Holocaust survivor tells of deadly 'hide-and-seek' in World War II

A holocaust survivor recalls the brutal years of struggle and survival, and a Christian symbol he feels saved his life.

George Rishfeld addresses a Moultrie, Georgia audience. (photo credit: ALAN MAULDIN / THE MOULTRIE OBSERVER / TNS)
George Rishfeld addresses a Moultrie, Georgia audience.
MOULTRIE, Georgia (TNS)  — Hide-and-seek is a game that has been played for generations by children all over the world.
Usually, kids whose hiding place is discovered lose only bragging rights, at least until the next round when they get another chance. For George Rishfeld, however, the penalty for losing would have been swift and permanent -- most likely a bullet to the head.
In Nazi-occupied Poland during World War II, those who sheltered the young Jewish boy also would have faced death. Rishfeld, who told his story on Wednesday evening at Withers Auditorium in Moultrie, Georgia, considers himself “lucky.”
His 9-month-old cousin was shot while being held in her mother’s arms after his aunt mouthed off at a Nazi officer, said Rishfeld, 78. The officer then shot his aunt and left them in the street of a Jewish ghetto in Poland.
His grandparents were shot and buried in a mass grave. The husband of his aunt also was killed during the Holocaust that claimed the lives of six million Jews.
The history of the Holocaust is a haunting one in which many of the residents of countries invaded by Nazi Germany often participated in the killing of their Jewish neighbors or turned them in to German authorities.
But among the population in each nation there invariably were gentiles who took risks to hide their Jewish neighbors. During the war, Poland was the only country where anyone assisting Jews in any way was subject to execution. In others, such as France and Belgium, punishment could be a more lenient one of a prison sentence.
Despite the danger, thousands in Europeans risked themselves and their families to hide Jews. Others “adopted” Jewish children and passed them as their own children to protect them from death.
When Hitler’s army invaded Poland in September 1939, Rishfeld’s father was a successful furrier. Germany and the Soviet Union had signed a pact under which they split Poland, with Germany in the west and the Soviets occupying the eastern portion of the country. When the Germans took the capital of Warsaw, Rishfeld’s parents took him to Vilnius, Poland, where they thought they would be less at risk.
The international agreement didn’t last, and Germany attacked the Soviet Union in June 1941. Early in that conflict, the Germans occupied Vilnius and the Nazis confined those of Jewish descent to a ghetto. Rishfeld was 9 months old.
“They threw me over a barb wire fence,” he recalled Wednesday, into the arms of Halinka, a Catholic who was the bookkeeper at his father’s factory and daughter of his foreman, and her boyfriend.
Halinka took the baby to her apartment on the third floor of a four-story building, where he would stay until the end of the war.
“We had some pretty harrowing experiences,” Rishfeld said. “I consider myself a male Anne Frank. I got lucky. She did not get lucky.”
One night as he was walking with Halinka, a Nazi officer stopped to speak with them. He remembers that the officer did not realize his status. During the encounter he pinched Rishfeld’s cheek and gave him an apple.
Before that incident, Halinka had hung a gift, a St. Christopher medal, around his neck.
“The St. Christopher is the thing that saved me,” he said, as he displayed it hanging from his neck. “I consider it my good luck charm, and it saved my life.”
The Germans were wise to the deception going on. Frequently a truck would come through, stopping as soldiers looked for Jews in hiding or children who were being fostered by non-Jews.
On another occasion the truck stopped in front of the church Rishfeld and Halinka attended on Sundays.
“Halinka told me to act sick,” he said, so he started coughing and playing the role. “We walked out as they went in, and they didn’t think anything about it.”
Eventually Rishfeld achieved world class status as a hide-and-seek player. One day, leaving him behind, Halinka instructed him sternly no matter what happened he was not to answer the door -- even if it was his own father, who at that time had escaped the ghetto himself and was a member of the Polish resistance movement.
His mother, who had stayed behind, was assumed to be dead.
Bored, with no TV, video games or any other modern children’s distractions, Rishfeld sat in a bedroom from which he could see German soldiers coming and going from a medical building. To occupy himself, he pointed his finger at them and pretended he was shooting them.
“I killed hundreds of Nazis,” he said, drawing laughter from the audience.
Then, there was a knock on the door. Curious, Rishfeld went to a bathroom window from which he could peek outside. On the landing was his father and another man.
He didn’t answer the door.
Eventually the men, one of whom Rishfeld could see had a pistol under his coat, left.
“The gentleman with him was his best buddy since he was in kindergarten,” he said. “They were best men at their weddings. These two guys were joined at the hip.”
That day on their walk back to their camp in a forest German soldiers intercepted them. As they were running, his father’s friend fell behind, and as the soldiers fired, the bullets struck his body, shielding his friend.
“We were in the apartment one day; a truck stopped,” he said. “They told me to get under my bed. They told me don’t blink, don’t breathe, don’t move no matter what.”
A German officer searched the apartment and, in Rishfeld’s bedroom stuck his knife through the blanket.
“The blade comes through the blanket,” he said. “It touches my chin,” but did not penetrate his skin and he made no sound.
“I was lucky that Nazi was lazy,” he said. “If he had lifted that blanket, I wouldn’t be here. We would all be dead.”
Rishfeld’s father returned on Christmas Eve, 1944, for a brief visit during which he gave his son a wooden pistol.
“Now I can go on killing Nazis with my wooden pistol,” he joked.
After US and Soviet troops occupied the country, Rishfeld’s father was standing on a train station platform one day waiting in a Russian uniform for a ride to Warsaw to see Rishfeld, when he he heard someone speak his name, Richard.
“Lucy?” he responded to his wife.
His mother, Rishfeld said, had also beaten the odds. Because she looked to be in good health and could sew, she was put to work in a factory making clothing when the Nazis sent nearly all the other inhabitants of the ghetto to Auschwitz.
His father had not joined the Soviet armed forces, he had put on a uniform because he thought no one would mess with him if they thought he was with the Allied forces.
The three returned to the same city where they earlier had sought shelter, now called Vilnia, part of Lithuania, where Rishfeld, 5, had his final close call while staying in a settlement for displaced persons.
Playing near a burned-out Soviet tank one day, a friend three years his senior picked up what he thought was a rock to throw as Rishfeld was nearby. It turned out to be a hand grenade, which exploded when the other boy threw it, killing him.
The family then moved to Belgium before embarking to New York, with Rishfeld eventually learning to fit into his new country. At 18, he joined the US Army. He now lives in Sandy Springs, Georgia, with his two daughters also living in the Atlanta area.
Rishfeld never saw Halinka again. His family sent care packages to her, some of which she received — after the Soviet authorities took most of the clothing before delivering what was left to her.
On a few occasions, Rishfeld called her, but hung up the phone each time when he heard her voice as she answered. He said he could not handle speaking with her.
“I think of them and what they taught me; to be proud of the way I am today,” he said. “The ultimate crime in the Holocaust was the murder of the children. They were trying to get rid of the Jewish people.”
Rishfeld has remained active in his faith, and said he believes something up there allowed him to live to be a witness of what happened.
“That is why I’m here,” Rishfeld said. “That is my responsibility.”
For more information: https://holocaust.georgia.gov/
©2017 The Moultrie Observer (Moultrie, Ga.)
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