High school teacher Sally Frishberg used her childhood experience of being hidden for two years with her family in a Polish farmer’s attic to create one of the first public high school classes on the history of the Holocaust.
Photos and Artifacts
Prewar photo of Sally Frishberg's mother's family. Sally's mother is on the far left. At center are Sally's grandmother and grandfather (with dark beard). Seated with white kerchief is Sally's grandmother's mother. Also pictured are Sally's mother's brothers and two sisters. Credit: Courtesy of Sally Frishberg.
Sally Frishberg, at bottom right, with her parents and her sisters Miriam and Lola. Credit: Courtesy of Debbie Goodstein/Voices from the Attic.
Sally Frishberg, at center, with, from left to right, her father, her sister Miriam, her mother, and her sister Lola. The photo was taken ca. 1945-46 in a DP camp, where Sally and her sisters were the only children. An American soldier who supervised the camp had provided the family with the address of a seamstress, who made their outfits and took the photo. Credit: Courtesy of Sally Frishberg.
Sally Frishberg addressing Westfield Public Schools students in Westfield, New Jersey, 2018. Credit: Courtesy of Westfield Public Schools.
Zofia Grocholski, one of Stashek Grocholski's daughters, receives a medal and a certificate from the Israeli ambassador to Poland, Zvi Rav-Ner. Next to her is Sally Frishberg, who pressed for the recognition of Mr. Grocholski as Righteous Among the Nations. Credit: Courtesy of Yad Vashem.
By Dr. Samuel Kassow
Sally Engelberg Frishberg was born in 1934 in Urzejowice, Poland, a small rural village near the town of Przeworsk in Polish Galicia. While most Polish Jews lived in cities and towns with large Jewish populations, Urzejowice, where Sally spent her pre-war childhood, had very few Jews. Indeed, Sally remembers that she and her relatives were the only Jewish family in the village. She spoke Polish with her Polish playmates and Yiddish with her parents.
Although Jews in interwar Poland worried about growing antisemitism—marked by economic boycotts, attacks on Jewish students in the universities, and widespread violence in many towns—in day-to-day life, Jews and Poles lived side by side. They maintained personal contacts and even warm neighborly relations. For example, Sally’s mother’s family had extended a helping hand to a young Polish boy, Stashek Grocholski, when he and his siblings were suddenly orphaned. While relatives took in the younger children, Stashek and his older sister were left to fend for themselves. Sally’s grandparents, Stashek’s neighbors, became surrogate guardians, helping him with food and clothing, checking that he went to church. He would not forget what these Jews had done for him. Sally and her family survived the Holocaust because, for two years, Stashek agreed to hide 15 Jews in his family’s attic—Sally, her parents and sisters, an uncle’s family, and, eventually, four more uncles as well. Four members of the family died, but 11 lived to see the liberation.
In August 1942, the Germans ordered the Jews of Urzejowice to report for deportation. Sally’s grandfather, who, like many other elderly Jews, remembered the “civilized” Germans of the First World War, duly reported and was shot in a mass grave. Sally’s father, on the other hand, led the family into the surrounding countryside, where for some months they hid in the fields. During this time, Stashek Grocholski searched for the Engelberg family and eventually found them. As the weather got colder and staying outside became impossible, Sally’s parents asked Stashek if he would be willing to shelter the family in his house. Stashek’s wife was afraid and refused. But promises of a fur coat and ample financial support finally helped change her mind.
For a poor family in a modest home to take in 11 people, feed them, empty their chamber pots, and attend to their various needs—for no less than two years—would have been an enormous burden under the best of circumstances. But to do so in wartime Poland was to risk death at every turn. The German authorities threatened Poles who helped Jews with the death penalty, and we know of at least 750 Poles who were executed for that very reason. Polish homes were frequently searched for hidden weapons and food. Because of the body heat released by the Jews hiding in the Grocholskis’ attic, their roof was free of snow, a fact noted by an observant neighbor who luckily did not turn the family in.
What compounded all these risks was the pervasive antisemitism in most sectors of the Polish population. While it was considered praiseworthy and courageous to cheat and thwart the occupation authorities at every turn, and while helping the Polish underground redounded to one’s credit, helping Jews was seen as a gross violation of communal norms.
Recent research by Polish scholars such as Jan Grabowski and Barbara Engelking has demolished the myth of “Jewish passivity” and has shown how Jews fought for their lives. Up to 150,000 Polish Jews tried to evade the mass murders and deportations of 1942–1943 by fleeing intothe forests, jumping from trains, hiding out in bunkers, or asking Poles to hide them, as the Engelberg family did. No more than 30,000 were alive by the end of the war. Most of those who died were either killed by Poles or denounced by them to the Germans.
The struggle to survive was very difficult, especially in the countryside and in small villages where everyone knew everyone else, where Polish peasants feared collective punishment if a family in the village hid a Jew, and where murdering or denouncing Jews was seen as acceptable behavior, including by members of the Polish underground.
How did the Grocholskis procure food and water for all those additional people, empty waste buckets, deflect the curiosity of prying neighbors? Stashek and his wife even tried to hide what they were doing from their own children! The relentless danger and emotional pressure sent Mrs. Grocholski to the edge of a psychological breakdown: she reached the point where she openly mused about poisoning the family. On more than one occasion, Stashek told the hiding Jews that they would have to leave. But somehow the fragile link between the Grocholskis and the Engelbergs did not snap. Yes, even in the best of cases, the relations between the rescued and their rescuers were complex and fraught. It was not unheard of for rescuers to suddenly betray their charges and send them off to certain death.
When the liberation came, Stashek implored the Engelbergs, who in those first days could barely walk, never to reveal who had hidden them. This plea speaks volumes about Polish attitudes towards those who risked their lives to help save Jews.
Sally and her family reached the United States in 1947, thanks to the efforts of two of Sally’s uncles who had immigrated to America before the war. Sally married, raised a family, and became a respected high school teacher in Brooklyn. In 1988, Sally’s niece, filmmaker Debbie Goodstein, released Voices from the Attic, a documentary that captured the trip that she and her aunt Sally took to Poland to revisit the family’s wartime hiding place.
Over the years, Sally Frishberg never stopped trying to get Yad Vashem to recognize the Grocholskis as righteous gentiles. Eventually, in 2012—long after Stashek Grocholski had passed away—Yad Vashem conferred the recognition on his widow and children.
Additional readings and information
Voices from the Attic, a documentary based on Sally’s story: https://voicesfromtheatticechoesfromtheattic.vhx.tv/products/voices-from-the-attic.