes so immersed in her stories that when she was writing “America’s First Daughter,” she found herself speaking with a southern accent. That passion is evident in one of the take-aways she hopes readers get from reading The Women of Chateau Lafayette.

            “The Franco-American alliance saved this country three times over,” says Dray. “This book is relevant to those in powdered wigs and those today.”

Virtual event with Stephanie Dray.

When: April 3 at noon

What: Barbara’s Bookstore with Stephanie Dray in virtual conversation with Lauren Margolin “The Good Book Fairy” blogger.

To Register: https://barbarasbookstores.com/event/stephanie-dray/

<p value="<amp-fit-text layout="fixed-height" min-font-size="6" max-font-size="72" height="80">FYI: The event is free. All registrants receive 10% off book purchase with code ‘EVENT’FYI: The event is free. All registrants receive 10% off book purchase with code ‘EVENT’

The Splendid and the Vile. A Saga of Churchill, Family, and Defiance During the Blitz

          When New York Times bestselling author Erik Larson (Devil in the White City; Dead Wake: The Last Crossing of the Lusitania) moved to New York five years ago, he had what he describes as a revelation. He had watched, horrified, as 911 unfolded on CNN.

Author Erik Larson

          “But I wondered what was it like for people living in New York to have their city invaded and all the fear they must have felt,” he says. “Then I started thinking about the bombing of London by the Germans during World War II. It was 57 nights of consecutive bombings. 911 shook us all but how did Londoners cope, knowing that every night their city would be bombed—that every night, hundreds of German bombers were flying over with high-explosive bombs?”

          At first Larson thought he’d tell his story about an ordinary family living in London at the time.

          “Then I thought why not a quintessential London family—the Churchills,” he says. “So much as been written about him, but this gave me the lens through which to tell the story.”

          The result is The Splendid and the Vile. A Saga of Churchill, Family, and Defiance During the Blitz (Crown Publishing), Larson’s saga about how Churchill, as prime minister, kept the country strong and together through his wit, his ability to speak to everyday people and by his own determination during the time of the Blitz from May of 1940 through May of 1941.

          ” I think the things that surprised me the most was the fact that Churchill was a lot of fun,” says Larson.  “Even though his staff was really overworked, even though they knew Churchill was inconsiderate, but he worked just as hard or harder than anyone. They loved working with him, he was able to do that.”

          He also had some intriguing habits—his drinking and his long soaks in the bathtub, smoking cigars and having his secretary take dictation, getting out, naked and wet to answer the phone and then getting back into the tub.

          Churchill was also fearless and without vanity says Larson.

          It drove the Nazis crazy.

          Joseph Goebbels, the Reich Minister of Propaganda, cursed him, writing in his diary, “When will that creature Churchill finally surrender? England cannot hold out forever!”

          His speeches were so effective with the British that Goebbels was alarmed when he learned that Germans were listening to them as well and ordered them to stop, saying it was treachery.

          “Churchill would visit a city that had been bombed, and people would flock to him,” says Larson. “I have no question that these visits were absolutely important to helping Britain get through this period. He was often filmed doing so for newsreels, and it was reported by newspapers and radio. This was leadership by demonstration, by showing the world that he cared, and he was fearless.”

An American Agent: A Maisie Dobbs Novel

Jacqueline Winspear, author of The American Agent, the 15th book in her Maisie Dobbs’ series, transports us to early September 1940, as Adolf Hitler unleashed his Blitzkrieg or lighting attack on London and other United Kingdom cities, an intensive attack already used successfully in Spain, the Netherlands, Poland, Belgium and France to enable an invasion to take place.  Day after day, night after night for months on end, hundreds of German bombers would fly across the Channel to wreak havoc.  Maisie and her friend, Priscilla are volunteer ambulance drivers, and on one run they are accompanied by an American war correspondent, Catherine Saxon.

Following her late-night broadcast to the US, where she describes her experience of seeing the death and destruction that the bombings have wrought on the city, Saxon is found dead in her rooms. Maisie Dobbs is brought in to conduct an undercover investigation – her presence requested by a man from the US Department of Justice, Mark Scott, who had previously saved her life in Munich, in 1938.  The story is peppered with excerpts from real broadcasts and reporting at the time.

