Holocaust survivor tells life story to Cedartown Middle students
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.”
George Rishfeld told his story to Cedartown Middle students during a May presentation before the end of the school year.
Cedartown Middle students sat in the gym and listened to George Rishfeld tell his story of survival during a May 16 presentation.