“I was born in Poland in 1939,” George Rishfeld said to a hushed crowd. “At the time, millions of Jews lived in the country. In the next six years, 91 percent of Poland’s Jewish population would be killed. I am the 9 percent.”
For Holocaust Remembrance Day, Hillel at the University of Georgia invited Rishfeld, a Holocaust survivor, to tell his story on Jan. 28. UGA Hillel hopes that by inviting a survivor they can continue the story. Roey Shoshan, the director of Hillel at UGA hopes that Holocaust survival stories are passed down through the generations even after all survivors have passed on.
“I hope the Holocaust survivor stories become like the story of the Jews fleeing Egypt I heard every Passover growing up," Shoshan said. It's a part of our story. I was born in Israel and there we almost took Holocaust survivors for granted. But in a place like Athens, these aren't stories you have many opportunities to hear first hand.”
More than 150 people crowded into the room to hear Rishfeld speak and many stood. Members from of all over the community came out to listen.
Rishfeld shared his story about how just months after he was born in the late ’30s, Germany invaded Poland and he and his mother fled east to Vilnius, Lithuania in hopes of escape. Vilnius was known as the “Jerusalem of the North” due to its abundant Jewish population. His mother was born there, and her family lived there, so she assumed they would be safe.
However, in 1941, the Germans invaded. An estimated 95 percent of Lithuania’s Jewish population was murdered during the three years of German occupation during the war, according to PBS.
Rishfeld’s aunt was sexually assaulted in the street. She fought back and was shot, alongside her baby. Rishfeld’s grandparents were also shot and buried in a mass grave, his uncle was murdered in the Auschwitz concentration camp and Rishfeld and his mother were sent to the Vilna Ghetto, he said during his speech.
In the Vilna Ghetto, Rishfeld’s mother feared he wouldn’t survive. She devised a plan to risk everything to save her son. She threw him over the ghetto’s barbed wire fence into the arms of Halinka, a family friend and righteous gentile.
For the remainder of the war, Rishfeld remained in hiding with Halinka and her family. They loved him and treated him as one of their own, but his earliest memories were of missing and crying for his mother and father.
Rishfeld was nearly discovered several times throughout the war — at one point, the apartment he was staying in was searched while he hid under a bed. The mattress was stabbed by a knife that grazed his chin, but he didn’t cry out.
In the years following Rishfeld experienced severe post-traumatic stress disorder and still suffers to this day.
“I cannot stand to be in a room where all the doors are closed, I feel trapped. I don’t like enclosed places. After the war, I could only sleep with the lights on and soft music playing,” Rishfeld said.
Others attending the event came forward to share their own part of the story. Several attendees had family members who also survived the Holocaust.
“I’m Jewish — I was born in Israel and my grandfather was a Holocaust survivor,” Nadav Ribak, a junior biology major and AI-Pac group leader, said. “But what really brought me out here is this is the last generation of people we can hear speak and after this, we’re only going to have videos and clips so to hear it live is so special.”
Rishfeld connects his experiences to the suffrage and mistreatment of any and all people. He emphasizes individual responsibility and tolerance to make the world a better place.
“I am a witness to the Holocaust — you are my witness and all of you are the future,” Rishfeld said. “It is your responsibility, all of you, to make sure this never happens again. Anti-Semitism is on the rise again. You must understand these are not isolated instances. Snuff them out before they become a firestorm.”