Dan Grunfeld: Wednesday, November 2, 7:30 pm
By the Grace of the Game:
The Holocaust, a Basketball Legacy, and an Unprecedented American Dream
262 pages, 2021
The 2022-23 Lee & Bernard Jaffe Family Jewish Book Festival kicks off this year with former professional basketball player Dan Grunfeld, who is the author of By the Grace of the Game: The Holocaust, a Basketball Legacy, and an Unprecedented American Dream. Grunfeld spoke to Jewish News about what inspired him to write this book, a combination career memoir and examination of the Holocaust through the experiences of his grandparents as well as a great aunt who survived Auschwitz.
Jewish News: When was the “aha” moment when you knew you were going to write this book?
Dan Grunfeld: My family’s journey has always had a profound impact on me, and as my basketball career drew to a close and my love of writing only intensified, I knew that this was the big story I wanted to tell. I remember saying to my wife that if I were going to write this story, I had to commit myself fully. Once I started business school after retiring as a player, I knew it was time.
JN: How did you conduct research for the book, and did you find any surprises along the way?
DG: I did a year and a half of research to prepare to write the book. I spent hundreds of hours interviewing my dad and grandma, and I interviewed people all across the world who had a connection to the story. The writing process reflected the broad range of emotions in my family’s story—at times there was exhilaration, at times there was great sorrow. I found a lot of surprises along the way. One example is that I had only one family member who survived Auschwitz, my Great Aunt Bubby. I learned through my research that she had been evaluated in Auschwitz by Dr. Mengele, one of history’s most notorious Nazis.
JN: The Holocaust touched your family. How has that shaped the person you are today?
DG: Knowing what my grandparents went through to survive the Holocaust has always affected me deeply. There is such unthinkable sadness and tragedy in my family’s history, and I carry that with me. That history has also made me appreciate my opportunities and has taught me how important it is to treat people the right way. I know what’s at stake when people aren’t treated fairly, and I’ve always tried to stand up for myself and for others as a result.
JN: How does the game of basketball tie in with your faith and upbringing?
DG: Basketball gave my family a new life in America, and it’s core to who I am. When I was born, my dad was a player for the New York Knicks, wearing #18, Judaism’s most symbolic number. Growing up, he watched the Knicks from the bleachers of Madison Square Garden as an immigrant trying to learn English in New York City.
JN: Did you feel basketball was your destiny?
DG: Growing up, there wasn’t a moment when I considered doing anything else. That probably came from being born into the game and wanting to do exactly what my dad did. But yes, basketball felt like my destiny, particularly knowing that the game had brought such joy to a family created from the ashes of the Holocaust. I carried the ball forward willingly, every step of the way.
JN: How did your own b-ball career mirror your dad’s and/or how was it different?
DG: My dad was born in Europe, the son of Holocaust survivors, but made his basketball career in America. I was born outside of New York City, my dad an NBA player for the New York Knicks, but I made my basketball career in Europe. Our careers took much different paths but were similar in that they were both rooted in a deep love for the game.
JN: Where does the “grace” come in per your title?
DG: “Grace” is in my title because my grandmother is grace personified. She’s experienced horrific tragedy, but she carries herself with incredible dignity and respect. She’s the star of our family, the star of this story, and she’s full of grace, so that is the main reason why I wanted the word in the title. Another reason is that there is something cosmic about the appearance of basketball in my family’s life, as if it were heaven-sent. The word “grace” has a spiritual, heavenly connotation that mirrors basketball’s presence in my family’s story.
JN: What would you say about the overall experience of writing this book?
DG: I wrote this book from my heart, and my only goal was to tell an honest and authentic family story. When I started, I had a vision for the end product that I couldn’t have articulated. I felt the power of the story so deeply and just wanted others to somehow feel it, too. I wrote and wrote, peeling back layers as I went, until that power and the profound depth of the story was finally reflected on the page. In the end, the book became exactly what I had hoped for.
JN: Is there a hopeful message in this book, and if so, what is it?
DG: There is a lot of darkness in my family’s story, but there’s much more light. My book is absolutely a hopeful story. It’s about perseverance, survival, family, legacy, and love. My family’s journey—the world’s only journey from Auschwitz to the NBA—shows that through hard work, hope, and love, anything is possible.
JN: Other comments?
DG: One of my dreams for this book is that young people will engage with the story because of the basketball and in so doing will learn about the Holocaust. It’s our obligation to share these stories and transmit this history so that it never happens again, and it gives me great satisfaction to know that this story is an accessible way for the younger generation to engage with Holocaust history.
For information about the festival or to sponsor or volunteer, contact Hunter Thomas, director of Arts + Ideas, at HThomas@UJFT.org or 757-965-6137.