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.
Sally Frishberg: In 1960, our son was born. And here I was, feeling that my son was very, very lucky not to know what kind of life his mother had had. And then I began to feel very uncomfortable about the whole thing, and I said to myself, but isn’t a son entitled to know about his mother’s life? And I began to feel ill at ease with the decision I had made long ago of forgetting what had happened to me. And I began to look for, for ways to, to come in contact with a self I had left behind so long ago.
Eleanor Reissa: You’re listening to “Those Who Were There: Voices from the Holocaust,” a podcast that draws on recorded interviews from Yale University’s Fortunoff Video Archive for Holocaust Testimonies. I’m Eleanor Reissa.
Sally Frishberg was the oldest of five daughters. She was the first grandchild in her large extended family in a small town in Poland. Her father was a dairyman. Sally’s youngest sisters were twins—Pia and Feigie. They were born soon after the Germans invaded Poland in 1939. Pia died in infancy. Wartime conditions were harsh, travel from their small town was restricted, so it was impossible to get the medical care that Pia needed.
It is now January 10, 1991, and Sally is sitting in a makeshift studio with interviewer Jaschael Pery at the Museum of Jewish Heritage’s office in Midtown Manhattan. Sally is here to share the story of how she and her family survived the war. She’s dressed in a burgundy turtleneck with a simple brooch fastened to her collar. Her expressive round face is set off by her short salt-and-pepper hair.
SF: I was born in Urzejowice, Poland, on Jan—on April 16, 1934. My father always assured me that it was absolutely the most beautiful day ever, ever, ever. And when I became a mother for the first time, I understood what he meant.
I was the only Jewish child of my age in town, so all my playmates were, uh, Catholic children. Uh, my father, I remember, always marveled at the fact that I knew to whom to speak Yiddish and to whom to speak Polish. My father was one of my great admirers, so he always marveled at everything I did.
I do remember when the war broke out, because within days after it broke out, the Germans invaded our town, too. And that day I remember very, very well. It was a sunny day. We all went out into the street to welcome the German, uh, invading, uh, army.
Uh, after the Germans came into our town, they came around to people in the community, and they said, “We will house soldiers in your house.” And since our house was one of the nicest in town, they came, and they housed three soldiers with us. And I remember them very, very well.
So, winter 1939 I would guess is when it was, ’cause I remember they celebrated Christmas in our house. My mother baked cookies for them to put on their Christmas tree. And, uh, these soldiers were very nice. Uh, there were three of them. And, uh, the, uh—Mr. Arnold, the middle one, was the one that I became fond of. The whole family became fond of Mr. Arnold.
Mr. Arnold was the one who, who revealed to us in discussions with my father while they played chess that, uh, this was an unusual kind of war, that this was not just a war of army against army, that this was a war where children and old people and such would probably suffer if they were Jewish. The, uh, the chess games with my father were a source of great wisdom to my father and may have saved our lives.
Years later when we were DPs in Munich, my father had Mr. Arnold’s address in his pocket, a yellow little slip of paper. And he went in Munich to look for Mr. Arnold and found not a trace of him or his family.
At any rate, um, the—uh, Mr. Arnold and the other two guys stayed with us for some time in our house. And then they got orders to move on.
Uh, we stayed on and on until the fi—and, of course, we, we got all these orders about—I remember one was to turn in all valuables. And I remember that my mother and father turned in what they felt they had to. They hid what they felt they could hide. Uh, I remember the coat that my mother would not part with, a fur coat. She would not turn it in, though she was supposed to. She wrapped it up, and she gave it to a neighbor to hide for her.
I remember the day I was turned away from school and told that I couldn’t come to school because I was a Jewish child. Uh, then, of course, I remember the day that we were instructed to report for resettlement. And, uh, prior to that, those instructions, uh, my father and my grandfather had had discussions about what to do and how to be safe and where to run. And there was really no place to go. But my grandfather always contended that you don’t do anything. You stay put because, after all, he used to say, “Es iz nisht keyn hefke velt.” He meant that life had an orderly way of being conducted and that people who did nothing wrong need not be afraid of anything.
He repeated this phrase over and over and over. “The German army is a civilized, Christian, reasonable, intelligent, uh, army. And, furthermore, in World War I,” the invasion that he remembered, “they were the most humane invaders. And, therefore, why need we make any kind of elaborate plans now? It’ll pass, as it always does.” And my father kept arguing that that was not Mr. Arnold’s opinion, that Mr. Arnold did not think it would pass if we did nothing.
Everybody else in our town fled the way my father suggested. My grandfather stayed behind. My uncle wanted to flee with us, and my father insisted that he flee on his own. And I remember my father had some dollar bills—I don’t know how much—but he took out his, his treasure, and he shared it with my uncle. And he cried and instructed my uncle to be sure and survive so he can tell what happened to our family. And my uncle didn’t survive to tell it.
