Lithuania native Israel Gruzin stood silently, grimly watching his cabinet-making shop engulfed in flames.
It was his first very own business since immigrating to Baltimore in 1955. The year was 1976, and the Pikesville Lumber Yard — adjacent to Gruzin’s workshop — had caught fire. There was nothing he could do as his projects, materials and tools burned away.
A bystander looked over at Gruzin in disbelief that the man wasn’t showing more emotion. He asked Gruzin how he remained so calm. How could he not cry?
“I said, ‘Why should I cry? I’ve seen people burning alive. This can be replaced,’” Gruzin recalled.
Gruzin didn’t elaborate to the onlooker, but some three decades earlier he had witnessed — and survived — a true tragedy. As a teenager, Gruzin endured nearly four years in Dachau, the first concentration camp opened in Germany by the Nazis during World War II.
Now, he is the 84-year-old patriarch of Gruzin’s Custom Cabinets, which opened in 1985 and remains in its original location off of Old Milford Mill Road. For almost 30 years, he and his team have handcrafted cabinets, tables and dressers for the Baltimore community. He’s constructed arks, podiums and other bima accoutrement for local synagogues such as Beth Tfiloh Congregation, Adat Chaim Congregation and Chizuk Amuno Congregation.
Gruzin’s son, Ken, runs the business now, but Gruzin is in the office as often as possible.
“If I don’t have to see a doctor that day, then I am here,” he said.
However, as Gruzin reflects on his life, he often thinks about surviving the Holocaust (his older brother and both parents also, miraculously, survived) and how that blessing enabled him to provide a valued, self-fulfilling service to the Baltimore Jewish community.
“He absolutely gets a special satisfaction in doing work for the Jewish community — synagogues in particular,” Ken Gruzin said. “It validates his survival. His faith helped him survive, and [this is] kind of his paying it forward.”
Gruzin is a member of BT. Its rabbi, Mitchell Wohlberg, said he sees the appreciation that Gruzin has for life every single Shabbat.
“He’s a master craftsman. It’s a God-given gift, there’s no question about that,” Rabbi Wohlberg said. “Everything he does is a labor of love.”
Gruzin’s passion for working with his hands started at a young age, and what Rabbi Wohlberg dubbed “a labor of love,” was initially a labor of survival. Once implanted at Dachau (and its satellite camps), Gruzin’s handiness, and his ability to speak some German, was recognized by the Nazis, and it in turn enabled him to undertake some of the “better” labor roles in the camp. At least one SS officer took up a fondness for Gruzin, and that relationship undoubtedly netted him a level of leniency and protection.
In the years following his liberation in 1945, Gruzin knew he could not remain in Germany. Even though he worked at various displaced person’s camps, he never felt comfortable on German soil.
“Everywhere I went, around every corner, I remembered things that I had seen,” Gruzin said. “For me, I didn’t feel comfortable being a Jew.”
So, in 1955, Gruzin, his wife, Adela, and their 18-month-old daughter, Jeannie, immigrated to the U.S. They chose Baltimore because he had an uncle who had settled in the city.
Gruzin worked in various shops before Sidney Finkel, then the owner of the Pikesville Lumber Yard, told Gruzin that he was too talented not be working for himself. Finkel provided Gruzin with his very own work space adjacent to the lumber yard in the area currently occupied by the Milford Mill Metro Station.
Cabinetmaking, he said, is by no means a way to become wealthy.
“It’s an enjoyment, not a moneymaker,” he said, noting he is proud the Gruzin name is one associated with veneration and respect — people remember him.
“Through the years people say, ‘Hello Mr. Gruzin, I still have your cabinet.’ And I say, ‘Who is this?’ I’ve worked in a lot of homes,” he said.
Looking back on the Holocaust, Gruzin said the experience generates mixed emotions..
“I don’t feel guilty because I didn’t take anyone’s life. [But] I feel very sad when I remember the things that I saw,” he said. “Sometimes you say, ‘Why me?’ But thank God I am here and that I enjoyed life.”