CUMMING — George Rishfeld was lucky.
There were multiple times during the Holocaust when he could have been caught or killed. He was barely 5 months old when Nazi forces invaded Warsaw in 1939, and just 9 percent of the 3 million Jews in Poland survived.
“I was saved to do what I’m doing right at this moment,” Rishfeld told a recent gathering of about 100 at the Cumming Library.
Stephen Kight, assistant director for public services, said adult programs at the library usually attract 20 to 40 people.
Rishfeld, a now-76-year-old Forsyth County resident, has recounted his story of luck and survival, laced with lost family and death, to several local groups. His presentation at the library was part of its One World Forsyth cultural series.
He addressed the Rotary Club of Forsyth County at the end of May and has spoken at schools across the district.
Rishfeld had a long journey to Forsyth County.
After fleeing Warsaw to Vilna, Lithuania, Rishfeld and his parents, Richard and Lucille, were forced to live in the Vilna ghetto. Sanitation was non-existent. Food was scarce. Sickness spread like water being poured from a bucket.
“I don’t remember the Vilna ghetto,” Rishfeld said. “But I was told my Aunt Felicia was carrying her 9-month-old child one day, and a Nazi soldier started being fresh with her. She told him to stop and he shot her in the head. Then he shot the baby.”
Maybe he was lucky it wasn’t his mom having to defend herself in that moment.
Rishfeld’s parents soon realized they needed to take action to save their son.
Richard Rishfeld, who had owned a fur business, made contact with a former employee and his 20-year-old daughter, Halinka Fronckvics. They agreed to care for Rishfeld until the war ended and raise him as their own son if his parents did not survive.
At nearly 3 years old, his parents wrapped their only child in furs and threw him over the barbed wire fence of the Vilna ghetto. Into the arms of Halinka Fronckvics.
The power of love
Rishfeld went to live with his new family in a railroad flat-apartment, with his room upstairs and a bathroom to the right of the front door that overlooked the front walkway.
“I’m almost embarrassed to say I had it pretty good,” Rishfeld said. “They got no money to do this, but they showed me the power of love. They put their own lives to risk to save a Jewish child.
“We all would have been killed if they were caught hiding me. But all they did every day was hug me and kiss me.”
He said his time with the Fronckvics was “more like an adventure” because he was so young. He only knew the Nazis were bad because they were why he could not see his parents.
He looked out of the window and pointed his finger in the shape of a gun toward every Nazi soldier he saw.
“I killed 10,000 Nazis with my finger,” Rishfeld said.
The Fronckvics took him on a walk every night, and in nearly four years, no one turned him in.
They later found out that his father had escaped the ghetto and joined a resistance army that took refuge in the woods. No word came about his mother.
During the war, his father’s parents had been killed and buried in a mass grave. Along with every other extended family member.
“One day, Mama [Fronckvics] went out and left me alone. She told me not to open the door for anyone, even if it’s my dad,” Rishfeld recalled.
So when he heard a knock, he ran to the bathroom.
“And what do you know, my father was standing there,” he said. “But I saw the guy he was with had a gun on his belt.”
He didn’t open the door, but he waited for an eternity in that bathroom for the two men to leave.
When Mama came back, his father was with her.
The other man had been Richard Rishfeld’s best friend since they were 5. They fought in the resistance together in 1943, when Nazis started shooting at them. They started running away, and George Rishfeld made it.
When he looked back to see why, he saw his friend had caught his bullets.
So maybe Georgia Rishfeld was lucky, too.
Saved for a reason
After World War II ended, Rishfeld’s father was at the train station on his way to the Fronckvics and his son. He was dressed in a Russian officer’s uniform and saw a woman across the tracks, disheveled in rags.
She was his wife.
After having had no contact throughout the war, they arrived at the same train station at the same time to go to their son, resigned to the thought the other was dead.
Lucille Rishfeld had lived in three ghettos but never went to a concentration camp.
“She could sew, so she was saved,” Rishfeld said.
She was lucky.
The three Rishfelds ended up in a Displaced Persons camp. One day, George Rishfeld was playing with a friend when he saw a weird rock. The friend picked it up and was killed instantly from the bomb.
Rishfeld was standing right next to him but was not hurt.
They lived in Brussels until 1949 after his mother’s friend found them and employed his father in her fur business.
When they arrived in Brooklyn, Rishfeld said he was seen as “that refugee kid.” So he worked to get rid of his European accent and joined the Army.
Rishfeld married his wife, Pamela, and became a father and, later, a grandfather. He maintained contact with the Fronckvics and sent them packages and money throughout the years. He went to college in New York after the Army and entered the electronics business.
He didn’t speak publicly about his experiences in the Holocaust until 1994, but began opening up when he realized “there’s only 500,000 of us left to be witnesses.”
“I thought I was saved for a specific reason,” he said. “They killed 1.5 million children. I want to help children to know the story and that even in the face of evil and death you can choose life and that you may live.”