“What is 6 million people?” asks the slightly graying, soft-spoken professor in heavily accented English.
“Just statistics, you can’t even comprehend what is 6 million people,” he answers himself.
Dr. Gideon Frieder, a professor in GW’s School of Engineering and Applied Science, doesn’t intend to tell his personal story at Hillel Monday night as part of a panel of Holocaust survivors for Yom Hashoa, a day of Holocaust remembrance. Most of it, he says, is just too painful. He said he would rather focus on helping people understand why the Holocaust happened and how to prevent it from happening again.
“There is a limit to human sensitivity,” he says. “The depth of the horror is such that no one, who wasn’t there, can really understand it. I am happy that they can’t.”
When he does speak of his childhood in Nazi-controlled Europe, Frieder’s words are hushed. Like many Holocaust survivors, he concealed his ordeal to his three children until they were young adults. Their support helped him through a four-hour taping of his experiences by the Survivors of the Shoah Foundation. To this day, he cannot recount his own story without weeping.
During the war, Frieder’s father Abraham Abba Frieder, the chief Rabbi of Slovakia, saved thousands of lives by negotiating with the government against mass deportations and organized countless relief efforts for those already in the camps. In September 1944, the Rabbi was arrested and sent to Sered prison camp, while his family continued to hide from the SS troops storming the area daily.
Frieder said the potency of his neighbors’ anti-Semitism frightened him when he was a child.
“We didn’t fear the Germans,” he said. “They only killed as ordered. We feared the Ukrainians and the Slovaks. They killed for fun.”
One month after Rabbi Frieder was separated from his family, German soldiers flushed his three remaining family members out of their home and set their town ablaze. As the three fled for a partisan stronghold in the nearby forest, his wife Rozi and Gitka, their 4-year-old daughter, were mortally wounded by German gunfire. A bullet grazed the leg of Gideon, age seven.
“I saw them lying there,” he says. “I thought that they were sleeping. What did I understand of murder?”
For six months, he moved between fortresses, cared for by the partisan soldiers. Eventually, a peasant family took him in. He remained with the family until the end of the war.
“In a sea of hatred, these simple, uneducated villagers were so human and so intelligent,” he says.
The peasant family helped Frieder learn to live as a Christian child, first teaching him the Lord’s Prayer, so he wouldn’t stick out.
“They just told me to say it and I did,” Frieder says. “When you are scared enough you understand that you must do things you can’t totally understand.”
After the war, Frieder reunited with his father in the fledgling state of Israel. There, he became a leading defense specialist and later moved to America to study science.
Though he always remembered the war years in “crystal detail,” Frieder believed he created the images in his mind, compiling them from the collected memories of others. His recollections were confirmed four years ago, when he journeyed with his wife back to Slovakia for the first time since his childhood.
Using only the landmarks emblazoned in his mind, Frieder located the meadow where he watched his mother and baby sister die. He hopes to bring his family there this summer to meet the daughter of the family that saved him.
“My generation is dying,” he says. “If people like me don’t open their mouths, all of this will be lost forever.”