Jews fled from the Nazis, their descendants found basketball success - review

From Holocaust to pro-basketball: How descendants of Jews who escaped Nazis made it to the top of the rim.

 STANFORD PLAYERS (L-R) Matt Lottich, Nick Robinson and Dan Grunfeld celebrate winning the Pac-10 Conference Men’s Basketball Tournament in Los Angeles, 2004. (photo credit: Lucy Nicholson/Reuters)
STANFORD PLAYERS (L-R) Matt Lottich, Nick Robinson and Dan Grunfeld celebrate winning the Pac-10 Conference Men’s Basketball Tournament in Los Angeles, 2004.
(photo credit: Lucy Nicholson/Reuters)

There have been many books written about the Holocaust and countless personal stories of the trials and tribulations of escaping the horrors of the Nazi onslaught across Europe. Some of those stories have happy endings about finding their way to a new country and new land where they restart their lives from scratch and then go on to unprecedented success.

More often than not, those accomplishments usually revolve around the business world. However, in the case of the Grunfelds, their prosperity happens to occur surrounding the game of basketball, both on and off of the court.

In By the Grace of the Game: The Holocaust, a Basketball Legacy, and an Unprecedented American Dream, author Dan Grunfeld so beautifully weaves his family’s history from Romania to New York and beyond while enticing the reader with stories of hope, challenge and pride.

The Grunfeld family, specifically father Ernie and son Dan, have been part of the basketball fabric across America and Israel for more than half a century. Ernie, who captured a gold medal with the 1976 United States Olympic team, starred at the University of Tennessee as well as for the NBA’s New York Knicks. He then went on to become the franchise’s general manager who constructed the great Knicks teams of the ’90s while later on holding the same role in Washington.

His son and author of the book, Dan, who was a standout for the Stanford University Cardinal and who then plied his trade across Europe while finishing his career in Israel, is the one who really makes this book a fantastic story thanks to his grandmother Livia.

Dan Grunfeld has a fascinating story to tell in his newly published book ‘By Grace of the Game: The Holocaust, a Basketball Legacy, and an Unprecedented American Dream.' (credit: Courtesy)Dan Grunfeld has a fascinating story to tell in his newly published book ‘By Grace of the Game: The Holocaust, a Basketball Legacy, and an Unprecedented American Dream.' (credit: Courtesy)

Livia “Anyu” Grunfeld lost her parents as well as a number of siblings at Auschwitz, but together with her husband, Apu, they were able to begin building a new life, first in Romania where they had two children, Ernie and Lutzi, and then in New York.

Without knowing English and following the death of his brother due to leukemia, Ernie spent hours on the basketball courts in Queens where he began to hone his skills under the most difficult of circumstances. Bullied by the neighborhood boys, Ernie was able to rise to the occasion and develop into a full-fledged star where he teamed up with Bernard King at Tennessee as the electrifying “Ernie and Bernie Show.”

While Dan moves back and forth between the primary three characters in the book, he also delves into his own career and how influential his grandmother Anyu, now living on the US West Coast, was to his own development as a basketball player. In one of the most touching moments when Dan suffers a devastating injury while at Stanford, Anyu races on the court to show her love and coddle her fallen grandson as his own NBA career went up in flames at that very moment.

Once Dan sees his dreams crushed, he begins his own professional basketball journey, which leads him full circle to Germany. However, before accepting his first offer he has an intense discussion with Anyu about returning to the scene of the crime in which she so eloquently tells him that sons are not responsible for the sins of their fathers.

When Ernie’s playing time with the Knicks comes to an end, despite English not being his mother tongue he becomes the club’s radio announcer before heading into the front office where he builds championship-level teams with coaches Pat Riley and Jeff Van Gundy.

Dan’s own story takes twists and turns as he is recruited to play on the Romanian national team while he ends his career on the hardwood in the Holy Land as he plays four seasons in Israel until he hangs up his sneakers.

Anyu’s calming presence is seen throughout the book as the matriarch of the Grunfeld family and she is clearly the central figure who guides and advises her son and grandson as they all find their own unique way in how they each impact the world through the game of basketball.

By the Grace of the Game: The Holocaust, a Basketball Legacy, and an Unprecedented American Dream is a welcome addition to anyone’s personal library both in the realm of the Holocaust and sports.

But most importantly, this book has the opportunity to touch the younger generation who may have not had exposure to the Holocaust and is given the chance to engage with the topic wrapped around basketball. It’s a story with fun and drama along with a history that needs to be told. 

Dan clearly wanted to fill a void in Holocaust education where he has been able to expose people from all walks of life to that history through the game that millions around the world love. 

By the Grace of the Game By Dan GrunfeldTriumph Books296 pages; $20