By JENNIFER AMATO
NORTH BRUNSWICK – Imagine having to leave home as a young teenager. Imagine being separated from your entire family. Imagine being forced to bunk in a bed with five strangers. Imagine having to work all day on an empty stomach. Imagine watching people being tortured and killed in a variety of ways, day in and day out, for years.
Imagine then having to start life over again.
For Frida Herskovits, this is her reality.
A survivor of the Holocaust, Herskovits visited North Brunswick Township High School on May 24, one of the semiannual visits she has made for the past 10 years, to urge the students to never let such an atrocity occur again.
“I think for the young people, it’s very important. It’s part of the history,” she said. “I speak because I don’t want the world to be like now. They kill each other. They learn how to kill.”
Recalling distant memories, Herskovits spoke well of her childhood. She was one of 10 children; she liked fancy clothes and jewelry; her father had fruit trees and cows, chickens and horses. She was not allowed to go to school as a Jewish child, but she did work as a seamstress.
Around age 14, the now-90-year-old spoke of being forced onto a train from her home in Czechoslovakia. She said her non-Jewish neighbor wanted to hide some of the children, but her mother did not want anyone to separate; at the time, no one knew what loomed ahead. However, once aboard the train, her father, who was in World War I, knew that it was headed the “wrong way,” i.e. to Poland where the Nazis had set up concentration camps.
“We didn’t know they were going to kill people. We didn’t know there were mean people like that,” she said.
Herskovits found herself all alone in the Birkenau Reception Center, sleeping on wood with five other people to a bed “like sardines.” The Monroe resident recalled working in a brick factory and sometimes cooking in the kitchen.
She said prisoners were only fed once a day “but what was in the food, we don’t know.”
“We were all the time tired and hungry,” she recalled.
She said anyone who was too weak or young to work would be sent straight to the crematorium and burned alive. She said she saw people “shot and left for the dogs,” especially if they were trying to escape the camp. Because of the electric fences securing the campground, she said she never tried to leave.
She said live people were cut open for experiments. She said people were poisoned with gas in the shower. She said the dead would be buried in one massive grave.
“It wasn’t a war. It was torture,” she said.
Herskovits was around age 16 when she was liberated by the British from the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp. She was shuttled to Cyprus because Jews were not allowed to go to Palestine. She found her way to Israel and got married. She eventually made her way to the United States with her husband and her six-year-old son to reconnect with a relative.
She eventually reunited with one brother and one sister, but her parents and other siblings all died in the Holocaust.
Though her wounds are mostly mental, Herskovits said she did remove the physical tattoo of her ID number from her arm years ago.
“I didn’t have a name. Nobody called me by my name. They called me by my number,” she said.
Herskovits has returned to Auschwitz twice because “I wanted to see.” She said she likes to hear about the history, and light candles for those who died on the grounds.
“It’s very difficult because it brings back many memories,” she said. “I don’t believe that I went through it and I’m still here.”
After showing a slideshow of photographs from the concentration camps, Herskovits fielded questions from the students because “education is very important. … You have to make a better world. No human being should go through what I went through.”
She said she never regretted following her Jewish faith despite being targeted for it, and still keeps a kosher home.
“I don’t do things because I was hurt. I shouldn’t forget about my religion,” she said.
She said she would rather die than have to kill someone, and that the Nazis were “monsters.” She said she does not forgive them.
“Something is wrong with their brains and we have to cope with it,” she said.”They are not human. They’re like animals in the jungle.”
On a similar note, she said she did not tolerate growing up during times of segregation.
“I’m hurt because I think as Americans we have the right to our life. Anybody has the right to their religion,” she said.
Although she lost her whole family, she said she never lost hope of surviving.
“It wasn’t up to me. It was up to God. And I lived. And I’m still alive,” she said.
Herskovits lost her husband six years ago. She is still close with her son, 68, her daughter, 60, and her granddaughter, 37.
“We should live in a world where people love and help each other,” she said. “As long as I’m alive and can speak, I want people to know what happened.”
Herskovits visited the school on the invitation of Beth Passner, social studies teacher and Human Rights Coalition advisor at the school. Passner presented her with flowers to mark the 20th speaking engagement at the school, and then invited students to meet and hug Herskovits.
Contact Jennifer Amato at email@example.com.