Anyway, we fled into the fields. And my aunt and uncle, who also had children my sisters’ ages, were with us, because these two families were gonna flee together.
Uh, we, uh, were found in the fields by a man named Stashek Gro—uh, Stashek Grocholski, who had been a childhood friend of my mother’s. Stashek Grocholski found us in the field, said that he recognized by the description that it had to be us. Uh, my mother was very pretty, and apparently she was described as a beautiful Jewish woman. And so he, he figured out that it had to be us.
And he came night after night. And he would sit with, uh, all of us and tell us what’s going on and how bad things were and what they’re doing. And, and my mother and my uncle tried to involve him in helping us. And he refused. He was afraid. He, he worried about his wife and his children. And when my mother realized that his wife was the obstacle, she came upon asking him to bribe his wife.
And she told him that my aunt and my mother had the, this jewelry, and that we had dollars, and we had furs, and blah, blah, blah, and couldn’t his wife be persuaded in return for all this booty to give us shelter? And he came back one night, and he said, okay, that they would.
We got the coat, and we got our dollars and our jewelry. And, uh, one night, each of us held hands. And he was at the head of our line—that is, Stashek Grocholski. And he took us to his little humble abode. And, uh, he took us upstairs to the attic. And, uh, there we got up and on the hay. We made ourselves comfortable. And after we were all up there, we, uh—he locked the trap door. He took away the ladder so that his kids won’t come up there.
And, uh, we found that he had prepared for us large pots to use as toilets. And that’s all there was up there. And we just lay there. And we lay there day in and day out. We had to be silent, absolutely silent.
And every night, Stashek Grocholski would open up the—would bring back the ladder, open up the trap door, raise up to us, uh, whatever food he had for us and the newspaper, and then he would—and, and he would empty out our toilets. And then he would close everything up. And this is how we lived all day until the next night. The big event was Stashek’s visit.
This system went on. And then it got very, very cold. And, uh, Stashek Grocholski one night told my parents that, uh, the single brothers, who are still alive, who have not yet been shot… By the way, as we were hiding in the fields, we heard shots. Now I never knew who was being shot, but I very much suspect that my parents knew when it was whose brother was being shot, that they, that they had a notion of where their brothers and sisters were and that they knew who was being shot. And those were—among those being shot were my aunts and uncles.
Jaschael Pery: How many people were you in the attic from the real beginning?
SF: From the real beginning, four sisters and my parents is six. And three of my uncle’s children and he and his wife is five. Eleven started. And then one cold winter night, he said to my parents that four of my mother’s brothers are still alive in the forest. And, uh, my—we were quite shocked that this is where they were in the forest, because it was bitter cold. And he was begged to bring them to our hiding place. And he refused on the grounds that this was impossible because there was no room, he had no food. What, how would we manage? And he was assured that, uh, we would manage somehow. He had to do nothing more than bring them, and we would manage somehow. And the astonishing thing is that one night, he brought them. He brought my uncles. And so my uncles—we kind of moved over closer to each other, and one section was now my uncles’ section.
And there we were for two years, night and day, cold or hot. The heat was terrible because we needed to drink, and we had nothing. Uh, for the cold, what we did to protect ourselves against the terrible cold was we—our body heat. We got closer together, and we huddled closer so that we warmed each other.
Uh, it was, it, it—we were starving. Three of us didn’t make it. The first one to be lost was my baby sister. Soon after, my little cousin apparently starved to death. And one morning, he didn’t open his eyes. And, uh, that night, Stashek Grocholski put his little body over his shoulder and took him down with the waste. After that, my aunt, my cousin’s mother, did not open her eyes one morning.
Had it continued longer, we would have lost more. My father was very, very ill. He was so ill that he thought he was going to die. And he charged me with taking care of my family if anything should happen to him, because my mother, after my sister was gone, didn’t seem to come to grips with things too well. And my father didn’t know whether she would again or not.
She just sat there or lay there and cried all the time. She didn’t say anything. She didn’t complain. She just cried. The tears were always running down her face. At any rate, my father said, should anything happen to him, whoever was left was my responsibility because I was the strongest. And I was to take care of them.
JP: How old were you?
SF: Must have been ’43, so I was nine years old. Nine years old. Uh, so we were watching each other getting weaker and weaker. But the two, two years up there went by. And, uh—
JP: Being there two years in the attic, did you have some cases of warning that Germans are near or somebody is searching or some neighbors knows about, knows something about you?