           On a multi-city tour, Winspear will be in Chicago for a book signing on April 4. Speaking to Jane Ammeson, she talks about An American Agent and how her own past was an impetus for her series.

For readers who have never met Maisie, can you give us a brief summary?

Readers first met Maisie Dobbs in the first novel in the series – entitled Maisie Dobbs.  From a working class background, Maisie is a young woman of intellect and a keen intuitive ability, which is recognized by a friend of her employer. Dr. Maurice Blanche – a psychologist and Doctor of Forensic Medicine who consults with the police –oversees her education and entry to university, which is sponsored by her employer – but WW1 intervenes, and Maisie volunteers for nursing service, and is later wounded at a Casualty Clearing Station in France – an experience that defines her.  Later, having recovered, she becomes Blanche’s assistant, and in the first novel in the series we see her striking out on her own upon his retirement – she is a “psychologist and investigator.” Maisie is very much a woman of her day – so many young women had to be incredibly self-sufficient as the men they might have married had been lost to war. I have written extensively on this subject as it’s always interested me.

I am impressed by your vast knowledge and ability to bring us into this time period. I know your grandfather was severely injured in the Battle of the Somme and your family talked about the war. How did those experiences translate into you writing books and immersing yourself in this time period?

Family stories always have an immediacy that reading books and immersing oneself in research sometimes lacks. My grandfather was very much of his generation of men who saw the most terrible death in the trenches of WW1 France and Belgium – he never talked about it, with the exception of a couple of stories shared with my father. But I could see the wounds – his poor shrapnel-filled legs (he was still removing shrapnel splinters when he died at age77), and I could hear the wheezing of his gas-damaged lungs. And I knew he had suffered shell-shock.  Added to this were my mother’s stories of the Second World War – her experiences of being evacuated, of having to return to London, then of being bombed out time and again. And yes, of seeing death on the streets following a bombing.  The experience of listening to family stories – even from a very young age – inspired my curiosity, which later became an adult inquiry, so you could say I’ve been researching my subject since childhood.

This is your 15th book in the series.  How do you go about developing your stories? Are they mapped out or do you take an incident and place Maisie in there and let it all happen?

I think creating a story is like lighting fire. First of all, you lay down the paper and kindling, then you need a match for the flame, and you follow that with your fuel.  Often the kindling for a story is laid down years before I begin to write – because I have been waiting for the spark to light the fire and then the fuel to build the flame.  For example, I had known the true story that inspired “Elegy for Eddie” since I was a teen – of a young girl not 16 years old, a cleaner in the local brewery stables who had given birth to a baby boy while at work, and while stopping him from crying had starved his brain of oxygen. That young boy – thereafter considered “slow” – was born and grew up around horses and had a gift.  As he grew up, he could settle the most uppity horse, simply by laying a hand upon the animal – that’s how he earned a living at a time when horses were vital for commerce and transportation.  As a boy, my father knew this young man, and he told me of his later “suspicious” demise.  After I began writing the series, I knew “Eddie” would form the basis of a story – the kindling, if you will.  Then I learned more about the pre-war machinations of various powerful men close to Churchill, and the secrecy surrounding their work, whether it was in creating soft propaganda or developing fighter aircraft.  That’s when I asked the question – what if an innocent, a young man of limited intellectual ability but deep empathy stumbled across crucial classified information? Then what might happen? The flame caught and I had a fire.  But when I begin writing any story, I only know the main landing points along the way, I do not know all the details – they come as the story is written. I like to have the basic map, but I also like to “dance with the moment” and be able to respond to new ideas or information as they emerge.

Are there times you’re back in the England between the wars versus 2019?

To some extent I have to be in the years I’m writing about – I cannot be distracted by today while I’m writing.  When I’m at work, I am completely with my characters – I walk their streets, I can see what they are wearing, what they buy, what they eat, and I can hear their use of language, which is different from today.

For more information visit jacquelinewinspear.com

Ifyougo:

What: Jacqueline Winspear book signing

When: April 4 at 7 pm

Where: Anderson’s Bookshop, 123 W Jefferson Ave, Naperville, IL

Cost: Free

FYI: 630-355-2665; andersonsbookshop.com

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