Survivor STORY

As a baby, George Rishfeld’s mother and father tossed him over a barbed-wire fence into the arms of a young Polish woman. That woman and her parents risked their lives again and again to keep George safe from the Nazis.

George Rishfeld – originally named Jureck – was born on April 26, 1939 in Warsaw, Poland, just before the start of World War II. George’s father, Richard, owned a fur business, and he and his wife, Lucille, enjoyed a comfortable lifestyle, even though many of his neighbors were prejudiced against Jews.

When the Nazis invaded Warsaw in September 1939, the family fled to the Lithuanian city of Vilna, where they hoped they would find safety. Soon, however, the Nazis occupied Vilna too, and established a ghetto. The Vilna Ghetto, like other ghettos, was created to separate and isolate the Jewish population. Large numbers of Jews were forced to live in a small area behind brick walls and barbed wire. Conditions were crowded, and there was little food or sanitation. Residents of the ghetto were hungry and became sick; many died. Although George was too young to remember, his family often feared for their lives.

After living in the Vilna Ghetto for a year and a half, George’s parents grew more and more frightened. Residents of the ghetto were being deported to concentration camps where conditions were even more brutal. The Nazis had already murdered some of George’s relatives, including an aunt and baby cousin, and his grandparents had been buried alive in a mass grave. Life as a Jew had become so dangerous that George’s parents decided on a daring plan to save their baby son.

George’s father had employed several people in his fur business, including a Mr. Fronckvics and his daughter Halinka. The Fronckvics became very close to the Rishfeld family, although they were not Jewish. When it became clear that the Nazis would invade Poland, Halinka and her father promised George’s parents that they would take care of George if things got bad. They also promised to return George to his parents if they survived. If not, they promised to raise George as their own son.

George’s parents made the difficult decision to hand George over to the Fronckvics, even though they knew they might never see him again. However, because of the high barbed-wire fences surrounding the ghetto, and the constant presence of Nazi guards within the ghetto’s walls, they knew that their decision would not only be emotionally difficult, but also extremely dangerous. They knew that if they were caught, they would very likely be executed on the spot. So, after finding a way to contact Halinka and her father, and arranging a secret meeting place, George’s parents kissed their little son goodbye and then carefully tossed him over the fence. There, George was caught by Halinka, who was waiting on the other side with her boyfriend.

Halinka and her boyfriend smuggled George back to Halinka’s home, and the Fronckvics family immediately accepted George as if he were their own son. George adapted so well to the family, that he called Mr. and Mrs. Fronckvics “Papa” and “Mama,” and to this day does not know their first names. Of course, George wondered what had become of his parents and why he was not allowed to be with them, and when he asked the Fronckvics, they always reassured him that were keeping him safe and that everything would soon be fine.

George was under strict instructions not to speak with anyone, so instead Halinka or her parents answered questions on his behalf. The Fronckvics were worried that if he said too much, the Nazis would discover that he was Jewish. If that happened both George and the Fronckvics would almost certainly be killed by the Nazis.

George remembers taking a walk with Halinka one afternoon when they were stopped by a Nazi who squatted on the sidewalk to talk to George. Since he was at eye-level with the Nazi, Halinka was unable to prevent George from speaking to the officer. When the man asked him where his mother was since Halinka appeared too young to be his mother, George tried to say that she was in the ghetto. Fortunately, the Polish word for “ghetto” is similar to the word for “mud,” so the officer thought that George had said that his mother was lying in the mud, and laughed. George so charmed the Nazi that he presented him with a fresh apple.

Every Sunday, George attended church with the family. He even wore a St. Christopher medal for good luck as part of his disguise. However, one day the serenity of the church was broken by a group of Nazis searching for suspicious families who might be hiding Jewish children. Halinka feared that they would realize George was Jewish, and so she asked George to play a game and pretend that he was suddenly sick. George grabbed his stomach and began to moan, and she was able to whisk him right past the Nazis and out of the church.

Although George suffered some scary moments during his time in hiding, what he remembers most is the love shown to him by the Fronckvics family. Now, as an adult, he recognizes how much they risked to save him, and appreciates their extraordinary courage and kindness.

Meanwhile, his parents were faced with their own set of challenges. George’s father managed to escape from the Vilna ghetto and joined an underground resistance movement whose members lived hidden in the forest. George remembers fondly the two times that his father secretly came to visit him during the war. His father spoke little of his years in the resistance, but did tell George that he worked to rescue Jews from the ghetto. He was unable to rescue George’s mother, whom the Nazis moved to a number of different ghettos. However, she miraculously survived the war, and the family was reunited. George knows how fortunate he is that he and both his parents survived the Holocaust.