SF: We, we constantly found out about people being shot, because as—with the delivery of the food and the newspaper came the gossip of what’s going on in the neighboring towns. So we knew that people were being found, that they were being shot. We knew that the, uh, Catholics who were hiding the Jews were also being shot. We knew that, uh, we were all in danger upstairs and downstairs, so to speak.
JP: Would your father or the, your uncles try and explain something to the children during that time or talk to the children…
JP: … about the conditions, about the…
SF: No. We did not talk.
JP: … hopes and all this?
SF: No, we did not talk. We whispered or we read each other’s lips. We did not talk.
JP: So this life went on till…?
SF: Till the Russians finally came. Beautiful, sunny day in 1944. Silence dropped on the town. It was almost as though everyone was afraid to breathe. And when we, uh—when the shooting right above us started, we, uh, were back to praying, because they could have, we could have, the whole thing could have collapsed, because the shooting lasted most of the day between the retreating Germans and the advancing Russians.
And, uh, at the end of the day, uh, we heard the sound of motorcycles. And that night, when, uh, Stashek Grocholski had put his family to sleep, he opened up the trap door, and he said, “You’ve been liberated. You can go.” And we attempted to do that. But it was no-go. We couldn’t. The legs didn’t work. The mouths didn’t produce sound. When we moved our lips, we got lip movement, but we got no sound.
Uh, we, uh, we got—he, he made us promise that we will get off his grounds, no matter how we had to do it, and that we would never, never reveal his identity, that this would be our secret forever. Uh, at any rate, we got off. He helped. He carried. He helped us get off the—from the attic. And he put us on the ground. And we did the best we could to get into somebody else’s space.
Our Polish neighbors helped us with little bits of milk and bread and whatever. And of course, they couldn’t get over what we looked like. And they couldn’t stop wanting to know who hid us. It became a matter of great urgency for them to find out. And we wouldn’t tell them.
And one friend that my uncle Mordche had—Mordechai had—was a bright fellow. And he said to my uncle Mordechai, “Okay,” he said, “you don’t want to tell me, so I’ll make a deal with you. If I tell you who hid you, will you let me know if I’m right?” So my uncle agreed that he would do that, and the man identified Stashek Grocholski.
And my uncle said, “No, you’re absolutely wrong. What makes you say such a thing?” And the man said, “Well, it’s really very simple. His roof was the only roof—his, uh, roof was the only roof that had no snow in the winter on it.” Because the body heat had melted it. And, uh, my uncle persisted that, no, that was not correct, it was the wrong answer. But we always marveled at the fact that had there been more observant people, we would have been dead ducks up there.
Uh, we, we, uh, tried to, to make a life there, but it, it was very difficult. One night there was a knock on the door, and three Polish guys came in. And they told us that we were not wanted in Poland, that Poland was, they said, for the Polish people only, but what they meant was the Polish Catholics, and that since we were Jews, we had better leave. And we had better do so quickly, because if they came back and we were still there, they’d kill us.
JP: The reason that Stashek didn’t want somebody to know that you were hidden there was he was afraid from this…
SF: Yes. He was af—
JP: … Polish nationalist?
SF: Yes, he was afraid that they would act against him for being a Jew lover or his children. He was… I think he was more concerned about the welfare of his family than himself.
And so we decided that we’d go. And as far as I know, we got on moving things and went wherever they went. I don’t think we had a plan or, or any idea of where we were going. And we wound up in Czechoslovakia. We were fed by kind of soup kitchens. I think they were put up by Jewish organizations. We wound up in Romania, Hungary, and when we got to Austria in the same fashion, there were DP camps. I think that was my first encounter with DP camps.
My father had two brothers in the United States. And his big dream was to reunite with his brothers. I think it was in Austria where contact was made with my uncles. And, uh, the quota from Austria or whatever—I, I don’t know why, it became very urgent that we go to Germany. And so we created a whole fictitious story about our German roots or whatever. I don’t even know how it worked, but I know we had to pay money to get forged documents. And we got into Germany. And once we were in Germany, we were, uh—the effort to send us papers and bring us to the United States was undertaken.
So on November 10, 1947, we landed in the United States. We didn’t know a word of English. My parents had no skills they could use in this country. I remember the first night, my uncle and my father stayed up and talked all night. And I always listened in on grown-ups’ conversations, so I remembered that one, too. And the conversation had all to do with my uncle urging my father to forget the past, to not, uh, dwell on it, to not think about it, it would only make him unhappy. That America was a land full of promise and wonder and to think about that instead. And it seemed to me like the most wonderful advice in the world, and I was going to follow it.
And uh, at any rate, uh, with work and progress and so on, in 1955 I married my schoolmate. He had been helping me in math forever in high school, because that’s the area where I had the worst time catching up.
