By Blanca Gonzalez
San Diego Tribune
February 18, 2009
George C. Gross was known locally as a scholar who inspired high school and college students to care about Chaucer, Keats and other academic pursuits.
Throughout the world, others knew him as a symbol of American liberators who played a role in the lives of Holocaust camp survivors.
Dr. Gross died of anemia Feb. 1 at his home in Spring Valley. He was 86.
More than half a century after World War II ended, Dr. Gross was asked to tell his story to Matthew Rozell, a Hudson Falls, N.Y., high school teacher who coordinates a World War II living history project and Web site. Rozell had heard about Dr. Gross from another veteran involved in the project.
In a narrative posted on the project Web site, Dr. Gross told of being among the first U.S. servicemen to come across about 2,500 people the Nazis had stuffed into a string of boxcars.
It was April 1945 and World War II was coming to an end in Europe. Dr. Gross was a sergeant commanding a light tank moving toward Magdeburg, Germany, as part of a tank battalion in the 30th Infantry Division of the U.S. Army. The battalion had just finished a grueling three weeks of fighting across Germany when it came across some emaciated Finnish soldiers who had escaped from a nearby train full of starving prisoners.
Dr. Gross and fellow sergeant Carrol Walsh accompanied the battalion major to a small train station where they discovered a mass of people, some sitting or lying outside the train and others still in the boxcars. It is believed their German guards ran away as the U.S. tanks rumbled in.
The train contained Jewish prisoners who had been taken from Bergen-Belsen and forced into the cramped boxcars. Dr. Gross, Walsh and the major greeted survivors and took pictures of them, capturing their surprise and joy.
“I was assigned to stay overnight with the train,” Dr. Gross wrote years later, “to let any stray German soldiers know that it was part of the free world and not to be bothered again. I was honored to shake the hands of the large numbers (of survivors) who spontaneously lined up to introduce themselves and greet me in a ritual that seemed to satisfy their need to declare their return to honored membership in the free society of humanity.
“The heroism that day was all with the prisoners on the train,” Dr. Gross wrote. “What stamina and regenerative spirit those brave people showed. I have one picture of several girls, specter-thin, hollow-cheeked, with enormous eyes that had seen much evil and terror, and yet with smiles to break one’s heart.”
His pictures were posted on the history Web site and sparked reunions and phone calls between survivors from around the world and between Dr. Gross and Walsh, a retired judge living in Hudson Falls.
Rozell said Dr. Gross was a very humble and gracious person. “He came from a generation that didn’t really trumpet their accomplishments,” he said.
Local friends and colleagues lauded Dr. Gross as a gentleman and a scholar who was fascinated by the language of Keats and Chaucer and enjoyed sharing that love with students.
Larry Durbin, a Grossmont High School graduate who became a close friend, said the class of 1958 made Dr. Gross an honorary classmate. “He was a pretty special guy. Chaucer’s English was very difficult to read and hard to listen to … but there he was, probably 36 or 37 years old, standing up in front of a class of 17-and 18-year-olds and getting them to be enthralled with Chaucer. At nearly every (class) reunion someone will start reciting ‘The Knight’s Tale’ (from Geoffrey Chaucer’s “The Canterbury Tales”) we learned in his class,” Durbin said.
“He was a sensitive, caring, warm guy and everybody liked him.”
Dr. Gross, who had boxed in the Army, served as adviser of the high school’s boxing club.
After teaching at Grossmont for about 10 years, Dr. Gross joined the San Diego State faculty in 1961. He was associate dean for faculty and dean of faculty affairs from 1970 to 1981 before returning to the classroom. He retired in 1985 but remained active on campus with the SDSU Honors Council.
Dr. Gross is remembered on campus as one of the great chairmen of the English and Comparative Literature department, said current Chairman Bill Nerricio. “Tales of his generosity and intellect still shadow the corridors of our department. His skills as a master teacher, gifted scholar and top-shelf administrator are a hard act to follow.”
George C. Gross was born May 14, 1922, in Wilmington to Ada Bachmann and Henry Gross. He graduated from Hoover High School and married his high school sweetheart, the former Marlo Mumma, in 1940. She died in 2006.
He earned his bachelor’s and master’s degrees in English literature from San Diego State and received his doctorate from the University of Southern California in the early 1960s.
Dr. Gross is survived by two sons, Tim of Lakeside and John of Spring Valley; a granddaughter; and two sisters, Hazel Lemmons of San Diego and Betty Desport of Texas.
A memorial service will be held at 10 a.m. March 7 at SDSU Aztec Center, Casa Real. Reservations can be made with Leslie Herrman at firstname.lastname@example.org or (619) 594-6337.
Donations may be made to the Campanile Foundation for the George C. Gross Memorial Fund benefiting the Department of English and Comparative Literature and Holocaust Studies, in the Department of History* or to the George Gross Memorial Scholarship at Grossmont High School.
*For those interested in donating a memorial gift, checks can be made out to The Campanile Foundation. Please note that donors should designate one of these options:
1) Designate the Department of English and Comparative Literature
2) Designate Holocaust Studies in the Department of History
3) Designate the “Memorial Fund” (60% English / 40% Holocaust Studies)
Checks can be mailed to:
SDSU, College of Arts & Letters
c/o Trina Hester
George C. Gross Memorial Fund
Arts and Letters, room 600
5500 Campanile Drive
San Diego, CA 92182-6060
You can also drop them off with staff in the Dean’s Development office, Arts and Letters 600. If someone wishes to use their credit card, please call Trina Hester at 619.594.1562.