Holo­caust survivor tells life story to Cedar­town Mid­dle stu­dents

The Standard Journal - - LOCAL - By Kevin Myrick [email protected]­stan­dard­jour­nal.com

George Rish­feld is a rare case of sur­vival from World War II.

He was born into a world at war in 1939, a Jewish child of par­ents who would go on the run to sur­vive, and he was hid­den away in a War­saw apart­ment dur­ing the Nazi oc­cu­pa­tion and one of the worst tragedies the world has ever known.

Rish­feld came to Cedar­town Mid­dle School in May to talk about his ex­pe­ri­ences in hid­ing dur­ing the war and how his fam­ily came out the tragedy of the Holo­caust in­tact and even­tu­ally came to the United States.

“In 1939, Poland had one of the largest Jewish pop­u­la­tions in the world. Three mil­lion Jews lived there. 91 per­cent of those 3 mil­lion were murdered,” Rish­feld said.

“I rep­re­sent the 9 per­cent that sur­vived,” he added. “And I’m a child holo­caust survivor. So the dif­fer­ence be­tween me and some other survivors is my age.”

Rish­feld was born to par­ents with means. His fa­ther was a fur­rier, and his mother a house­wife who em­ployed a day and night nurse be­fore the war started to care for in­fant George. When the war be­gan, his par­ents wrapped him in coats and took him to the town of Vilna (now Vil­nus in Lithua­nia) and hid him there un­til other ac­com­mo­da­tions could be made to keep him safe.

Even­tu­ally, his par­ents tossed young George over a barbed wire fence sep­a­rat­ing the Vilna ghetto (es­tab­lished in 1941) from the rest of Poland into the wait­ing arms of fam­ily friends, who agreed to take him in. This was one of many of the mem­o­ries he re­counted, but that be­cause of his age at the time he didn’t specif­i­cally re­mem­ber.

“My par­ents made a pact with a right­eous gen­tile fam­ily,” he said. “Thou­sands of them saved Jewish lives. They were Chris­tians, Catholics and et cetera.”

He said his par­ents also made a pact as well that if one died dur­ing the war, the other would go back and claim George from the fam­ily who took him in and raised him, and if nei­ther sur­vived they would keep him as their own.

They shel­tered him away in a War­saw apart­ment where George’s new “mother” and “grand­par­ents” that he called mama and papa as he grew. The two fam­i­lies knew each other through George’s fa­ther, who owned the fac­tory that his new “fa­ther” ran as a foreman.

It was good that Rish­feld es­caped the Vilna ghetto. His fam­ily al­ready suf­fered the tragedy of his aunt and cousin be­ing ex­e­cuted in the street after a Nazi of­fi­cer tried to grab her in­ap­pro­pri­ately and she slapped the of­fi­cer.

“I never got a chance to meet my cousin, and I never got to meet my aunt,” he said. “And then my uncle was taken to Auschwitz and was murdered there.”

His grand­par­ents were also victims of the Holo­caust, taken to a mass grave and shot with oth­ers when he was a child in hid­ing too.

Rish­feld was kept se­questered in the apart­ment through the war, only go­ing out on cer­tain oc­ca­sions like for Sunday ser­vices with the fam­ily who hid him from the Nazis. In one en­counter, he re­called to the stu­dents how a Nazi pa­trol stopped them on a street and a sol­dier bent down to pinch him on the cheeks dur­ing a night­time. “We got lucky,” he said. He said the fam­ily also got lucky for more than three years of hid­ing that they never saw any other fam­i­lies walk­ing up and down the stairs of the apart­ment build­ing where they lived, ei­ther day or night.

“No­body can tell me to this day that the peo­ple who lived there didn’t know I was there,” he said. “How could they not have known I was there?”

Rish­feld also re­called how he sat in the win­dow and used his gun as a fin­ger to “shoot at the Nazis, who were the bad guys” un­til one day, a knock came at the door. He was told never to open the door for any­one, which he obeyed. How­ever due to where the bath­room was po­si­tioned in the apart­ment, he was able to look through a win­dow near the ceil­ing and see that his fa­ther and a friend had come to see him.

They brought young George a wooden gun for him to play with be­fore his fa­ther returned to fight in the Pol­ish re­sis­tance.

By good for­tune, the fam­ily sur­vived and even­tu­ally es­caped the Nazi regime and then the in­vad­ing Soviet Union. They ended up first in Belgium, and then New York where he set­tled down and raised a fam­ily of his own. Now he pro­vides lessons to stu­dents through the Ge­or­gia Com­mis­sion on the Holo­caust.

Rish­feld’s visit and lec­ture to the youth was in part a les­son about both the tragedy of the Holo­caust, and also a les­son about those who fight back against evil.

CMS teacher Nancy Bass, who or­ga­nized the event, said many im­por­tant lessons came out of the lec­ture.

“The Holo­caust teaches us moral lessons. There were by­s­tanders dur­ing the Holo­caust, just like there are by­s­tanders to­day. Not stand­ing up for other humans when they are be­ing abused and mis­treated is a prob­lem we still face to­day. In schools, we have prob­lems with bul­ly­ing,” she said. “We can learn from the Holo­caust about sur­vival, racism, stereo­typ­ing, and prej­u­dice in so­ci­ety. The Holo­caust was not an ac­ci­dent. It oc­curred be­cause in­di­vid­u­als, along with gov­ern­ment made choices that al­lowed for this ha­tred and mur­der to take place.”

kevin Myrick

George Rish­feld told his story to Cedar­town Mid­dle stu­dents dur­ing a May pre­sen­ta­tion be­fore the end of the school year.

kevin Myrick

Cedar­town Mid­dle stu­dents sat in the gym and lis­tened to George Rish­feld tell his story of sur­vival dur­ing a May 16 pre­sen­ta­tion.

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