And in 1960 our son was born. And here I was, feeling that my son was very, very lucky not to know what kind of life his mother had had. And then I began to feel very uncomfortable about the whole thing, and I said to myself, but isn’t a son entitled to know about his mother’s life? And I began to feel ill at ease with the decision I had made long ago of forgetting what had happened to me. And it just didn’t sit right anymore. And I began to look for, for ways to, to come in contact with a self I had left behind so long ago.
So my first contact with the big issue was a seminar, a two-day seminar. The last speaker said, “There are many of you in the audience who know the truth, and you must tell the world so that the world might, might learn.” And I realized that I’m one who knows.
ER: After attending that two-day seminar, Sally Frishberg made it her mission to share her story. Sally had been teaching stenography and typewriting at Fort Hamilton High School in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn. She lobbied the school’s administrators and designed a pioneering curriculum to teach the history of the Holocaust, as well as her own story.
In 1984, at her students’ urging, Sally returned to her hometown in Poland. Her mother had kept in touch with the Grocholski family after they arrived in New York—often sending packages and cash. Sally always wondered why the Polish farmer and his wife had risked their lives to hide her family in their attic. By the time Sally visited Poland, Stashek Grocholski had died. Sally talked with his widow, Maria.
SF: I asked her why she did it. Why did you take these Jews into your house? And she said—first she said it was a long story, and she didn’t want to bother telling me. And I said, “Oh, please, this is what I came for.” So she finally told me that the reason she did it is because her husband persisted, no matter how much a—she told him that she was afraid, and no matter how aware he was of the fact that their family was in danger, he persisted in begging her to help us.
And the reason for that was because when he was a child, he lived next door to my mother’s parents. And his father died, and the widowed mother was left alone with the children. And soon after, she died, and there were these poor children in this poor little hut. And because they were there alone without a mother and father, and because they were so young, my grandparents looked after them.
They saw to it that these children didn’t starve, didn’t freeze, went to school, went to church, that they… And my aunts and uncles gave them their friendship. And it was this tie that bound him to us. “And this is the reason,” she said, “no matter how much pr—I would have protested, he would have continued to go back to you people. Because he felt very closely to you.” And so she finally said that she agreed.
At this moment, my—the family says, “Why didn’t you ask her about the things that were given her?” And I couldn’t make myself. I thought about it. As we were talking, eh, I thought about it, but I couldn’t make myself ask her. So that was one thing I’m so glad I found out. Because I really had no explanation of why a person does such a thing. Now I know that it is a human tie that you need to, you need to nurture.
ER: Sally retired from teaching in 1991, but continued to share her story—first as a volunteer tour guide at the Museum of Jewish Heritage and later as a member of the museum’s speakers bureau. Until the museum was shut down because of the pandemic in March 2020, Sally spoke with two or three high school groups each week at the museum. Sally and her husband Kenneth have two children and four grandchildren. To this day, Sally says that she lives by the belief that kindness is rewarded and evil is ultimately punished.
Sally wishes to thank John B. Gebhardt and Eleanor O’Conner, colleagues at Fort Hamilton High School, who partnered with her to introduce the Holocaust curriculum to the school’s students.
To learn more about Sally Frishberg, please visit the podcast’s companion website at thosewhowerethere.org. The website includes episode notes, a full transcript, archival photographs, and a link to information about Voices from the Attic, a documentary made by Sally’s niece about the family’s wartime experiences. At the website, you’ll also find our previous episodes and background information on the Fortunoff Video Archive and the Museum of Jewish Heritage.
“Those Who Were There” is a production of the Fortunoff Video Archive for Holocaust Testimonies, which is housed at the Yale University Library’s Manuscripts and Archives Department in New Haven, Connecticut. This second season is a co-production with the Museum of Jewish Heritage—A Living Memorial to the Holocaust, New York’s contribution to the global responsibility to never forget. The museum is committed to the crucial mission of educating diverse visitors about Jewish life before, during, and after the Holocaust.
This podcast is produced by Nahanni Rous; Eric Marcus; the Fortunoff Archive’s director, Stephen Naron; and Treva Walsh, collections project manager at the Museum of Jewish Heritage.
Thank you to audio engineer Jeff Towne. Thanks, as well, to Christy Bailey-Tomecek, Joana Arruda, Noa Gutow-Ellis, and Inge De Taeye for their assistance. And thank you to Sam Kassow for historical oversight, and to photo editor Michael Green, genealogist Michael Leclerc, and our social media team, including Cristiana Peña, Nick Porter, and Sara Barber. Ljova Zhurbin composed our theme music.
Special thanks to the Fortunoff family and other donors to the archive for their financial support.
I’m Eleanor Reissa. Thank you for listening.