In 1949, George’s parents were able to obtain the necessary papers for their family to come to the United States. The Rishfelds moved to New York, but ten year old George had a difficult time adjusting to the American lifestyle. In school, he was known as the “refugee kid” and the other children teased him because he was a foreigner. At first, he just wanted to fit in and be like all the other kids, but after a while he realized that he should be proud of his background. After high school, he joined the Army because he wanted to help defend the country that had been a refuge to him and his family.

George then went on to college and began a successful career in the electronics industry. He and his wife Pamela live in Atlanta and enjoy spending time with their two daughters and their grandchildren. Aside from his family, George’s passion is speaking publicly about his experiences during the Holocaust. He hopes to touch at least one person every time he speaks.

George Rishfeld - originally named Jureck - was born on April 26, 1939 in Warsaw, Poland, just before the start of World War II. George’s father, Richard, owned a fur business, and he and his wife, Lucille, enjoyed a comfortable lifestyle, even though many of his neighbors were prejudiced against Jews.

When the Nazis invaded Warsaw in September 1939, the family fled to the Lithuanian city of Vilna, where they hoped they would find safety. Soon, however, the Nazis occupied Vilna too, and established a ghetto. The Vilna Ghetto, like other ghettos, was created to separate and isolate the Jewish population from the city’s other Poles. Large numbers of Jews were forced to live in a small area behind brick walls and barbed wire. Conditions were crowded, and there was little food or sanitation. Residents of the ghetto were hungry and became sick; many died. Although George was too young to remember, his family often feared for their lives.

After living in the Vilna Ghetto for a year and a half, George’s parents grew more and more frightened. Residents of the ghetto were being deported to concentration camps where conditions were even more brutal. The Nazis had already murdered some of George’s relatives, including an aunt and baby cousin, and his grandparents had been buried alive in a mass grave. Life as a Jew had become so dangerous that George’s parents decided on a daring plan to save their baby son.

George’s father had employed several people in his fur business, including a Mr. Fronckvics and his daughter Halinka. The Fronckvics became very close to the Rishfeld family, although they were not Jewish. When it became clear that the Nazis would invade Poland, Halinka and her father promised George’s parents that they would take care of George if things got bad. They also promised to return George to his parents if they survived. If not, they promised to raise George as their own son.

George’s parents made the difficult decision to hand George over to the Fronckvics, even though they knew they might never see him again. However, because of the high barbed-wire fences surrounding the ghetto, and the constant presence of Nazi guards within the ghetto’s walls, they knew that their decision would not only be emotionally difficult, but also extremely dangerous. They knew that if they were caught, they would very likely be executed on the spot. So, after finding a way to contact Halinka and her father, and arranging a secret meeting place, George’s parents kissed their little son goodbye and then carefully tossed him over the fence. There, George was caught by Halinka, who was waiting on the other side with her boyfriend.

Halinka and her boyfriend smuggled George back to Halinka’s home, and the ¬¬¬¬¬¬¬Fronckvics family immediately accepted George as if he were their own son. George adapted so well to the family, that he called Mr. and Mrs. Fronckvics “Papa” and “Mama,” and to this day does not know their first names. Of course, George wondered what had become of his parents and why he was not allowed to be with them, and when he asked the Fronckvics, they always reassured him that were keeping him safe and that everything would soon be fine.

George was under strict instructions not to speak with anyone, so instead Halinka or her parents answered questions on his behalf. The Fronckvics were worried that if he said too much, the Nazis would discover that he was Jewish. If that happened both George and the Fronckvics would almost certainly be killed by the Nazis.

George remembers taking a walk with Halinka one afternoon when they were stopped by a Nazi who squatted on the sidewalk to talk to George. Since he was at eye-level with the Nazi, Halinka was unable to prevent George from speaking to the officer. When the man asked him where his mother was since Halinka appeared too young to be his mother, George tried to say that she was in the ghetto. Fortunately, the Polish word for “ghetto” is similar to the word for “mud,” so the officer thought that George had said that his mother was lying in the mud, and laughed. George so charmed the Nazi that he presented him with a fresh apple.

Every Sunday, George attended church with the family. He even wore a St. Christopher medal for good luck as part of his disguise. However, one day the serenity of the church was broken by a group of Nazis searching for suspicious families who might be hiding Jewish children. Halinka feared that they would realize George was Jewish, and so she asked George to play a game and pretend that he was suddenly sick. George grabbed his stomach and began to moan, and she was able to whisk him right past the Nazis and out of the church.

Although George suffered some scary moments during his time in hiding, what he remembers most is the love shown to him by the Fronckvics family. Now, as an adult, he recognizes how much they risked to save him, and appreciates their extraordinary courage and kindness.

