METUCHEN — As someone who fled Poland during the Holocaust, Sally Frishberg said she knows the word genocide all too well.
“It’s happening today,” she said as she looked out at the fifth graders at Edgar Middle School, noting the recent chemical attack in Syria. “The world unfortunately hasn’t learned everything from the past.”
Frishberg, who lives in New York, visited the Metuchen school on April 13, her 84th birthday. This year also marks 25 years since she has shared her harrowing story of the Nazi occupation of Poland during World War II with students in Metuchen.
“It took me a long time to acknowledge what happened to me,” she said.
Teacher Vivian Petrakakos said each year, fifth-grade students learn about the Holocaust in their language arts classes.
The students view a documentary “Voices from the Attic” by Frishberg’s niece, Debbie Goodstein. The film follows Frishberg back to Poland to meet with Polish farmer Stanislaw Grocholski and his wife who hid her family in their attic for two years.
In 1939, Frishberg was just five years old living in Urzejowice, Poland, with her mother, father and three younger sisters. It was a year when, Frishberg said, things started changing under the dictatorship of a “monster” named Adolph Hitler.
She said Nazi soldiers came to their tiny town and took over space in people’s homes. Frishberg said it was fortunate for her family they befriended a Nazi soldier she knew as Mr. Arnold.
“He was one of my many heroes,” Frishberg said. “He was a Munich school teacher who was drafted into the army. He was a gentle person, kind and nice. He spoke Yiddish [a language used by Jews in central and eastern Europe] and he would play chess with my father.”
Frishberg said Arnold would keep the family informed on what was happening. He warned the family to stay off the trains and that if they did not plan an escape route, they would die.
In June 1941 came the Eastern Front, a conflict between Nazi Germany and its allies and the Soviet Union and its allies.
“Mr. Arnold had to leave and that’s when we became afraid,” she said. “He had protected us.”
One day, Frishberg said her father came home upset. The citizens of Urzejowice received orders from the Nazi soldiers to come to the railroad station by a certain date so they would be resettled in eastern Poland. Unbeknownst at the time, the site would become Auschwitz, the largest concentration death camp of the Holocaust.
The night before the date to report to the railroad station, Frishberg said her family fled their home. It was August 1941. She was eight years old.
Frishberg said her family and extended family, ranging from two to 42 years old, would hide in heaps of hay during the day and keep moving during the night.
“We were like mice hiding from the big rats,” she said.
As the weather changed, Frishberg said it got harder and harder to survive.
“We were losing hope and strength,” she said.
In 1942, Frishberg said her mother and brother took a chance after hearing a familiar whistle. It was a whistling game her mother and brother played with other children when they were younger.
“They took a gamble and whistled back,” she said.
That’s when they met Grocholski, who eventually let the family stay in his attic.
“In the middle [of the attic] there were buckets for the toilet, which [Grocholski] would empty and clean every night,” Frishberg said. “We had to stay absolutely silent and [Grocholski] would bring us a pot of beans and potatoes. There were 12 of us so it was not a lot of food.”
After two years in the attic, Frishberg said her family lost three members.
“My baby sister, baby cousin and his mother had passed during the time,” she said. “We had to leave my baby sister on the doorstep of a church because she was sick.”
In August 1944, the Russian Army liberated the area and they were able to head home to Urzejowice, which was short-lived because of pro-Nazi rhetoric.
Frishberg said she and her family had to re-learn how to walk, talk and adjust to life after the war. Slowly, but surely, she said her family overcame the crawling lice infested human beings they had become during the war.
“I was 13 years old when I came to America,” she said of November 1947. “Thank God for America. There was no other country in the world like this. They took care of us and gave us a new lease on life.”
Frishberg said at the time she did not know English nor how to read and write. She said her fellow students in America taught her kindness and friendship and helped her become the “noisy creature” she is today.
Frishberg went on to marry her math tutor when she was 21 years old.
“I have been married 62 years and we have two children and four grandchildren,” she said. “The wonder of how a five-year-old child made it through that dreadful war … it happened because despite some bad people, there are good people out there.”
The Metuchen Education Association sponsored a luncheon for Frishberg’s visit.
Contact Kathy Chang at firstname.lastname@example.org.