What Should I Tell The Children?
It was a quiet afternoon. I was beginning to feel lonely, hoping that a friend would call or visit. My thoughts were interrupted by the shrill ringing of the telephone. I eagerly lifted the receiver. A woman from the Anti-Defamation League introduced herself and asked if I would speak to a group of local junior-high school students about my experiences during the Nazi Holocaust. I have spoken to groups before about my life as a child and young teenager during that period and, even though my talks are well-received and appreciated by teachers and students, I really do not enjoy these assignments. They bring back sad memories. I often find myself crying in front of strange children and feel embarrassed.
In this particular instance, the date proposed by the woman from the Anti-Defamation League was extremely inconvenient. On that day, I would be flying to Israel to commemorate the fiftieth anniversary of the end of World War II, the day of my liberation and of my second "birthday." However, my flight would not depart until late in the afternoon, and the talk would take place in the morning. Reluctantly, I agreed to speak. Despite my reservations, I could not refuse this task. I consider it my duty to speak on behalf of many less-fortunate friends and relatives who did not survive as did I.
On the morning of the appointed day, I entered the front door of Thomas Jefferson Junior High School in Teaneck, New Jersey, and was greeted by several teachers in charge of the assembly. I was informed that I would be giving two separate lectures because the auditorium would not accommodate the several hundred students who planned to attend. As I walked into the assembly room for the first time, I grew nervous and anxious. I had spoken to groups before, and had even participated in taped interviews. However, I had never stood before such a large audience of children.
I looked out at my audience of twelve and thirteen year olds. Their faces brought to mind the faces of other children I once knew -- the faces of dear childhood friends, faces from my past.
I saw a beautiful, dark-haired girl named Bianka, whom I knew throughout my short-lived childhood. I recalled her black pigtails, her graceful, slender body, her ideas and her dreams. I remembered when she discovered that some of our girlfriends were starving during the early years of the war, and how she immediately organized an effort to collect and distribute small bags of wheat and corn flour. I remembered when she found a poor high-school graduate and paid her a pound of barley to tutor a group of us privately in her small apartment. We were not permitted to attend school and would have been killed instantly by the Nazis if our lessons had been discovered. Finally, I recalled the last news I heard of Bianka. Word came to me in the ghetto that the Nazis had discovered her family's hiding place and had shot them all immediately. I dreamt about her for many years after the war, and continue to see her in my dreams today.
I also saw my dear friend Giza. I remembered her neat penmanship, her maturity, her caring nature. I remembered how she looked after her younger brother after her father was killed and her mother was forced to work in order to feed the family. They were caught trying to flee our town by train and, like Bianka, were killed instantly.
And then I saw Rena, the intellectual destined for a great future. She spoke and wrote beautifully. We all knew that she would one day be very accomplished and well-known. She, along with Bianka and Giza, never reached adulthood.
There were many others, too numerous to mention, whose lives were extinguished at the age of twelve and thirteen, the same age of ray audience. As I spoke to the children in this New Jersey suburb, I spoke in my mind to my dear, lost friends. I recounted our carefree lives before the war. We were all ordinary children with ordinary ideas, yet we were also unique individuals with promising futures. We played together, Jews and Gentiles, until the war began and changed our existence forever. Overnight, the Jewish children were singled out and hated simply for being Jewish. The Jewish children were directed to wear the yellow star on our arms. Suddenly abandoned by our non-Jewish friends, we were fear-stricken and targeted for raids resulting in the capture and shooting of Jewish people, I described our hiding places, and told them how my father was captured and taken to a concentration camp, and how we met him -- coincidentally -- on a train after the war.
I talked and talked, trying to compress three years of horror into ninety minutes. One teacher had tears in her eyes. The children were silent and I, in turn, was amazed at their attentiveness. After all, the subject was not entertaining. When the time allotted to me ran out, the children raised some serious questions. The group filed out of the auditorium and was replaced by a second group. I repeated my talk and, although I cried a little during both periods, my words flowed more easily the second time.
I was glad when the ordeal was over and I could return to my last-minute packing and other preparations. Preoccupied with my travels in Israel, and then in Europe, and many errands that filled my time upon my return to the United States, I forgot about my school appearance. However, in the days following my return, I opened my mail to find a large manila envelope containing many letters written by the children. Some were naive, informing me that the writer considered Hitler "a jerk." Others, however, showed unexpected depth and sensitivity in children of twelve and thirteen. For example, one child wrote: "My reaction to your story was one of surprise and horror. It shocked me that people could be so evil. Let us hope that something like this will never happen again." Another wrote: "Thank you for sending Mrs. Frisch to teach us about the Holocaust. I did not know about a lot of the stuff that she said. I also did not know that so many people got killed." Still another wrote: "Her story was touching. Everyone that I talked to in my class learned what can happen to people when they start to hate."
As I read the letters, I realized that my words and my time had not been wasted. Surely reaching these young people and exposing them to the real consequences of hatred was worth my time, my tears and the surfacing of my sad memories. I had accomplished something of significance: I had told the children of today about the children of the Holocaust, raising the awareness of the former and honoring the memory of the latter. And, in return, the children of Thomas Jefferson Junior High School told me something I did not expect: they told me that they absorbed, understood and would honor, in their own way, the experiences of those children who endured the Holocaust.