Meanwhile, his parents were faced with their own set of challenges. George’s father managed to escape from the Vilna ghetto and joined an underground resistance movement whose members lived hidden in the forest. George remembers fondly the two times that his father secretly came to visit him during the war. His father spoke little of his years in the resistance, but did tell George that he worked to rescue Jews from the ghetto. He was unable to rescue George’s mother, whom the Nazis moved to a number of different ghettos. However, she miraculously survived the war, and the family was reunited. George knows how fortunate he is that he and both his parents survived the Holocaust.

In 1949, George’s parents were able to obtain the necessary papers for their family to come to the United States. The Rishfelds moved to New York, but ten year old George had a difficult time adjusting to the American lifestyle. In school, he was known as the “refugee kid” and the other children teased him because he was a foreigner. At first, he just wanted to fit in and be like all the other kids, but after a while he realized that he should be proud of his background. After high school, he joined the Army because he wanted to help defend the country that had been a refuge to him and his family.

George then went on to college and began a successful career in the electronics industry. He and his wife Pamela live in Atlanta and enjoy spending time with their two daughters and their grandchildren. Aside from his family, George’s passion is speaking publicly about his experiences during the Holocaust. He hopes to touch at least one person every time he speaks.

From a Child’s Perspective
Human Spirit and Warmth

And I guess the best way to describe it is that that time in my life was really good. I had clothes to wear, I was warm, and I was loved. The one question that I always had was “Why am I not permitted to be with my parents?” “Why was I supposed to be separated with my parents?” And this answer that I received from Helinka and her parents – who, by the way, I called her father “Papa Fronckvics, and I called her mother “Mama Fronckvics” So they were like my surrogate parents. I didn’t intellectualize that at the time, obviously, but I can say that now. And I said, you know, “Other children can be with their parents. Why can’t I?” And so the answer was “Because we’re protecting you from the bad people that want to hurt you.” Now there was no story and no talking about, you know, the Nazis or Nazism or the fact that because you’re Jewish and so on, and we’re not Jewish so we can save you, hopefully, you know, there was none of that. It was just very simplified. I mean, you have to do it at their level.

Coping

My new life in America was very difficult, very difficult at the beginning. I had nightmares, I had to sleep with a light on. I mean, to this day I can sleep with the light on. I can sleep with the lights off, but I prefer a little light somewhere, to this day. I could not go to a movie that had any horror in it, or any kind of…let’s say where the sky is dark, the clouds are coming in, it’s thundering and lightning, and you see shadows of people – I’d run out of the movie theater. It would scare me. I would not be aggressive at all. I would not fight if somebody became aggressive with me.

Coming to America

I was known as the refugee kid. My first days at school, my first year at school was very, very difficult because I had the French in me, but now I had to become an American and learn how to speak English. And kids are not very kind to kids. One of the biggest mistakes that my mother made was that she bought me a pair of jeans. But you know what the railroad guys wear, you know, the railroad men, they wear these jeans with the strap here and the little pockets and so on, the overalls? OK, and then you have a shirt underneath. Well that’s what she bought me. She thought that was modern. She thought, wow, that’s the thing to wear. Well kids didn’t wear that, you know, especially to school. When I wore that to school, I was ridiculed to no – I mean, you couldn’t believe the ridicule that went on with that. And then I had a stupid teacher who made me stand up in front of the class and sing “Frere Jacques.” Well it’s embarrassing for a child, and then not being able to speak English – it’s OK to ask an English-speaking child to sing “Frere Jacques” because maybe you want to learn something. But because I was a foreigner, I was marked. And many times, you know, I would get beat up in school or they would steal my books or something like that. And I vowed to myself, number one, not to have an accent, and number two, I vowed to become a real American.

Life Lessons and Perspectives

The main moral to the story that I’m hoping to convey is be kind to each other. And don’t negate the fact that somebody is thinking differently than you are, as long as they’re not hurting you, and as long as they’re not trying to push their will on you. Leave it alone. The fact that they’re a different religion, the fact that they eat differently, or the fact that they pray in a different manner – respect that. And if the people in Israel, or the people all over the world – I’m not talking about Israel only, but in the other side of the borders and so on – would – you take the Muslims, you take anybody, you take the Christians, you take the Catholics, anybody – just respect somebody for what they are. You don’t have to say, “You must be like me,” because that’s not the way it is. I don’t think God created us for somebody to say, “You must be like me.” You must be like you. Just because you’re a Muslim, why should I have that against you? Or because you’re Catholic? I respect you. But you have to respect me as well.

George Rishfeld