By Irene Frisch
Autumn. Every year at this time, I am filled with a sense of nostalgia.
I tell myself that this feeling is brought about by the passing of another summer, which marks the winding down of another year. But I know, in my heart, that September signifies more than just the end of the season or the year. It signifies the anniversary of the end of my short, precious childhood.
I was only eight years old on Sept. 1, 1939, yet that was the last day I felt or acted like a child. I miss the lost years of my childhood and, although I am satisfied with my adult life, I am deeply aware of my loss. I often think, ‘what would have happened if…’
I grew up in an affluent family in a small, prosperous town in Poland. I was the youngest of three children. My father was a smart, successful businessman, but somehow he was oblivious to the signs of approaching disaster approaching. In 1939, he built for our family a custom-designed home and my mother traveled to big cities to buy new furniture. I was proud and happy to move into my beautiful new blue room with my sister, who was slightly older and much admired. I still remember waking up in my blue bed very close to hers, the two separated by a blue night table. I felt so grown up. I did not appreciate how precious my childhood was.
On Sept. 1, 1939, my sister shook me from my sleep to tell me that there was a war and that our father was called up to the army. I did not comprehend the word “war.” To me, the “army” meant soldiers marching in a parade during national holidays. I soon learned that our father was an officer in the reserves and that he had been summoned during the night.
After breakfast, my siblings and I ventured into town. The streets were full of people. Some were digging trenches and I found a shovel that was taller than me and joined in. Others were preparing makeshift gas masks from gauze material or converting their basements into shelters. The community was unprepared and naive in its efforts to confront a war.
The next day, we received news that my favorite aunt, Mother’s youngest sister, was killed by one of the first German bombs. Mother was heartbroken. There was no end to her tears. This was my introduction to death, which would later become a common feature in my life. I quickly learned not to be a baby.
In rapid succession, our town was occupied by the Germans, then the Russians, then the Germans again. For us, Sept. 1 marked the start of a long ordeal that today is simply called the Holocaust.
Within one month, I lost my dear brother, who was only 14 years old. Father managed to return home in time to witness the death of his only son and to bury him. Again, Mother took it the hardest, turning into an old woman overnight. She never stopped crying over the loss of her firstborn.
I too missed my brother greatly, but I knew that I must not mention him. I could not comprehend that he was gone forever. I constantly ran to the door, hoping for his return.
With the occupation by a hostile army, we were forced to hastily leave our new house. I parted with my blue room and with my childhood. The furniture was shipped to a family in Hamburg with two children, whose names I still remember today.
All that time on the run, during the next five years of my life, I hoped that I would wake up and find myself in my blue room. I hoped all that had happened was only a nightmare.
Men in uniform, who had once provided lively music and who had marched in parades, were transformed into killers. I was only a child, yet I managed, like an adult, to evade them.
More atrocities. Death was a recurring event; a constant companion. I lost many uncles, aunts, cousins, and classmates. I was hiding, starving, running, and always hoping to wake up. It had to be a dream; it could not be reality. When I felt threatened, I would pinch myself, hoping to wake up a little girl again in my blue bed.
Miraculously, we did survive. Our family was separated, reunited and, in 1944, freed by the Russian army.
I resumed my studies with great fervor, trying to make up for the lost years. After living in many countries, I arrived in the United States, where I married, had children, and enjoyed a successful career. After having two children, I managed, unintentionally, to steal some rays of childhood by learning their songs and reading their books.
Although I am grateful for many things in my life, I still grieve over my lost childhood. In September of this year, I again long for my blue room and my blue bed.
Irene Frisch lives in West Hartford.
CAP: Irene Frisch (front) with her older sister Pola, and the family housekeeper in the summer of 1939, before the invasion of Poland.